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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 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
Afghan women and men cast their ballots in Presidential and
Provincial Council elections on 5 April 2014, in an important step
forward in their country’s first democratic transition of power.
UN Photo/Fardin Waezi

The role of women in democratic processes is further emphasized in the 2011 General Assembly resolution on Women’s Political Participation (A/RES/66/130), which reaffirms “that the active participation of women, on equal terms with men, at all levels of decision-making is essential to the achievement of equality, sustainable development, peace and democracy”.  

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 2015, just 22 per cent of national parliamentarians were women, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995. As of January 2015, 10 women served as Head of State and 14 served as Head of Government. Just 17 per cent of government ministers were women, and many of these hold social policy portfolios such as education and the family. Women are also poorly represented in local decision-making bodies, whether as mayors or local council members.

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 process 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 holds up her ink-stained finger,
proof of having voted in Liberia’s national
elections. 2011. UN Photo/Staton Winter

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: The programme provided technical support to the Parliamentary Group for Women's Rights to establish dialogue mechanisms among CSOs, women members of political parties, and the National Assembly to ensure harmonization of domestic legislation with the 2008 Constitution in compliance with Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). UN Women played a convening role for the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Assembly and the United Nations system to support gender and human rights mainstreaming within the legal reform.

Haiti: the United Nations Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH), UN Women and UNDP, with the support USAID, assisted with the establishment of an office for gender equality in the parliament and consultations culminating in a Plan of Action on promoting women’s participation in the forthcoming elections.

Liberia: the UN mission in Liberia (UNMIL) supported the Women NGO Secretariat of Liberia on a project “levelling the playing field for women’s participation in Liberia Governance’. The project aimed at promoting gender-responsive and inclusive governance in Liberia by identifying the obstacles and challenges to women’s full participation. In 2015, UN Women also conducted an in-country mission to support national stakeholders (Constitutional Review Committee, Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, CSOs and the Women’s Joint Constitutional Review Task Force) on the constitutional review process. The mission results included the submission of gender equality constitutional provisions related to the rights of women and children; parity in representation in national and local assemblies; development of an agreed road map with partners; and strengthened capacities of media representatives on gender-responsive media coverage.

Malawi: Following the programme’s electoral support in 2014, a network of eminent women was established by senior women citizens, retired politicians, professionals and faith leaders, to support women’s political participation in Malawi. The network helped promote conflict prevention and advocate through the UN Women “HeforShe” campaign to hold political leaders accountable to the commitments on gender equality included in their respective parties’ manifestos. The network provides advice and mentorship to newly elected women and candidates in preparation for the 2019 elections.

Morocco: UN Women continued supporting the implementation of the gender equality provisions of the 2011 Constitution, through capacity-development for gender-responsive legal reform and monitoring mechanisms; and technical support to the Group of Parliamentarians for Equality. UN Women played a convening role and provided local expertise to support the review and harmonization with CEDAW of draft laws being debated in the Parliament (i.e., Law on Municipal and Regional Elections and the Fight against All Forms of Discrimination).

Paraguay: UN Women, in coordination with the Centre of Documentation and Studies and the NGO Decidamos, convened a National Dialogue from June to October 2014 that promoted inclusive political institutions and the establishment of a task force on democratic parity with representation of women from political parties, women’s organizations and the Municipal Women’s Networks. The task force drafted a proposed law on democratic parity. UN Women is bringing this political dialogue to the municipal level and will support training for women candidates prior to municipal elections.

Tanzania: UN Women supported a women’s coalition (comprising of 50 CSOs), with representation from women from different party affiliations countrywide. This resulted in increased support for gender equality demands in the constitution review process. From 13-17 April 2015, over 400 women assembled in Dodoma, the seat of the Constituent Assembly, to demand the adoption of the 12 gender issues achieved in the second draft constitution. In achieving 50/50 representation, the Women’s Caucus in the Constituent Assembly, has been commended as the most organized coalition.

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. 

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