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United Nations Global Issues

Women and Democracy

Women have always had a strong stake in 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”
young women polling staff in Sudan
Polling staff with the National Elections Commission
tape a sign outside their station in Khartoum, Sudan,
on the first day of the country's general elections
in 2010. (UN Photo)

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 office – they still average less than one in five parliamentarians and 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 30 per cent critical mass 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

Villagers read election instructional material provided by United Nations Mission in Liberia
Villagers read election instructional material provided
by United Nations Mission in Liberia peacekeepers
during a sensitization tour (2005). UN Photo

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

Promote temporary special measures such as quotas, waivers of nomination fees, access to public media, access to public resources, and sanctions on non-complying political parties, to increase women’s participation as both elected and appointed decision-makers in public institutions. Work on voter registration in order to enable women to exercise their democratic right. Take measures to address the factors (violence against women, lack of childcare, 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. Work on electoral law reform to ensure that provisions are fair for women. 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.

What the UN is Doing – Recent Successes

Morocco: The Movement on Parity, assisted by UN Women, became a powerful voice for women during constitutional reforms. As a result, the new constitution enshrines gender equality, opening the door for a new law doubling the number of parliamentary seats reserved for women. In the most recent national elections, all political party platforms made commitments to gender equality, and the number of women in parliament surged from 10 per cent to 17 per cent.

Colombia: Partnering with women from civil society and government leaders, UN Women helped to successfully advocate for the adoption of a 30 per cent quota for women candidates in national elections. To engage the broader public, an ad campaign drove home the message that “democracy without women is incomplete.”

El Salvador: Through its Fund for Gender Equality, UN Women helped to mobilize women from 22 advocacy groups, parliament and the supreme court around a law making public institutions more gender responsive. It passed, mandating the integration of gender-specific considerations in all public policies, among other measures. The success of the Parliamentary Women’s Group in advocating the bill’s passage led to official recognition, entitling it to representation on all legislative commissions, and making it the first parliamentary group to operate across party lines. 

Kenya: After Kenya’s 2010 constitution guaranteed gender equality and the use of affirmative action, UN Women backed a gender audit of a draft Political Parties Bill to see if principles were translating into practice. The Interim Independent Electoral Commission subsequently adopted recommendations to make the bill more gender responsive. When it passed into law, it stipulated that the registration of political parties depends on having no more than two-thirds of any gender in their governing bodies. Another provision requires filling vacant seats in the legislature with people of the same gender.

Egypt: At a critical point in Egypt’s political transition, UN Women helped to establish the first Egyptian Feminist Union, comprising 500 women’s groups who advocate with a unified voice, and the Egyptian Coalition for Civic Education and Women’s Participation, which serves as an election watchdog. More than 500,000 people from 27 governorates have signed a national charter highlighting women’s aspirations for the future of their country. In partnership with UN Women, the Government is implementing the ‘Women’s Citizenship’ initiative to issue ID cards to 2 million women who need them to vote and access public services.

Albania: UN Women helped to involve more than 2,000 people, 90 per cent of whom were women, in developing community-based scorecards to assess whether or not local services meet women’s needs. Women’s advocates used the findings to lobby political candidates during municipal elections, announcing that women would not vote unless candidates responded to their concerns. Political parties listened, incorporating commitments to gender equality in their platforms. Several newly elected mayors signed pledges to use scorecard findings as a guide for planning public services.

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.

Timor-Leste: Women make a difference in politics

For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, with support from the UN peacekeeping mission (ONUCI), 52 per cent of women were enrolled as voters during the 2011 legislative elections, compared with less than 40 per cent in the 2000-2001 legislative process. And, for the first time, there was a higher turnout of women than men voters in an electoral process. However, the female representation in the national assembly, which grew from 8 per cent in 2001 to 10.58 per cent in

2012, still remains relatively low.

As part of the events to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, UNIFEM convened Open Days on women and peace in multiple countries. The Open Days gave women activists from the DRC, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Guinea Bissau, Somalia access to leading members of UN missions and government, to voice their concerns and present their views on the impact of peace building and reconstruction on their lives.

a woman holds up her stained finger after voting
A woman holds up her stained finger after voting in
Timor-Leste's presidential election in 2012.

In Haiti, the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) organized election-related workshops of which 70 per cent of participants were women. The aim of these workshops was to advance the level of women’s participation in leadership positions and increase awareness of women’s full participation in decision-making at all levels. As a result of the training and support provided by UN peacekeepers, women’s rights organizations who actively engaged in the political process are better equipped to undertake lobbying and advocacy for political equality.

Timor-Leste: in the first round of the presidential elections held in March 2012, 50 per cent of registered voters were women (up from 47 per cent in 2007). The UN peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) worked with female political representatives through a platform established for women in order to support their equal participation in the electoral process. UNMIT also co-chairs the ’Women’s Political Participation Action Group’ which coordinates the efforts of the political wing of the mission and of other members of the United Nations Country Team.

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