Chapter 1


A General Overview


Why focus on women and elections in post-conflict countries?


Democratic elections have become a central element of peace-building in post-conflict societies. This emphasis on elections acknowledges that popularly supported, legitimate institutions can be a key to lasting solutions to conflicts. Only when institutions are democratic and representative of all groups in society—women as well as men, minorities as well as majorities, the dispossessed as well as the affluent—are stable peace and national prosperity likely to be achieved.


Member States of the United Nations have recognized that achieving sustainable and durable peace requires the full involvement and equal participation of women in conflict resolution and subsequent peace-building. The United Nations Security Council, in its resolution 1325 (2000) of 31 October 2000, stresses the importance of integrating a gender perspective in the formulation and application of agreements aimed at establishing the foundations for a stable peace (see box 1.2). The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, expresses the conviction that peace is inextricably linked with the equality of women and men.


It is clear, given the acknowledged importance of both democratic elections and the role of women in peace-building, that enhancing women’s participation in elections in post-conflict countries is essential to building peace and democracy and advancing the equality of women and men. Elections can provide the best possible opportunity to ensure women’s voices are heard, their concerns are addressed, and their potential contributions to peace and democracy are maximized. 


Box 1.1.  United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) of 31October 2000


 “The Security Council

8.  Calls on all actors involved, when negotiating and implementing peace agreements, to adopt a gender perspective, including, inter alia:

(c) Measures that ensure the protection of and respect for human rights of women and girls, particularly as they relate to the constitution, the electoral system, the police and the judiciary.”



Box 1.2.  The underrepresentation of women in national parliaments


Women are underrepresented in virtually all national legislative bodies. A 130-country survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in 2004 indicates that women hold an average of only 15.4 per cent of the elected seats. A 1995 report issued by the United Nations Development Programme concluded that 30 per cent would be the minimum representation required for women as a group to exert a meaningful influence in legislative assemblies. Only 15 of the countries included in the IPU survey have achieved this level. Interestingly, though, 3 of the 15—Rwanda (48.8 per cent), South Africa (32.8 per cent) and Mozambique (30 per cent)—are post-conflict societies, demonstrating how electoral measures instituted as part of peace processes can improve women’s representation.


   Source:  Inter-Parliamentary Union (



Post-conflict elections: obstacles and opportunities for women


Although the general principles governing women’s full participation in elections and in peace-building are broadly accepted, their implementation is often inadequate (see box 1.3).


Box 1.3.  Agreed conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women


At its forty-eighth session, held on 14 March 2004, the Commission on the Status of Women adopted the following agreed conclusions concerning women’s equal participation in elections as part of post-conflict peace-building:


“14.     In regard to post-conflict peace-building … the Commission on the Status of Women calls on Governments, as well as all other relevant participants in these processes, to … concerning elections:


“a.      Ensure equal access of women in all stages of the electoral process including to consider the adoption of measures for increasing women’s participation in elections through, inter alia, individual voter registration, temporary gender-specific positive actions and access to information, representation in bodies administering elections and as election monitors and observers, as well as encouraging political parties to involve women fully and equally in all aspects of their operations;


“b.      Ensure equal access for women to voter and civic education, provide women candidates with full support, training and financial resources, and eliminate discriminatory practices hampering women’s participation either as voters or [as] candidates.”


   Source: Commission on the Status of Women, “Women’s equal participation in conflict prevention, management and conflict resolution and in post-conflict peace-building: agreed conclusions”, adopted at the Commission’s forty-eighth session, held in New York from 1 to 12 March 2004.



There are many remaining obstacles to women’s equal participation in elections, including gender stereotypes, psychological and traditional barriers, and inequalities in education, training and resources. Political parties, ethnic groups or clans may be dominated by a single, strong leader, usually a male, leaving little opportunity for women to enter the political process through established political groups. Other barriers may be built into political structures, including certain types of electoral systems or candidacy restrictions based on educational qualifications or other factors. Post-conflict societies often present additional obstacles to women’s equal participation in elections, including the following:


·         Entrenched military groups;

·         Volatile security situations;

·         Disproportionately large numbers of refugee and displaced women;

·         Gender-based violence;

·         Inadequate institutions for the protection and enforcement of women’s political rights;

·         The exclusion of women from the peace negotiations and consultations held to determine the type and details of the electoral process;

·         A lack of international or domestic investment in bringing women together as political players around common agendas.


