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 No.324, New York/Geneva, 5 March 2009IPU Logo-bottom

8 March - International Women's Day

According to the latest analysis undertaken by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a record number of women now hold seats in parliament following elections and renewals that took place in 54 countries in 2008. On average, women hold 18.3 per cent of the seats across all chambers of parliament. This represents a 60 per cent increase in the number of women parliamentarians since 1995, when women held 11.3 per cent of seats.

For the first time, 15 per cent of parliamentary chambers (39 out of 264) in 32 countries have reached 30 per cent or more women members. Forty per cent of these chambers are in Europe, one third in Africa and 23 per cent in Latin America.  At the other end of the spectrum, however, one quarter of all parliamentary chambers have less than 10 per cent women members.

While overall trends point to an increase in women’s parliamentary representation, the gains are not spread evenly across all countries. Ebbs and flows in women’s access to parliaments are now commonplace – for the past five years, women have increased their share of seats in 60 per cent of parliamentary renewals, while stagnation or setbacks have occurred in 40 per cent of chambers renewed.

According to Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, President of the IPU, “it is unfortunate that we are not seeing progress being made across all parliaments of the world. While there were some impressive gains made in 2008, particularly in Africa, where Rwanda’s lower house elected a majority of women members, more needs to be done in those countries where women are largely absent from decision-making bodies.”

Fifteen per cent of chambers reach 30% or more women members

The number of parliaments that have reached the minimum target of 30 per cent women members set by the United Nations has grown significantly in the past decade. In 1998, just six single/lower chambers had reached the target, all of which were European. Today, the figure has grown four-fold, with the single/lower houses of parliament in 24 countries having surpassed 30 per cent women members. This distinction is no longer limited to European parliaments: the line up is diverse and includes post-conflict and developing States from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Rwanda’s Parliament made history when its lower house elected a majority (56.3%) of women members, while in Angola women took 37 per cent of the seats in its first post-conflict election. In addition, 15 upper houses have reached the target, bringing the overall total to 39 out of 264 chambers (15%).

In contrast to these performances, one quarter of all parliamentary chambers (51 single/lower houses and 14 upper houses out of 264) have less than 10 per cent women members. In addition, there are nine chambers with no women members at all (mainly found in the Pacific Islands and Arab Gulf States). The IPU Secretary General, Anders B. Johnsson, notes that “with so many parliaments having so few women members, there is certainly no room for complacency and we must continue in our ambition to achieve gender-balanced political institutions.”

Regional highlights

One out of five parliamentarians elected was a woman, the highest annual renewal on record. Of the 2,656 seats that went to women, 1,707 were directly elected, 878 were indirectly elected and 71 were appointed. While a record number of women took seats in parliamentary renewals in 2008, the gains were not spread evenly across all regions.

Some impressive gains were registered overall in Latin America: women took a 26.5 per cent share of the seats in the 12 chambers that were renewed. Overall, women hold 21.5 per cent of all seats in the region, second only to the Nordic countries (with a regional average of 41%). The high annual gains are attributable to the success of women candidates in Cuba (43.2%) and the upper houses in Belize (38.5%) and Grenada (30.8%). In the United States, both houses of Congress held elections, returning their highest proportions of women members: 17 per cent in each chamber.

The consistent pace of progress in Europe was largely sustained in the 19 chambers that were renewed, with women taking more than 21 per cent of the seats on offer. Belarus, Spain and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia elected more than 30 per cent women members, and progress was registered in Monaco (25%), France’s upper house (21.9%) and Serbia (21.6%). Drops in women’s representation were registered in Romania (11.4%), Malta (8.7%) and Georgia (6.0%). The change in Romania’s electoral system, from a proportional to a mixed member system where most members are elected by majority vote, contributed to a decline in the number of women elected.

