THE BLOG

Will More Female MPs Mean an End to Violence Against Women?

06/05/2015 17:45 BST | Updated 06/05/2016 10:59 BST

A few weeks ago there were 148 women in the House of Commons, making up 23% of all MPs. Even though a record proportion of women are standing as candidates in this election (26%), it's unlikely we'll see a sea change for women's representation after 7 May.

The pace of progress on women's representation in the UK is glacially slow. But while many countries have made huge strides forward (particularly the Nordic countries and many in Sub Saharan Africa) the global average for the proportion of women in parliament is a dismal 22%. This is well below the 30% 'critical mass' needed for an under represented group to advance change, and also falls well short of parity between men and women.

Another new feature of this UK election has been the presence of three women party leaders, but none in line to be the next Prime Minister. In the US, the launch of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has prompted a sadly predictable torrent of frightened sexism. Around the world in January this year just 22 out of the world's 196 countries had a woman leader.

Striving towards a more balanced parliament and more women world leaders isn't just a point of principle. Whether or not they take it, women who gain political power have a critical opportunity to advance the rights of all women. Although it has been difficult for researchers to build up a full picture given the small amount of data available, there is evidence that many issues of particular importance to women wouldn't appear on the parliamentary agenda at all without the backing of women MPs. In 1994, despite representing only 14 % of legislators, Argentina's women parliamentarians introduced 78 % of the bills relating to women's rights.

Substantive representation doesn't inevitably flow from increased numbers of women in decision-making roles, but there is a definite connection. For example, a 2003 study analysing data from 31 democracies showed that greater political representation of women leads to increased responsiveness to issues such as gender equality in political and social rights, equality in marriage and divorce laws, as well as the availability of maternity leave.

Over a third of women worldwide experience at least one form of violence in their lifetime, and it tends to be high on the legislative agenda for women representatives. Liberia has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. In her first term as President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf launched a National Action Plan on Gender Based Violence, enacted a law criminalizing rape, set up dedicated police units to tackle crimes against women and children, and established a separate court for sexual violence cases. In February this year Johnson Sirleaf signed a UN pledge to end violence against women and girls, the 19th world leader to do so.

Despite these measures, progress is slow for women in Liberia. Currently just 11% of Liberian MPs are women. A female President sends a message about women's ability to exercise power, and challenges social norms which present authority as a masculine attribute. This is deeply significant, as violence against women and girls is fundamentally linked to unequal power relations and ideals of manhood which involve control over women.

However, the number of women in parliament is also a critical factor. Former President of Malawi Joyce Banda welcomed a new campaign to increase the number of women in politics by pointing out that she had relied upon female parliamentarians to help her champion a law against domestic violence.

Women parliamentarians in Rwanda, which at 64% has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world, passed a landmark law against gender based violence in 2006. Crucial to the development of the law was the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians, a legislative caucus open to women from all political parties and ethnic backgrounds.

Similarly, in South Africa, women lawmakers provided essential support for the 1998 Domestic Violence Act. In Namibia, women parliamentarians supported groundbreaking legislation dealing with domestic and sexual violence. Cross-party alliances of women parliamentarians like these have also proved an effective method for driving change in Egypt, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Russia.

There's clearly a link between women's political representation and legislative steps to end violence against women and girls. But making laws isn't the whole story. In many countries laws against violence have proved paper thin for many women due to lack of enforcement, lack of access to justice, and other forms of discrimination which restrict women's basic freedoms.

A recent study of factors which influence levels of violence against women across 70 countries found that although the number of women politicians matters, a strong women's movement matters more. As well as crucial work changing attitudes and challenging stereotypes, women's rights organisations like Womankind's partners regularly provide expertise and information to politicians on gender-responsive policy-making.

Women's rights organisations bridge the gap between women and the institutions governing their lives. By representing women's views in the policy process and supporting marginalised women to participate directly, activists drive change by holding decision-makers (women and men) to account.

All donations to Womankind made before 5 June 2015 will be matched pound for pound by the UK government. Please visit www.womankind.org.uk.