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Babies on the back benches


An MP holds a baby as she votes during a session of the German Bundestag. ©AFP/ SCHWARZ 

In 2017, Yuka Ogata took her infant son into the chamber of Japan’s Kumamoto municipal assembly. She had made a decision to highlight the difficulties faced by Japanese mothers trying to maintain their careers despite a national crisis in childcare capacity.

Ogata, though, was hectored out of the chamber by her male colleagues.

A year later, German state MP Madeleine Henfling was told to leave Thuringia’s state parliament chamber during a vote because she was carrying her slumbering six-week-old son in a baby sling.

“I feel like a second-class parliamentarian just because I have a child to take care of,” she said.

In 2019, Danish MP Mette Albildgaard had the same experience when she attempted to enter the nation’s debating chamber with her baby after her childcare arrangements fell through.

These events and others have sparked debate about the challenges of juggling parenthood and a career in politics. The issue affects both men and women – fathers in parliament have also voiced their concerns.

United Kingdom MP Jonathan Reynolds shared his experiences of having to bring his young children to work or improvise childcare. He highlighted how the demands of parliamentary life can be prohibitively challenging for parents at the best of times, adding, “there are those situations when the unexpected happens, when you need the place you work in to be supportive.”

Building gender-sensitive parliaments is crucial to creating genuine democracy. Gender-sensitive parliaments go beyond just providing crèches – they are also institutions that respond to the caring needs of parent MPs.

This extends to family-friendly policies such as parental leave and enabling MPs to travel with their babies and a carer. The use of new technologies in parliament – in particular for remote working and remote voting – can also support equality and a more family-friendly culture.

In New Zealand’s parliament, where women outnumber men, the approach is much more inclusive, across both sexes. In 2019, a video of the speaker Trevor Mallard went viral when he was filmed calmly feeding an infant, enabling the child’s father to get on with debating.

The New Zealand parliament has enviable facilities for parents – a crèche, a playground, family access to a swimming pool and fitness classes; even a vegetable patch planted by their children.

Barriers to women in politics

Yet policies and provisions are only part of the solution. Data suggests that the burdens of balancing family and politics weighs more heavily on women politicians.

A global study in 2017 found women MPs were less likely to be married than male MPs and more likely to have fewer children. Research by Birkbeck University of London in 2014 revealed that 45% of the UK’s female MPs were childless – against the national average of 20%. Comparatively, only 28% of the corresponding male MPs were childless.

Weaker representation from women is worse for parliaments and the people they represent. There is sound evidence that having women in leadership brings positive outcomes for all. A 2020 study by King’s College London found that women leaders in government make for more caring societies and less corruption, while countries led by women are less likely to go to war.

Despite this, women make up less than 27% of MPs around the world.

Measures to encourage more women to enter parliament – such as quotas for better representation – are beginning to have an impact, but not nearly fast enough. On our current trajectory, parliaments worldwide will take another 60 years to achieve gender parity. One question governments can ask is how they can change the expectation that the burdens of parenthood should fall, by default, on mothers.

Working towards gender parity in parliament

Work to balance gender inequality in parliaments will build on significant momentum from the last decade.

In 2012, IPU Member Parliaments unanimously adopted a Plan of action for gender-sensitive parliaments. Since 2016, our gender sensitivity self-assessment toolkit has helped them to assess their current practices and policies, identify areas for reform, plan for change, and establish mechanisms to monitor progress.

In the last decade, parliaments have made headway. 2022 was the first year that no parliament in the world had zero women members. It was also the year that IPU Members adopted the Kigali Declaration, which calls on all parliamentarians to advance equality in caring responsibilities between men and women and set an example by undertaking 50% of the daily care work for their families, regardless of whether they are male or female MPs. Moreover, IPU Member Parliaments pledged to take 10 actions over the next 10 years to become caring parliaments, by providing fully for the caring needs of men and women MPs and staff as they carry out their parliamentary duties.