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Women in Parliament in 2023: Concerns over gender-based violence

IPU Long Read #2 

The IPU's annual report of women in parliament based on 2023 elections shows some limited progress but also some worrying trends - notably women quitting politics citing burn-out and threats. In this IPU Long Read, we extract some of the main features of the report as well three case studies from around the world.

IPU gender experts are closely monitoring elections in 2024 to see how they will impact the numbers of women in parliament. 

Having women in parliament is vital for democratic representation. As well as likely making parliaments more effective, gender equality enables them to better represent the full diversity of their constituents. 

Yet the IPU report Women in Parliament in 2023 shows that, although the numbers have continued to inch slowly upward, women remain underrepresented in every part of the world. 

At the end of 2023, women accounted for 26.9% of MPs, an increase of just 0.4 percentage points versus the previous year. 

The IPU is also interested in seeing equal access for women to leadership positions. It welcomed the appointment in 2023 of the first female prime minister of Equatorial Guinea, as well as the election of the first ever women Speakers in Cambodia and Côte d’Ivoire.

So what can be done to increase women’s representation in parliament?

The 2023 report identifies at least three factors affecting the numbers of women in parliament: quotas, electoral systems and the political environment, the latter of which can lead to burnout and violence against women in politics. 

The prominence of gender issues also impacted some elections.

Burnout and violence

In 2023, prominent women leaders stepped down from their positions in Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Slovakia. One reason cited for these decisions was burnout following a challenging few years, with multiple crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The second reason was that these female leaders had frequently faced violence and personal attacks. This is a subject that has been occupying the IPU since at least 2016, when it published the first global study on violence against women parliamentarians

Violence against women in politics is not new. But anecdotal evidence suggests that it is expanding and intensifying, while attention on, and awareness of, its impact are growing. This violence, which targets women politicians, takes many forms: from misogynistic comments to sexual assault and abuse, and even physical and deadly attacks. Observers say that this violence is becoming more sophisticated, driven in part by the possibilities of digital tools. Artificial intelligence is expected to accelerate this trend. 

In Liberia, Thailand and New Zealand, for example, fake photos of some women candidates, including images of a sexual nature, were circulated online with the intent of undermining their credibility. In New Zealand, female candidates faced threats, violence and break-ins, as well as public and racial abuse.

In some cases, attacks on women politicians coincided with national debates about gender equality. In Poland, where women’s rights were a key election issue, some female candidates were subjected to sexual and physical violence. 

As well as being a violation of human rights, violence against women in politics is a major obstacle to gender equality. It dissuades women from taking part in politics and undermines their ability to exercise their political mandates.

“More women in parliament means more inclusive and representative institutions, which means stronger and healthier democracies. We need to encourage the young women and girls out there that, although it’s a tough job, they deserve to have a seat at the table, to become decision-makers and to help improve people’s lives through their work.” Dr Tulia Ackson, President of the IPU and Speaker of the Parliament of Tanzania


Some women MPs have been fighting back, often encouraged by the #MeToo movement and shrinking tolerance for sexual violence. By speaking out in this way, they have drawn a line in the sand and set an example for others. 

In France, for example, an investigation was opened against a male parliamentarian for allegedly spiking the drink of a fellow MP in an apparent attempt to sexually assault her. In the United Kingdom, a female MP complained about a colleague to the police when he sexually harassed her after a party in 2021. A female Australian MP revealed that, when she had once tried to raise the issue of harassment, she had been told that she was unable to take a joke. And in 2023, two women senators in Australia accused a male colleague of sexual harassment and assault. 

Many parliaments have begun to take this issue more seriously – and, in doing so, have moved to make parliaments safer and more welcoming for women. In 2023, the parliaments of Australia, Benin, Iceland and Ireland all took steps to counter violence against women in politics, including through enquiries and the introduction of codes of conduct.

With encouragement from the IPU, for example, the Althingi of Iceland adopted a strategy and action plan, including regular training, to counter bullying and sexual and gender-based harassment. In Benin, meanwhile, the National Assembly has worked with the IPU to raise awareness of violence against women in parliament, introducing a mechanism for handling complaints. 

The IPU has worked with parliamentarians to identify other solutions such as increasing resilience among women MPs through peer-to-peer support, building more solidarity between female MPs across party lines and borders, increasing women’s representation in parliament, and adopting of codes of conduct. 

In 2023, the IPU organized a panel discussion entitled “Women in politics: To stay or not to stay?”. The event brought together MPs from across the globe to discuss the challenges faced by women in pursuing a political career. © Parliament of Angola

Quotas and electoral systems

The IPU report points to other ways to increase women’s representation in parliament. One key theme is electoral quotas, with analysis showing that, where quotas were applied in 2023, women accounted for 28.8% of those elected or appointed. By comparison, chambers without quotas elected or appointed 23.2% women on average – a difference of more than 5 percentage points.

