Women’s participation crucial for democracies, UN officials stress

Senior UN officials attend a high-level roundtable discussion on “Democracy and Gender Equality”

4 May 2011 – Senior United Nations officials today stressed the need to promote the participation of women in decision-making, noting that democracy and gender equality are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.

“While women’s political participation improves democracy, the reverse is also true: democracy is an incubator for gender equality,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his remarks at a roundtable held at UN Headquarters on gender equality and democracy.

“It provides public space for discussion of human rights and women’s empowerment. It enables women’s groups to mobilize. It makes it easier for women to realize their political, civil, economic and social rights.”

He told participants at the event, which included representatives from various UN departments and entities, as well as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, that one need look no further than the daily headlines to see the timeliness of today’s gathering.

“Women were among those who marched in Côte d’Ivoire to uphold the democratic will of the people – with several of them killed for making that stand,” said Mr. Ban. “In Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, women have been among those in the vanguard demanding change, rights, dignity, and opportunity.”

Noting gender inequality in decision-making remains a great impediment to democracy, the Secretary-General said more must be done to address the gender gap in democratic participation.

“Certainly there has been important progress. More women, in more countries, are taking their place in parliament,” he stated.

“Yet fewer than 10 per cent of countries have female heads of State or government. Fewer than 30 countries have reached the target of 30 per cent women in national parliaments.”

He also cited the need to treat gender equality as an explicit goal of democracy-building, not as an “add-on,” stating that experience shows that democratic ideals of inclusiveness, accountability and transparency cannot be achieved without laws, policies, measures and practices that address inequalities.

The UN is more involved in democracy-building than ever before, Mr. Ban pointed out. Many UN departments, funds and programmes have expanded their democracy programming, and the establishment of UN Women has added “another strong actor” to the arena.

“Across the constellations of entities and activity, we need a stronger gender perspective going forward. Our responsibility is to ensure that our democracy assistance is gender responsive.”

Helen Clark, the Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), told the gathering that democratic governance cannot be fully achieved without the full participation and inclusion of women.

“Without the full participation of women in decision-making processes and debates about policy priorities and options, issues of great importance to women will either be neglected, or the way in which they are addressed will be sub-optimal and uninformed by women’s perspectives,” she stated.

Helping countries to strengthen their democratic institutions is an important aspect of the work of UNDP, which is the UN system’s lead provider of technical assistance to elections. From 2008 to 2010 alone, it provided electoral assistance to 64 countries and territories, and it is currently working with more than 120 countries on public administration reform and/or strengthening governance.

“To be judged successful, all this work must contribute to empowering women and pursuing gender equality,” said Miss Clark. “We need to see more women elected, voting, involved in participatory processes generally, and well represented in public administrations.”

She noted that there are a number of proven ways to increase women’s voice and participation in decision-making, including implementing quotas or reserved seat systems, and ensuring that women know how election processes work and about campaign methods and financing.

Some 50 countries have now legislated for quotas in electoral and political party laws, and hundreds of political parties have adopted quotas as a voluntary measure.

“Quotas are the single, most effective, and quickest measure for increasing the numbers of women in elected office,” the UN development chief stated.


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