Chapter 3


Political Participation


Types of political participation


Participation in electoral processes involves much more than just voting. Political participation derives from the freedom to speak out, assemble and associate; the ability to take part in the conduct of public affairs; and the opportunity to register as a candidate, to campaign, to be elected and to hold office at all levels of government. Under international standards, men and women have an equal right to participate fully in all aspects of the political process. In practice, however, it is often harder for women to exercise this right. In post-conflict countries there are frequently extra barriers to women’s participation, and special care is required to ensure their rights are respected in this regard.


Political parties are among the most important institutions affecting women’s political participation. In most countries, parties determine which candidates are nominated and elected and which issues achieve national prominence. The role of women in political parties is therefore a key determinant of their prospects for political empowerment, particularly at the national level. Because political parties are so influential in shaping women’s political prospects, Governments and international organizations seeking to advance the participation of women in elections justifiably tend to focus on the role of political parties.


Political participation extends beyond parties, however. Women can also become involved in certain aspects of the electoral process through independent action—particularly at the local level—and by joining civil society organizations. Some women in post-conflict countries have gained political experience by participating in non-elected transitional assemblies. Women’s networks, trade unions, non-governmental organizations, and the media can all provide avenues for women’s political participation.





In many countries the rights of women are enshrined in law, and there are no formal legal barriers to women’s political participation in election processes. In practice, however, there are often formidable obstacles to women’s active participation in politics. The hurdles to be overcome can be particularly daunting for women considering running for office, and may be overwhelming for women in post-conflict countries.


Politics has traditionally been a male domain that many women have found unwelcoming or even hostile. Societies in which traditional or patriarchal values remain strong may frown on women entering politics. In addition to dealing with unfavourable cultural predilections, women are often more likely than men to face practical barriers to entering politics, including a paucity of financial resources, lower levels of education, less access to information, greater family responsibilities, and a deprivation of rights that has left them with fewer opportunities to acquire political experience. With the exception of the close relatives of male politicians, women generally lack the political networks necessary for electoral success.


Barriers to women’s political participation are often magnified in post-conflict societies, which may be characterized by militarism, a volatile security situation, the political dominance of a small group of (typically male) elites, the absence of well-established political parties, the failure to include women in peace negotiations and the bodies created for peace implementation, and other limiting factors. When political parties are based more on prominent personalities associated with a faction in conflict than on issue-focused platforms and programmes, as is often the case in post-conflict countries, it is harder for women to emerge as political leaders. At the same time, post-conflict countries frequently offer unique opportunities to institute changes in the political structure and political culture that ensure the recognition and realization of women’s right to participate fully and equally in politics. United Nations and other international actors in post-conflict countries can make an important contribution to these efforts.


Political parties


The most common route to elected office is through political parties. Most candidates depend on parties for their nomination, their base of electoral support, help during the election campaign, financial resources, and continued assistance after their election. While some candidates run for office independently of political parties, it is far more difficult to win election without the backing of a political organization, especially at the national level. Hence, women seeking an entrée into politics must usually turn to political parties. Political parties vary greatly in the extent to which they seek to promote women into leadership positions and to recruit women as party candidates, as well as in the extent to which they address political, economic and social issues of special concern to women. Since political parties often tend to be more open to nominating women as candidates for local elections, women may find it easier to start at this level and use it as a stepping stone to national office.


·         Political party laws. Most countries have a law regulating how political parties must be organized and registered and dictating how they must operate. The operational provisions of the political party law can be extremely important in establishing the framework for women’s political participation. For example, if parties are required to practise internal democracy and employ transparent nomination procedures through primary elections, all-party caucuses, locally based candidate selection or similar options, women will generally have a better chance of emerging as candidates. In contrast, highly centralized parties that are tightly controlled by a few leaders or organized around well-known personalities—usually men—may be much less receptive to selecting substantial numbers of women as candidates. This may be particularly true in post-conflict countries, in which political parties are frequently associated with male-dominated military groups.


Political party laws may include provisions aimed specifically at enhancing women’s political participation. For example, they may require parties to affirm their position on gender equality in the party constitution. They may mandate that party management and party policy committees be gender balanced. Political party laws, or in some cases election laws, may require a gender balance in candidate lists as well. Alternatively, laws may offer parties incentives such as more free broadcast time or additional public funding if they include certain numbers of women among their candidates. New laws are often introduced in post-conflict countries, providing an ideal opportunity to incorporate these and other provisions aimed at ensuring equal political participation for women.


·         Promoting women’s participation in proportional systems. One of the most effective ways to ensure women are elected to office is to require that party candidate lists be gender balanced or include a certain proportion of women. This is a legal obligation in many countries. The effectiveness of such systems, however, depends very much on the details of their implementation. For example, a requirement that candidate lists include 50 per cent women will not be effective if the women are all placed at the bottom of the lists. Women can have no realistic expectation of success in proportional systems unless they are placed high enough on the candidate lists to be elected if the party wins seats in the legislature. A “zippered” list, in which every other candidate is a woman, may provide the best prospects for women seeking election. Some countries have adopted variations of this system, requiring that women hold designated places on the lists (see box 3.1).


