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Women's Political Participation - 20 Years on From Beijing

07/04/2016 17:02 | Updated 07 April 2016

The fourth UN World Conference of Women was held in Beijing in 1995 and took the view that progress in achieving gender equality had been insufficient. In response national governments agreed the Beijing Platform for Action, a document setting out critical areas of concern toward the goal of empowering women. It acknowledged the fairness for both genders of being involved in decision-making, and that the perspective of women is essential for true equality, development and peace.

To mark the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) published a reflection on both where progress has been made, and identifies some of the continuing challenges in achieving gender equality in politics. This Compendium explores the participation of women through political parties, in elections, local politics and in parliaments. It acknowledges that these different aspects of political life need to be seen as connected and related activities. A number of recommendations are offered to assist those working to improve women's participation in politics.

Wider society
The Compendium sets the scene by placing women's political participation in the context of their position in wider society. While there is some good news there's still a long way to go for equal outcomes for men and women; significant improvements in health and education and many women enjoy greater legal rights, but discrimination in law persists in many countries, particularly in family law, and violence against women and girls continues.

National parliaments show progress in political participation, but it is slow and uneven and the average is below the 30% target set within the UN. Globally in September 2015 it reached 22.5% up from 11.3% in 1995. Parliaments in the OSCE region had an average of 25.8% female representation, but with wide variation from a high of 50% to around 10%. Progress has been particularly slow for women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Importance of parties
Political parties are important in achieving greater female participation as they are the gatekeepers to democracy. Good practices to encourage the recruitment and retention of women members are essential, along with separate structures such as a women's wing to provide support and influence. Parties should ensure that both men and women have equal opportunities to develop the skills to become effective political activists. Guaranteeing both men and women positions of responsibility in the party is an important mechanism in achieving this. Introducing internal party quotas, or formal policies that secure equal representation of women and men, ensures women can take on elected positions of responsibility and are represented on decision making bodies.

Candidate selection processes can be a barrier, or provide opportunities. Voluntary party quotas and legal quotas have contributed to increasing the number of women elected, but in some circumstances party members who are not supportive have undermined their implementation. There are a few examples of states encouraging political parties to promote women's political participation but these are rare. Supporting the development of gender action plans in parties is effective in embedding gender equality.

Elections
Gender issues affect all aspects of an election. Women's elected representation may increase, and it's also an opportunity to examine wider issues such as female representation in election management bodies, party processes and campaigning, voter education, polling obstacles, and the impact of campaign finance arrangements. OSCE has extensive experience in the role that election monitors can play in identifying the extent that gender has been mainstreamed into election processes. Reports on elections are an opportunity to reflect on how changes can be made to ensure greater gender equality in the future.

Local Government
Women's political participation in local government has been neglected and deserves greater focus. There is a little comparative data and information on the use of temporary special measures to increase the level of female representation in locally elected bodies is sparse, yet many decisions that affect everyday life are made at a local level. For both men and women learning via undertaking various roles within a political party, then becoming a local representative, builds confidence and interest in furthering a career in politics.

Across OSCE states a high level of female representation in parliament does not necessarily mean a high level in local government, while other countries have higher local representation than national. The reasons behind these variations are many and specific to each environment. Across the OSCE the proportion of female elected mayors is generally significantly lower than the proportion of women in other locally elected positions. We need more research to determine how to improve female representation in locally elected bodies and as mayors.

Parliaments
Women's participation in parliaments is vital in improving the representative nature, accountability, and quality of democracies. It also has a profound impact on the way politics is done in terms of policymaking agendas and political content. Yet despite the many international conferences, documents, exhortations and commitments, with a small number of exceptions, parliaments remain a long way from parity of men and women. Of the top performing countries in the OSCE most use some form of quota - either legislated or a voluntary party quota. Unfortunately, the head line figures for each country does not identify difference between political parties.

Two important aspects in developing gender sensitive parliaments are the working conditions, and the extent to which gender is mainstreamed within the work stream. These aspects are often inter-related, with women MPs, usually through women's organisations or caucuses, being the prime motivators for change to a more gender sensitive work environment. Parliaments as institutions could do a great deal more to mainstream gender equality and take the responsibility away from MPs. Women's caucuses act both as a support to female MPs and as a mechanism to influence policy, with most being successful in raising policy issues of concern to women, usually achieving legislative change.

Moving forward
The words of the Beijing Platform for Action are as true for the last 20 years as they were for the decade leading up to 1995,

"the status of women has advanced in some important respects ... but that progress has been uneven, inequalities between women and men have persisted and major obstacles remain, with serious consequences for the well-being of all people."

The Compendium concludes that we need a more thorough understanding of the differences between those countries and political parties that have made good progress and those struggling. New and more thoughtful and sustained efforts will be needed if the goal of women's equal participation in the Beijing Platform for Action is to be reached.

Better data and transparency of processes is also important. We require greater recognition of the importance of socio-political context, political processes and the need for civic activism coupled with clear political leadership. Political will is important in making change - generating political will means understanding the political environment, knowing what incentives for change there are and what temporary special measures have the best chance of being implemented.

A determination to capitalise on good practice to develop comprehensive methods of supporting greater participation of women in all aspects of political life could begin to see significant improvements across OSCE countries and beyond.

For further details and to obtain a copy of the compendium visit: http://www.osce.org/odihr/224206

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