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United Nations Global Issues

Women and Democracy

Democracy requires that citizens’ interests be heard, deliberated and legislated on. Women are half of the world’s population, and as such their voice should be heard in the democratic process. Democracy needs women in order to be truly democratic, and women need democracy if they are to change the systems and laws that preclude them, and preclude societies as a whole, from attaining equality.

It is through democratic representation that women’s interests can be represented and their voices heard. Article 7 in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reiterates the importance of women’s representation in the political life of their countries:

“…ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right:
(a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies;
(b) To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government”
Afghan women voting
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with women members
of the Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic. 2015. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Gender equality, and the empowerment of all women and girls, is at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and women’s political empowerment and leadership is squarely addressed among its targets.

Under SDG 5 – “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” – Target 5.5 seeks to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.”

 Despite these normative advances, and as universal as these goals are, they nevertheless remain elusive for many women. Progress has been too slow in increasing numbers of women in representative. In 2016, just 22.7 per cent of national parliamentarians were women, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995.(1) As of August 2016, 11 women were serving as Head of State and 10 as Head of Government. (2) As of January 2015, just 17 per cent of government ministers were women, and many of these holding social policy portfolios such as education and the family. (3) Available data suggests women are also poorly represented in local decision-making bodies, whether as mayors or local council members.(4)

Women are still under-represented in elected positions and most countries are far from reaching the ’gender balance’ proposed by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Political institutions – from political parties to electoral commissions - often lack the capacity to ensure that women’s interests are articulated and addressed in public policy. Accountability institutions are not consistent in ensuring that power-holders answer to women for failures to protect women’s rights or respond to their needs. 

In post-conflict settings the lack of access for women to democratic institutions and democratic processes is most evident. Security Council resolution 1325 calls on Member States to increase the representation of women at all decision making levels. In response, the United Nations Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support intervene to facilitate women’s participation in political processes and women’s inclusion in governance structures in the countries where peacekeeping operations are deployed.

Four Key Practices for Women’s Effective Political Participation

Liberian woman voting
A woman casts her vote during the elections in Haiti. 2015.
UN Photo/Logan Abassi

1. Make both local and national elections free and fair for women.

Promote temporary special measures such as quotas, sanctions on non-complying political parties, waivers of nomination fees, access to public media, and access to public resources, and to increase women’s participation as both elected and appointed decision-makers in public institutions. Ensure voter registration processes enable women to exercise their democratic right. Consider implementing measures to address the factors (violence against women, gender-biased media reporting, non-transparent political party practices, lack of campaign financing) preventing women from participating in politics by working with Electoral Management Bodies and political parties.

2. Support women’s civil society organizations to advance women’s interests.

Provide assistance to develop collective policy agendas, for instance, through Women’s Charters or by holding National Conventions of Women. Women share priorities that cut across any differences they may have – these shared priorities may be about their right to hold office or their access to improved health care and child care. It is important for women to coordinate, create coalitions, work together and ensure common messages during times of change. Provide capacity building and skills development training to promote advocacy and communication skills, as well as internal organizational capacities of women’s groups and movements.

3. Build accountability for women’s rights in public institutions.

Ensure that constitutional revision processes consider the impact of the design of political, judicial and other public institutions on women’s participation and the exercise of their social, political and economic rights. Constitutional revisions should ensure harmonization with international standards on women’s rights. Promote accountability mechanisms and governance reforms that address women’s needs such as gender responsive service delivery, access to justice, budgeting and access to information. Ensure that accountability processes are in place, through which public authorities answer for their performance on national commitments on gender equality and women’s rights.

4. Support women political leaders to expand their influence.

Support skills and capacity development for both candidates and elected leaders. This support involves both training in terms of skills (parliamentary debate and language, advocacy) as well as content skills on gender mainstreaming, international gender equality commitments and strategies that can be of use. Support also entails advocating for mechanisms such as women’s parliamentary caucuses or women’s networks within civil service institutions, as well as creating governmental mechanisms that have the mandate, capacities and position in government to be an effective policy advocate for women’s interests. Consider training men in the principles and practice of gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment.

What the UN is Doing – Recent Successes

Afghanistan: in 2014 the UN Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, engaged in extensive efforts to sensitize the Afghan public on the importance of women in politics. As a result, the Government took concrete steps to equip women’s polling stations with female security and women observers. The presence of women was a direct indicator of the increased level of women’s confidence in casting ballots.