On the positive side, post-conflict situations may provide a unique opportunity to introduce a more inclusive political framework and advance women’s participation in democratic elections and other aspects of peace-building. What is achievable is largely determined by the situation on the ground. If women’s groups can effectively organize themselves, they can play a major role in facilitating and sustaining increased political participation among women. If peace negotiations in post-conflict countries include the development of new institutions or new laws, an unparalleled opportunity is provided to enshrine equality for women. Radical departures from tradition can sometimes be incorporated in new constitutions or electoral laws, including special measures to increase the political representation of women. With regard to the electoral process itself, steps can be taken to ensure adequate training, security and resources for women candidates and voters (see box 1.4). In short, the tools for advancing women’s participation in post-conflict elections exist; their application, however, is a question of political will and adequate resources.



Box 1.4.  Resources on women’s participation in electoral processes in post-conflict countries


The expert group meeting on “Enhancing women’s participation in electoral processes in post-conflict countries”, organized by the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women and the Department of Political Affairs, was held in New York from 19 to 22 January 2004. A set of resources on women in electoral processes was compiled. This information and the meeting report are available at feature/postconflict/index.htm.



United Nations and regional organizations involved in post-conflict elections can play a pivotal role in ensuring that adequate attention is devoted to women’s rights and to the issue of equality between men and women. Because international assistance is most effective when provided in support of nationally driven goals, international organizations should seek to identify local actors that possess the necessary political will and expertise and can provide the resources necessary for capacity-building. There are many positive examples and best practices from around the world that may be drawn upon to enhance women’s participation in post-conflict elections; a number of these options are described in the present series. When international organizations are involved in election activities in post-conflict countries, within peace missions or other contexts, it is important for them to exhibit gender sensitivity in the execution of their duties, to include gender experts on staff, and to provide gender training to their personnel.


Women’s participation required for free and fair elections


The United Nations recognizes the need to protect and promote the right of women to participate in the electoral process, particularly in post-conflict countries (see box 1.2). It is important to keep in mind, however, that electoral rights mean much more than simply the right to vote. Freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the freedom to take part in the conduct of public affairs, hold public office at all levels of Government, and participate in the formulation of government policy are subsumed under this heading as well. United Nations international human rights instruments affirm that women are entitled to enjoy all these rights and freedoms on the same basis as men. Women’s equal participation is therefore essential to the conduct of democratic elections. At the practical level, an election fails to comply with international obligations and standards unless the opportunity for full and equal participation by women is provided.


For elections to be truly free and fair, women must have the same opportunities as men to participate in all aspects of the electoral process. Women should have an equal chance to serve at all levels within local and national election management bodies. Women should be engaged on an equal basis as election monitors or observers. Women should be able to participate fully in all aspects of political party operations. Women candidates and issues of special concern to women should be given fair and equal treatment in the media. Focusing on areas of the greatest potential impact can help ensure that women’s participation in the electoral process is more than a pro forma exercise, and that free and fair elections fulfil their potential for contributing to the advancement of women, particularly in post-conflict situations.


Key elements of electoral processes


In examining the issue of women’s participation in electoral processes in post-conflict countries, a number of important aspects of these processes must be considered. Each may pose significant challenges for women but, if properly managed, may also provide opportunities to facilitate and expand women’s involvement. Several key components of elections and the electoral process that can enhance or detract from women’s participation are outlined briefly below, and are elaborated in greater detail in the subsequent chapters of this handbook.


·         The legal framework. A country’s constitutional and legal framework should guarantee equal civil and political rights to every person on a non-discriminatory basis. If these rights are not explicitly affirmed in the national constitution or other laws, they may apply by virtue of their inclusion in international treaties a Government has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (see box 1.5). Peace agreements in post-conflict countries may stipulate the adoption of a new constitution or a new election law, providing an opening for innovative practices to improve women’s participation.


A wide variety of laws can affect women’s prospects for full participation in all aspects of an election. The most important is the election law, but laws relating to political parties, gender equality, gender-based violence, citizenship, personal status, the family, identity documents for returnee and internally displaced persons, and other issues can also have a significant impact. Some laws may prompt indirect discrimination; for example, literacy requirements may disproportionately disadvantage women. Even sound laws will make little difference unless State institutions ensure they are effectively implemented and enforced. The legal system should be set up to provide prompt and effective remedies for women whose rights have not been upheld.