Even a perfectly zippered list may not achieve the desired results if the country uses an “open list” voting system, which allows voters to change the order of the candidates on the list. Parties may even try to circumvent the purpose of a zippered list by encouraging voters to reorder the candidates when they cast their votes. Experience in many countries has shown that open list voting often works to the disadvantage of women candidates unless women in the country are exceptionally well organized politically. In the worst cases, parties in some countries require women to submit pre-signed letters of resignation when they are nominated so that they can be replaced with men if they are elected. This type of situation can be averted if the law specifies that any woman removed from a candidate list or resigning from office must be replaced by another woman. This illustrates the importance of clarity and close attention to detail in the drafting of legislation.


Box 3.1Bosnia and Herzegovina: legal requirements for gender balance on party lists


The election law of Bosnia and Herzegovina includes a provision requiring that men and women each constitute at least a third of the candidates listed, and that both occupy positions high enough on the lists to ensure balanced representation if the party wins seats in the parliament. Since the provision is written in a gender-neutral manner, it should not be regarded as a temporary special measure as set out in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, but may constitute a permanent part of the law. Other countries have similar requirements.


Article 4, paragraph 19, of the election law requires that every candidate list include male and female candidates. According to the relevant provision, “the minority gender candidates shall be distributed on the candidate list in the following manner: at least one (1) minority gender candidate amongst the first two (2) candidates; two (2) minority gender candidates amongst the first five (5) candidates; and three (3) minority gender candidates amongst the first eight (8) candidates et seq. The number of minority gender candidates shall be at least equal to the total number of candidates on the list, divided by three (3) rounded to the closest integer.”


     Source: Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, “Bosnia and Herzegovina: assessment of the Election Law for the 5 October 2002 elections” (Warsaw, 25 July 2002).


In countries in which there is no legislation requiring that women be included on party lists, political parties may adopt voluntary targets or quotas for women candidates. This strategy has been implemented successfully in many areas. Such measures are most effective when linked to a specific time frame and accompanied by training and resources for women party members and candidates. Parties may also adopt a code of conduct that includes requirements regarding participation by women and gender equality. These approaches require a serious commitment; voluntary actions that are half-hearted or insincere may lead to gender “tokenism” that can actually undermine prospects for women’s empowerment.


·          Promoting women’s participation in majority systems. In majority systems, the options for advancing women’s participation as candidates may be more limited, but there are still a number of useful steps that might be taken. For example, political party laws could stipulate that a certain number or proportion of party candidates in elections at various levels must be women, though this would be harder to implement fairly in majority systems than in proportional systems. Political party constitutions could require that a specific number or proportion of women be put forward as candidates, or parties could set voluntary targets to this end. Governments could also adopt measures to encourage parties to field more women as candidates in majority systems, perhaps by offering benefits such as additional campaign financing to parties nominating greater numbers of women.   


As explained in Briefing Note No. 2, in both proportional and majority systems temporary special measures such as those described above have been the most effective means of ensuring the election of women in post-conflict countries. National and international actors involved in shaping post-conflict electoral processes should carefully consider the benefits of incorporating these or similar special measures into electoral systems and the long-term effects they may have within specific contexts. If appropriately applied, such measures can broaden democracy and contribute to effective peace-building.


·         Women’s wings. In many countries, political parties have established special wings for women that can contribute to their advancement. This mechanism can provide an avenue for women to become active, learn political skills, and develop networks within the party. Women’s wings can often influence party positions, especially on issues of special concern to women. They are most effective when linked directly to party leadership and decision-making bodies; when this is not the case, women’s wings may lead to the compartmentalization or marginalization of women in the party.


·         Platforms. Another indication of the party’s commitment to the advancement of women is its platform. By addressing gender equality and other issues of special concern to women, parties can increase their relevance to women voters and provide a greater incentive for women to become involved in the political process. In post-conflict countries, parties might encourage women’s participation by taking gender-sensitive positions on such issues as refugees and displaced persons, family reunification, violence against women, female unemployment, housing, education, and social issues such as family planning and reproductive health.  


Non-governmental organizations


Although political party affiliation may represent women’s most obvious entrée into politics, it is not the only option. One of the best ways for women to enter the political arena is through involvement in national women’s movements. In post-conflict countries in which women have been active in mobilizing against the regime, participation in the women’s movement may provide them with the credentials needed to become a party leader or a candidate. Women’s movements can also influence political party platforms and help ensure that issues of special interest to women are addressed seriously by all parties.


More broadly, non-governmental organizations, including women’s, human rights and community groups, labour unions, and other civil society institutions, can contribute in various ways to the advancement of women’s political participation. Priorities may include identifying women to stand as candidates, providing training on dealing with the media and other issues, developing networks to advance women in politics both within the party and across party lines, and assisting with gender-sensitive civic and voter education.