Ecuador: in 2015 UN-Women provided technical support to the Parliamentary Group for Women's Rights leading to the establishment of a dialogue mechanism convening women parliamentarians and CSOs, which aimed to harmonize legislation with the 2008 Constitution and CEDAW.

Caribbean Region: UN Women convened non-partisan networking through technical support to the Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership  (CIWIL) including consultations to endorse CIWIL Strategic Plan in Jamaica, Guyana and St. Kitts and Nevis. In Jamaica, young women were mentored as part of the UN Women and the University of the West Indies joint programme, including through a dialogue on Temporary Special Measures with a member of the Rwandan Parliament.

Moldova:  since 2014, UN Women and UNDP - in partnership with the East Europe Foundation (EEF) and the Centre for Participatory Development (CPD) – have collaboration on the programme: ‘Enhancing Women’s Political Representation through improved capacity and enhanced support in Moldova’. The programme aims to increase women’s leadership and political participation. During 2015 UN-Women in partnership with UNDP, CSOs and the newly created Women’s Caucus, provided targeted advocacy and technical support to the Parliament on gender responsive legislative review. The programme trained more than 1000 aspiring women candidates were trained ahead of the June 2015 local elections on topics such as public speaking, fundraising, and campaign management. Eight of these women were subsequently elected as mayors and 90 as local councilors.

Morocco: UN-Women provided technical support to the Group of Parliamentarians for Equality (GPFE) significantly contributing to gender-responsive law reform, including: the electoral law, changes to which enabled the number of women elected at local and regional levels to double in 2015; the Organic Law of Finance; and the adopted bills for the CEDAW Optional Protocol and the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights. Laws now up for review include a draft Authority for Parity Law; draft Violence against Women and Girls Law; draft Penal Code and draft House of Representatives Organic Law

Paraguay: UN Women in coordination with partners from Civil Society has supported a national Dialogue on parity, which included national workshops and seven departmental consultations, which led to the submission of the Draft Bill on Parity Democracy in March 2016.

Democratic Republic of the Congo: UN-Women’s technical support, in coordination with UNDP, MONUSCO and the Ministry on Gender and Family Affairs, facilitated the implementation of the Central Electoral Commission’s Gender Strategy including by convening a coordinated, multi-stakeholder working group on women’s leadership, and producing a comprehensive mapping of women leaders and aspiring candidates countrywide.

Tanzania:  since 2013 UN Women has supported the Constitutional Review process in close partnership with the “Wanawake Na Katiba” Coalition, composed of 60 civil society and grass-roots organizations and the Tanzania Women Parliamentary Group. UN Women has also advanced gender mainstreaming in electoral management and processes in coordination with UN partners. Advocacy and capacity building efforts targeted electoral institutions and the Office of Register of Political Parties (ORPP), political parties and community and religious leaders. As a result, the Electoral Commission Guidelines on voter registration, voter education, election observation and the Political Parties’ Code of Conduct, mainstreamed gender equality and social inclusion principles (with particular attention to peoples with disabilities): a tactile ballot system was introduced for the first time, and specific arrangements to ensure accessibility of polling stations and information (i.e. Braille for the visually impaired) were implemented.

Albania: since its establishment in 2013 with UN Women supported the Parliamentary Women Caucus, has been a key driver to achieve the enactment of a 50% gender quota for local elections in 2015, leading to an increase of women local counsellors from 12.5% to 35%.

In United Nations peacekeeping: There has been significant, and in most cases increased, participation of women as voters and as candidates in elections as a result of the efforts of UN peacekeeping missions to integrate a gender dimension into electoral processes and to ensure the safety of female voters and candidates.

As part of the events to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2010), The Department of Peacekeeping Operations, UN Women, the Department of Political Affairs and UNDP convened Open Days on women, peace and security in multiple countries. The Open Days gave women from the DRC, Nepal, Afghanistan, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Kosovo, and Somalia among others access to senior management of UN missions and government. The women collectively voiced their concerns on challenges to women’s political, social and economic participation and presented their views on the impact of peace building and reconstruction on their lives. One of the results from the Open Days was the global call for increased political empowerment for women and engagement at all levels of decision-making.  

For more information, please see:

1. Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, “Women in Politics: 2015"

2. UN Secretary-General Report on Women and Political Participation. 2013. Measures taken and progress achieved in the promotion of women and political participation, A/68/184.

3. Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in national parliaments, as of 1 June 2016”

4. UN Women calculation based on information provided to Permanent Missions to the United Nations.