Electoral systems are not gender-neutral. The type of system in place can have a major impact on the number of women elected to office. More women are likely to be elected in countries with proportional representation (or party-list) systems than in countries with majority (or first-past-the-post) systems. This is an essential consideration in designing electoral systems in post-conflict countries. Other aspects of election systems—including types of candidate lists, district magnitude, and threshold levels—significantly affect women’s electoral prospects as well.


Many countries have adopted special measures such as candidate quotas or reserved seats to increase the number of women elected. When properly implemented, these measures have been especially effective tools for promoting women’s participation in electoral processes and for advancing women’s equality in post-conflict countries.


·         Political participation. Women can participate not only by voting, but also by becoming advocates, activists, political party members and candidates. Political parties often control decisions about who will be nominated to run for office, what positions candidates will be given on party lists, and who will receive support during the campaign and after the election. The role of political parties is therefore critical in determining the prospects for women aspiring to public office. Political parties may also determine the extent to which issues of special concern to women become part of the national political debate and are given serious consideration in the work of the legislature.


Generally, parties that practise internal democracy and have transparent nomination procedures offer the best prospects for women to emerge as candidates. In order to ensure more balanced representation, political parties in many countries have adopted voluntary targets or quotas specifying a minimum number or proportion of women on their candidate lists, and may even alternate women and men on the lists. In some countries, this has become a legal requirement. Many political parties have established “women’s wings”; in some cases these have constituted a useful tool for the advancement of women, while in others they have led to the compartmentalization or marginalization of women within the party. In many post-conflict situations, parties may be structured around military groups and leaders, leaving women seriously disadvantaged as political contestants.


Political participation extends beyond parties and their organizational structures. Women in post-conflict countries are often active participants in civil society, providing another entrée into the political arena. Government machineries, electoral management bodies, non-governmental organizations including women’s groups and networks, the media, and trade unions and other associations can all provide avenues for women’s political participation.


·         Voter registration.  In almost all countries, voters must be registered and appear on voter lists to be eligible to participate in elections. The accuracy and inclusiveness of the lists are central elements in ensuring women’s full participation. Voter registration may be either “State-initiated”, meaning that electors are automatically registered by local authorities on the basis of residence or other records, or “self-initiated”, meaning that constituents must take individual responsibility for registering themselves. With State-initiated registration, women are less likely to be left off the registers, but this system must be carefully implemented to ensure that women are not removed from the lists if they change their name or address when they marry. Another important consideration is whether a country has dedicated electoral registers or relies on civil registers that are also used for purposes other than elections. Whatever system is used for voter registration, the lists should be compiled in a manner that is clear and transparent, and voters should have an easy way to check for mistakes and correct inaccuracies. In many post-conflict countries there are major problems with the voter lists because of the large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons; special procedures are required to ensure these citizens are not disenfranchised. Since women tend to make up the large majority of displaced persons in most circumstances, they will be disproportionately disadvantaged if this problem is not addressed.


·         Voter education. Voter education can be a critical factor in enhancing women’s participation in elections, particularly in post-conflict countries in which women have not traditionally played an active role in the electoral process. In the broadest sense, voter education includes the dissemination of basic information on voting rights, the political system, candidates and issues, as well as specific information on where and how to vote. It is especially important for voters to understand that each ballot must be marked secretly and privately. Situations in which one family member casts ballots for the entire family, or in which a husband and wife enter a voting booth together, are contrary to international standards, diminish individual independence, and negatively influence women voters.


Voter education should include publicity encouraging people to vote, with campaigns targeted specifically at women as well as at men and women together. Any special factors should be taken into account, including high rates of illiteracy and the types and number of languages spoken in a particular locale. Emphasis should be placed on the right of women to be elected. Carefully targeted voter education can help alleviate “double discrimination”, which may occur when women are also members of disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Non-governmental groups and international organizations can often make a valuable contribution by helping to develop gender-sensitive voter education messages. This involves promoting a positive image of women as leaders and politicians in order to encourage women’s participation in the political process and challenge the traditional view of a society dominated by male leaders. In post-conflict societies, such messages can highlight the importance of women’s knowledge and expertise in the areas of reconstruction and national reconciliation. Women’s groups can make a significant contribution through activities such as advocating for gender balance among candidates, election administrators, observers and other electoral participants.