Quotas were applied, for instance, in the upper chamber of Eswatini, and in the parliaments of Benin and Sierra Leone. These three chambers recorded the year’s biggest increases in terms of women’s representation, at 20, 18.5 and 15.9 percentage points respectively. However, for quotas to be effective, they must be clear and well-designed, and supported by strong enforcement mechanisms.

The 2023 report also highlights the importance of electoral systems. IPU analysis shows that, in proportional representation (PR) systems, women accounted for 28.7% those elected in 2023. This was significantly higher than in majoritarian systems, where women accounted for just 11.6% of those elected. Part of the reason for this difference is that PR and mixed systems are more likely to have quotas in place.

In Benin, where a new electoral code adopted in 2019 introduced reserved seats, women now make up 25.7% of MPs, up from 7.2% in the previous polls. © Yanick Folly/AFP

Setbacks for women’s representation in Tunisia also highlighted the importance of both quotas and electoral systems. In 2022, the country introduced a new electoral law that removed the requirement for candidate lists to be gender-equal and replaced the existing PR system with a single-member majority system. From a high of 31% representation in 2014, women accounted for just 16.2% of seats following parliamentary elections in 2022 and 2023. Tunisian women standing for election also faced intimidation and threats, jeopardizing their ability to compete on an equal footing with men.

Further improvement needed

While some countries are working hard to improve women’s representation in parliament, other countries appear to be moving backward. Sub-Saharan Africa recorded the biggest climbs in terms of female representation, but this progress was not uniform. In Nigeria, attempts failed to introduce a quota ahead of the 2023 elections. Following these renewals, women accounted for just 2.8% of MPs in the upper chamber and 3.9% in the lower chamber.

The struggle therefore continues for gender equality in parliaments. Besides offering the most reliable and comprehensive data on the subject, the IPU’s annual Women in Parliament report also shows what steps countries can take to further increase women’s representation.

Case studies


Abortion was a decisive issue in the 2023 parliamentary elections in Poland, driving high voter turnout and influencing policies towards greater gender equality, even though the elections resulted in a slight decline in the number of female parliamentarians in the Senate. 

The election was highly confrontational, with female candidates facing misogynistic verbal attacks, physical assaults, death threats and the circulation of manipulated images.

Anger at the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party was fuelled by its increasing restrictions on abortion – already some of Europe’s strictest – and other attacks on women’s rights. 

A 2020 court ruling further restricted access to abortion and led to the deaths of several women, incensing voters even more. 

The main opposition party, the Civic Coalition (KO), identified women’s rights as its “number one issue”. The party actively promoted the 48% of its candidates who were women and promised to reverse the ban on abortion. This resonated with the electorate, especially women and young voters, who turned out in record numbers and ultimately unseated PiS in favour of a coalition of centrist and liberal parties. 

By the end of 2023, women held 29.3% of seats in the lower chamber and 19% in the upper chamber – both below the European average of 31.6%. While women accounted for 44.5% of all candidates, they represented just 24.9% of candidates at the top of party lists.


Sierra Leone

In 2023, Sierra Leone made significant progress on women’s parliamentary representation, largely owing to the use of gender electoral quotas. The Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, enacted in January 2023, requires that at least 30% of elected parliamentary seats, cabinet positions and roles in other institutions be held by women.

This new law has led to a substantial increase in women’s political representation. Previously, women held only 14.5% of elected seats in parliament. Following the 2023 renewal, however, that figure increased to 30.4%. In addition, one woman was indirectly elected to the 14 seats reserved for provincial leaders, bringing women’s total representation to 28.2% of 149 seats – significantly higher than the West African average of 18.4%. 

The IPU, which has been working with Sierra Leone since 2014, facilitated workshops with the country’s parliament in 2023 to promote understanding of, and support for, the new law. These workshops provided recommendations on how to support female candidates and encouraged both male and female MPs to advocate for more inclusive party lists. 

The elections confirmed existing evidence that quotas – when well-designed and effectively implemented – are a decisive factor in increasing women’s representation. Indeed, Sierra Leone was a major contributor to overall progress in sub-Saharan Africa, where women won 19.1% of parliamentary seats in the 13 chambers that held elections in 2023. This was 3.9 percentage points higher than women’s share of seats following the previous parliamentary renewals for these same chambers – the largest increase of any region in 2023. 



The unicameral parliament of Ecuador moved closer to gender parity in 2023, helped by a gender parity law and a PR electoral system. Women’s representation had been flat at about 38%, but the new law, introduced in 2020, brought about pivotal change.

Under the country’s electoral law, political parties were already required to present equal numbers of male and female candidates on their electoral lists and to alternate between men and women. The new law also requires parties to progressively increase the share of women at the top of their lists. In 2021, the requirement was 15%. This was increased to 30% for the elections held in 2023, and will be further raised to 50% in 2025. 

The full impact of this law became visible in 2023, when the number of women elected to parliament rose significantly: women won 59 out of 137 available seats – a share of 43.1%, which was 5.1 percentage points higher than at the previous election. 

This progress helped the Americas maintain its position as the region with the highest representation of women, who held an average of 35.1% of parliamentary seats across all chambers and countries in the region by the end of 2023.