Africa continued to make strides in 2008. Rwanda reinforced its position at the top of the scoreboard by electing more than 56 per cent women members to its lower house, improving on its previous record set in 2003 of nearly 49 per cent women members. Angola elected more than 37 per cent of women members in its first election since 1992, signaling a return to the democratic process. Angola joins other southern African countries such as Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania, which have elected more than 25 per cent of women members to parliament. “The southern African region has made some significant progress in terms of women’s access to politics in the past decade, and women have been important drivers of change” said the IPU President.

Asia has registered the slowest rate of progress in terms of women’s access to parliament over the past fifteen years, reaching a regional average of 17.8 per cent. There were, however, some significant gains for women in 2008. In all, 14 chambers were renewed and women took nearly 19 per cent of the seats on offer. The biggest gain was registered in Nepal, where women took 32.8 per cent of the seats, aided by the introduction of quotas, which guaranteed women one third of all parliamentary seats. In Bhutan, the first general elections were held to the new 47-member National Assembly, contested under a majority electoral system, with women taking four seats. The lowest proportion of women was registered in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where women won just 2.8 per cent of seats.

Just four parliamentary renewals took place in the Arab States in 2008, with women taking over nine per cent of the seats on average. In Djibouti, women won nine out of 56 seats, an increase of two seats since women first entered the parliament in 2003. Early elections were held in Kuwait, and as with the previous elections held under two years before, no woman candidate was successful. However, two women were appointed to cabinet and took up seats in parliament (cabinet ministers also sit in parliament). No women were among the appointees to the 35-member Qatari Advisory Council. Qatar, along with the Federated States of Micronesia and Saudi Arabia, has never had a woman member of parliament.

The lowest return rate for women in 2008 was registered in the Pacific Island States, at less than four per cent on average. The parliaments of Nauru, Palau, Tonga and Vanuatu were renewed, with only five of the 131 seats on offer going to women. Two women won seats in the upper house in Palau; it has been a decade since a woman last sat in that parliament. In Vanuatu, two women were returned to the parliament. In the elections in Nauru, Palau’s lower house and Tonga, no woman won a seat. However, in Tonga, one woman was appointed to the cabinet, thereby automatically becoming a member of parliament.

Behind the numbers

Electoral and party systems have a significant influence on women's rates of election. Women are elected in greater numbers (on average 6% higher) in systems of proportional representation than they are in majority electoral systems. The use of special measures or quotas is also an important factor. In 2008, countries that used special measures elected 24 per cent of women members to parliament on average, as opposed to 18 per cent for countries that did not. This trend is confirmed by examining the 39 chambers that have exceeded 30 per cent representation of women: 27 of them have implemented quotas, while six of them are appointed bodies.

Women Presiding Officers of Parliament

At the end of 2008, women presided over 31 of the 264 parliamentary chambers (11.7%) worldwide. The proportion of women holding the highest office in parliament has hovered around this mark for the past decade. The highest concentration of women Speakers are in Europe with 13, followed by ten in the Americas, six in Africa, and a woman Speaker each in Pakistan and Israel. During 2008, a woman took up the post of Speaker for the first time in history in Rwanda, Serbia and Uzbekistan. 

Factors influencing women’s participation in parliament

The IPU publication Equality in Politics: A Survey of Women and Men in Parliaments highlights the factors that influence entry into politics. Prejudice and cultural perceptions about the role of women, together with a lack of financial resources, continue to be among the greatest obstacles to women’s entry into politics. Yet once they do become involved, women bring different views, talents and perspectives to politics. While women parliamentarians are not a homogenous group, their shared experiences affect how they prioritize issues politically. Women parliamentarians are the most ardent supporters of women and have been responsible for putting women’s concerns and issues on the parliamentary agenda. Unfortunately, gender equality is only occasionally or rarely mainstreamed in parliament. While some parliaments and political parties have implemented reforms to make them more gender-sensitive, gender equality in parliaments remains an ideal and not yet a reality.

Established in 1889 and with its Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, the IPU, the oldest multilateral political organisation, currently brings together 154 affiliated parliaments and eight regional assemblies as associate members. The world organisation of parliaments has an Office in New York, which acts as its Permanent Observer at the United Nations.
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