The media, and particularly electronic media, play a crucial role in shaping voter interest in and attitudes about an election. The way the media portray women, how they deal with issues of special concern to women, and whether they convey effectual voter education messages can have a major impact on women’s participation in an election. This is true in all elections, including those held in post-conflict countries.


In general, election laws and media laws create a framework for the role of the media in elections. In most instances the formal rules governing media coverage of candidates appear gender-neutral. In reality, however, media regulations and practices may indirectly disadvantage women. For example, in societies with very limited controls or very lax rules for the media, as is sometimes the case in post-conflict countries, women may face informal discrimination manifested in their inability to get on the air at all. Even when airtime is carefully regulated, the price of advertising may be beyond the reach of women candidates. Women are most likely to receive equal broadcasting time in countries that provide the same amount of free airtime to all candidates and place limits on paid political advertising. Some countries even provide extra airtime as an incentive for political parties to nominate and support women candidates (see box 3.2).


Box 3.2.  East Timor: incentives and quotas for gender balance in elections


The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) administered the 2001 Constituent Assembly elections. Although UNTAET declined to establish quotas or reserved seats for women in the Assembly, it did undertake a range of other actions to enhance women’s participation in the elections and to encourage political parties to nominate women as candidates. The following are among the innovative measures taken by UNTAET:


·         Additional television advertising time was given to women candidates and parties that placed women in “winnable” positions on their candidate lists;

·         Special training was provided for over 200 women who were potential candidates for the Assembly;

·         Local community development council elections were held on a one-man, one-woman basis, promoting women’s political participation and reinforcing perceptions that women should participate equally in governance;

·         Quotas for women were established for the membership and staff of electoral management bodies;

·         A quota of 30 per cent women was established for the public administration.


     Source:  Milena Pires, “East Timor and the debate on quotas” (

Report.pdf), p. 39.


Even more important than the amount of media coverage devoted to women is the quality of such coverage. The media may perpetuate stereotypes of women in their traditional roles rather than conveying a positive image of women as political leaders. Women candidates may receive coverage focusing more on their personal qualities or their responsibilities as wives and mothers than on their political positions. In the print media, women candidates are sometimes relegated to the “women’s pages” of newspapers. The quality of media coverage can have a major impact on the advancement of women as candidates and as voters. The portrayal of women in the media as active political participants and leaders can greatly boost their political participation. In countries with high illiteracy rates, radio and television can play an especially important role in promoting women’s political confidence and participation.




Advancing women’s political participation in post-conflict countries requires determined efforts not only by women themselves, but also by Governments, the international community and civil society. Action by political parties is particularly important. Some steps that can be taken by each of these groups are listed below.


Political parties should:


·         Adopt internal democratic structures;

·         In proportional systems, place women contenders high enough on the candidate lists to ensure they will be elected, including through such mechanisms as “zippered” lists, and consider voluntary quotas or targets for women candidates;

·         In majority systems, establish voluntary targets or quotas to ensure a specified minimum number of women are put forward as candidates;  

·         Provide support and resources to ensure the election of women candidates;

·         Make certain that women are fully represented in party leadership and policy committees;

·         Clearly identify the advancement of women and issues of special concern to women as priorities in their platforms.


Government actors should:


·         Ensure that political party laws and other election-related legislation do not indirectly disadvantage women;

·         Consider legislation requiring political parties to adopt democratic procedures for their internal operations;

·         Consider temporary special measures requiring political parties to include a substantial proportion of women high on their candidate lists;

·         Provide incentives for political parties to promote women candidates, including resources, training and increased access to broadcast time. Providing increased airtime for women in politics between elections could also advance women’s participation by enabling voters to make informed assessments at election time of the overall performance of political parties, including their support of women who have been elected as representatives.


International actors should:


·         Provide advice on legislation, electoral systems and best practices that can advance women’s participation in the electoral process;

·         Assist in the training of women candidates;

·         Provide training to political parties, journalists, security forces and others to convey the importance of women’s political participation and gender sensitivity;

·         Help establish and support cross-party cooperation among women;

·         Provide support and training to women who have been elected to office to enable them to function more effectively in their new roles. 


Civil society actors should:


·         Identify women willing to run for office;

·         Provide training and other types of support for women candidates;

·         Lobby to ensure issues of special concern to women are addressed in party platforms;

·         Lobby for legislative changes to advance women’s empowerment;

·         Develop cross-party networks of women;

·         Develop and disseminate gender-sensitive messages for voter and civic education;

·         Advocate improved media coverage of women’s issues and women candidates;

·         Persuade international donors to support projects aimed at advancing women’s political participation.


The media should:


·         Provide gender-sensitive coverage of elections, avoiding negative stereotypes and presenting positive images of women as leaders;

·         Provide women candidates with at least as much airtime and print space as that given to men;

·         Focus attention on issues of special concern to women in news programming;

·         Undertake voter and civic education programmes aimed specifically at women.