5 March 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Women’s participation in Parliament reached a global high in 2008 -- with post-conflict Rwanda topping the list with 56 per cent of seats held by women in its lower house -- but progress towards the United Nations target of 30 per cent remained slow and uneven throughout the world, according to a report published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union ahead of International Women’s Day. 

Addressing journalists at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, Senator Pia Cayetano of the Philippines, citing figures from the report, said 54 countries held elections in 2008 or saw new faces appointed to national legislative chambers.  As a result, around 18 per cent of the world’s Senators or Members of Parliament were now women.

But Ms. Cayetano -- who is also President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians -- stressed that women still battled lingering prejudice against their participation in politics.  Too few political parties promoted women as candidates for election, and women tended to lack enough financial backing required to raise the large sums needed to compete successfully with men in the political arena.

The survey revealed that domestic responsibilities were the greatest obstacle to a life in politics, supporting the view that men and women must share responsibilities in the home and in caregiving, she said.  Sharing those burdens would free up women to participate more effectively in politics, which Ms. Cayetano felt was vital at a time of economic upheaval and hardship. 

“When women are involved in politics, we note that they bring a different perspective.  They bring different talents, different views.  So we feel that it is fundamental to democracy that women’s views are heard and that they are part of developmental agendas,” she said, adding that a quota system was one way to ensure that women had adequate representation. 

Speaking alongside Ms. Cayetano was Julie Ballington, Programme Officer at IPU’s Programme for Partnership Between Men and Women, who said that, although the number of women in Parliament had risen dramatically in 2008 compared to 1995, yearly gains were so slow that it would take 20 years to reach the minimum target of 30 per cent set by the United Nations.

Still, Ms. Ballington said a diverse group of 32 developed and developing countries had reached the 30 per cent target when both lower and upper houses were counted in the mix, which marked a shift from five years ago when countries from Europe dominated the list.  Women made particularly significant gains in Africa and the Americas, with eight of the top performing countries -- Rwanda, Cuba, Angola, Spain, New Zealand, Nepal, Belarus and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia -- reaching or surpassing the 30 per cent mark in the lower houses alone.

She explained that women in post-conflict societies in Africa benefited greatly from their involvement in peacebuilding, where both men and women were working together to rebuild Government.  In Latin America, the relatively high level of women’s representation was due to the electoral reforms of the last decade, where a system of proportional representation meant women did not have to compete directly with men, but gained parliamentary seats through their parties.

Ms. Ballington acknowledged the controversy surrounding the use of quotas, but pointed out that, of the countries surpassing the 30 per cent mark, most used the quota system. 

Rose Mukantabana, Rwanda’s Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of a bicameral legislature, said the dramatic rise of women in that body was due to strong political will in Rwanda to implement a complex quota system that was mandated by law. 

She explained that, for elections of the lower house, each political party was legally required to nominate both male and female candidates.  They were also obliged to draw a separate list, comprising exclusively female nominees for seats on the National Women’s Council, to guarantee that the Chamber of Deputies would satisfy a constitutional provision mandating that women must hold at least 30 per cent of decision-making positions.  As a result, 24 seats out of 80 in the Chamber of Deputies were effectively “reserved” for women.

Because there were many more women in the country, it had become difficult to ignore their presence, Ms. Mukantaba said, explaining that years of war had killed off many Rwandan men.   

For all the success of the top performing countries, Ms. Ballington said nine parliamentary chambers in the world had no women at all, and were found in Pacific Island States and Arab States.  Others had only one or two women.  Among those sets of countries, progress was “very much slow”.

Any attempts at change should be underpinned by partnership with men, argued Ms. Ballington, saying women needed more support than they currently received in order to compete effectively in political elections.  Roughly 80 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union had quotas in place, established either voluntarily or by law, but men still held a great deal of influence in politics and were often a barrier to entry.

Moreover, once women gained access to Parliament, they must struggle to function effectively alongside their male counterparts.  “The environment can be particularly hostile to women,” said Ms. Ballington.  “Parliaments are by and large gendered institutions.  They were developed by men.”

Ms. Cayetano said the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s gender partnership group often met with representatives of Member States to tease out the reasons for low female representation, and had recently met with representatives of Kuwait and Papua New Guinea.

Created in 1889, the Inter-Parliamentary Union brings parliamentary representatives together and is a focal point for worldwide parliamentary dialogue.  One of its current aims is to improve women’s access to, and participation in, Parliament, and to help build stronger partnerships between men and women, said Ms. Cayetano.

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For information media • not an official record