·         Election administration.  The practical aspects of administering an election can have an important impact on women’s participation. Election management bodies should operate independently, impartially and transparently. Boards at all levels should include women as part of their membership and leadership. Where necessary, special training might be made available for women to ensure that they are qualified to assume such positions. Election management bodies should develop a clear policy on advancing women’s electoral participation. They should take gender considerations into account in all aspects of their work and should strive to facilitate and increase women’s participation.


Election administrators can enhance overall voter participation—and that of women in particular—by developing effective voter education campaigns, instituting simple procedures for voter registration, ensuring easy access to polling stations, establishing convenient polling hours, providing adequate security at polling locations, preventing intimidation, designing ballots and voting procedures that are clear and simple, making certain each person’s vote is cast secretly, and providing balloting facilities for illiterate voters. To the extent possible, election management bodies should collect sex-disaggregated data on all aspects of the electoral process, including voter registration and voter turnout, in order to identify any discrepancies or weaknesses that might require attention.


·         Election observation. Election observation is a valuable tool for enhancing the transparency of the electoral process and increasing public confidence in election results. It can be especially advantageous in post-conflict elections, in which the level of mistrust among contesting groups tends to be high. The presence of observers can serve as a deterrent to fraud and malpractice. Observation may be carried out by international organizations, domestic groups or both. In some post-conflict situations, international administrators or international supervisors may even be given the power to certify results or invalidate elections. In general, international observers should be able to impartially assess the quality of elections and to provide suggestions on how practices can be improved. 


Observation methodology should take into account how various aspects of the electoral process can have a different impact on women than they do on men. Observers should carefully assess the way in which the legal framework, political parties, election administration and other factors affect women’s participation. Ideally, observer groups, and particularly national groups, should include equal numbers of women and men. Specialized election observation efforts can be designed to focus exclusively on the role of women in elections.


General recommendations


In post-conflict electoral processes all actors—including governmental, international and civil society organizations—should be guided by the following recommendations and best practices for enhancing women’s participation:


·         Adhere to international standards for the protection of women’s civil and political rights;

·         Include women as members of delegations to peace negotiations and in bodies created for the implementation of peace accords, including those responsible for the development of new electoral processes;

·         Carefully design and implement new laws and electoral processes to ensure and enhance women’s participation and to effectively increase the possibility of women being elected;

·         Make certain that the practical aspects and details of the electoral process do not indirectly discriminate against women;

·         Consider adopting temporary special measures such as quotas;

·         Require or encourage political parties to nominate and support women candidates, in part by placing them high enough on their candidate lists to be elected;

·         Ensure that refugee and internally displaced women enjoy the right to vote;

·         Create platforms to ensure women’s voices and concerns are heard;

·         Design and conduct voter registration and education campaigns targeting women.


There are many other ways that government, international and civil society actors can ensure women’s full participation in the electoral process; some of these are addressed in greater detail in the following chapters. All individuals involved in designing and implementing elections need to continually bear in mind that women make up half of a country’s population and to carefully consider how each of their decisions affects women as well as men. Only if women have the opportunity to participate equally will an electoral process comply with international standards and contribute fully to building peace.


Box 1.5.  Women and elections: some United Nations standards and obligations


Universal Declaration of Human Rightsa/


Article 2.  Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 7.  All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.

Article 21.  (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

                    (3) The will of the people shall be the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rightsb/


Article 3.  The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.

Article 25.  Every citizen shall have the right and opportunity …


     1.  To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

     2.  To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

Article 26.  All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. …


Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Womenc/


Article 2.  States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake:


     (a) To embody the principle of the equality of men and women in their national constitutions or other appropriate legislation if not yet incorporated therein and to ensure, through law and other appropriate means, the practical realization of this principle;

Article 7.  States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall 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;

     (c) To participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.


     Source: The full texts of the instruments from which these excerpts were taken are available at undocs.html.

     a/  Adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948.

     b/  Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200 A (XXI) of 16 December 1966; entry into force 23 March 1976, in accordance with article 49.

     c/  Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1979 (resolution 34/180) and entered into force on 3 September 1981.