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Women and Political Participation
November 2003
This issue highlights strategies employed in enhancing women's political participation, looks at the provisions on women's political participation in the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW, and presents interesting facts and updates on women in political decision-making.

By Carolina Rodriguez Bello, WHRnet

Human Rights Mechanisms
Facts and Figures
Additional Resources


Women's political participation encompasses a wide range of actions and strategies. It includes voting and voter education, candidacy in national and local elections, lending support to candidates who carry gender-sensitive agenda, campaigning against those who are have policies that are 'anti-women's rights', and advocating for the integration of a women's rights agenda in the platforms of candidates and parties.

Political participation strategies include mechanisms that enhance women's political participation. Examples of these are gender quotas that allot 30 to 50 percent of decision-making positions for women; gender mainstreaming strategies that promote a culture of gender sensitivity in government; national machineries for women, which have the primary role of leading and monitoring gender mainstreaming strategies of governments; gender or women's budgets that allot a percentage of national budget for gender mainstreaming and affirmative action for women's advancement. In legislatures of some democratic countries, women's sectoral representatives have been appointed on terms and capacities at par with elected representatives. A more recent mechanism that provides a leeway for women's political participation is the party list system where women's groups can bid for seats in the legislature.


Quota systems have significantly increased women's participation and representation in both elective and appointive political decision-making positions. Quotas have been viewed as one of the most effective affirmative actions in increasing women's political participation. There are now 77 countries with constitutional, electoral or political party quotas for women. In countries where women's issues had always been relegated to least priority, the increase in number of women in decision-making positions helps put women's agendas at a higher priority level. The visibility of women leaders gives a higher profile to women's rights in general. Quotas for women in politics make possible changes in attitudes about women's roles and abilities such that they open up more education, work and other opportunities for women.

Gender mainstreaming and gender budgets

Gender mainstreaming efforts 'mainstream' or integrate gender perspectives and the goal of gender equality in government policy-making, planning, implementation, and evaluation. This makes government more efficient in serving the needs of its citizens by ensuring that even seemingly neutral policies and programs take into account the women's concerns and needs right at the onset. Moreover, gender mainstreaming efforts have also produced strategies and tools for analysis and evaluation, e.g., gender data, sex-disaggregated statistics, that mainstreams race, class, ethnicity and other concerns into government policy and planning. This benefits not only women but also other marginalized sectors that women also belong to.

Along with gender mainstreaming efforts, gender budgets have been a method of determining the extent to which government expenditure have detracted from or have come nearer to the goal of gender equality. A gender budget is not a separate budget for women, but rather a tool that analyses budget allocations, public spending and taxation from a gender lens and can be subsequently used to advocate for reallocation of budgets to better respond to women's priorities. Gender budgets have been instrumental in increasing government expenditures in social services that benefit mostly women and children, and in steering government priorities towards the 'care' economy such as health and nutrition, education and other family and community services. In some countries, gender budgets expose areas where government policy has been weak, e.g., in productive sectors such as in agriculture and industry. Lastly, gender budgets also trace where most expenditures have been spent, often exposing corruption and under-funded social services. Overall, gender budgets make a significant contribution in enhancing gender mainstreaming strategies. (Source: Colleen Lowe Morna, Gender Budgeting: Myths and Realities, October 2000).

However, feminists have argued that gender mainstreaming and budgets are not ends themselves but are simply tools for achieving gender equality. The weaknesses in the use of these tools have been evident when gender efforts and budgets are spent mostly on activities that are women-identified or do not have anything to do with women's needs. An example of this is spending the gender budget on day care centers that, although important, do not really change women's subordinate status in society but merely aid women in performing the gender role of child care. Some government agencies spend the budget on skills training on cosmetology and dancing lessons. Livelihood projects for women such as raising livestock have also been frequently classified under gender budgets. Although livelihood projects may actually help women contribute to the family income, they also add to women's multiple tasks in the home because housework is not shared with the men. In turn, women become more burdened with home tasks and are prevented from participating in public and political life. In worst case scenarios, gender budgets do not reach the women and men at all but are pocketed away by corrupt politicians.

Legislative advocacy and training to win elections

Women have been able to participate in political decision-making through legislative advocacy by drafting and proposing laws that, in turn, are coursed into the formal lawmaking process through elected representatives in the legislature. Women intervene in the law-making process by gathering mass support for or campaigning against a proposed law, and advocating amendments to or repeal of an existing law.

Especially at the level of local elections, non-governmental women's groups have pursued 'winnability' training for women who intend to run for public office. Among women officials and advocates, women's groups have also been conducting training on lawmaking, e.g., how to draft an ordinance informed by women's realities and needs.

Women's agenda

Aside from campaigns for balanced gender representation in political decision-making positions, an integral part of the core of strategies for women's political participation is building women's agendas for change.

Women's political leadership should further be strengthened in terms of realizing the agenda of people-centered and sustainable development; and, working towards the elimination -in law and in reality- of discriminations based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, caste, descent, work, lifestyle, appearance, age and others. Women political leaders, few or many they may be, can only make a difference if they are able to translate their political power into political, social, economic and cultural advancement of women and other marginalized groups.

Women who have been able to access formal political power are faced with multiple challenges. These challenges include pursuing a people-centered sustainable development in the context of the current trend of globalization that has resulted in the increased influence of free market forces and the accompanying loss of autonomy of the State. Increasing debt, poverty and skewed distribution of wealth remain challenges for many countries coupled with Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) and the agenda of economic liberalization pushed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. SAPs have resulted in the forced reduction of basic social services as well as for government expenditures in general, including national machineries and programs for women.

Women political leaders have to overcome identity politics, local elite politics and control by family dynasties, which in many developing countries have been the same forces that have allowed women to access positions of political power in the first place. Women are also faced with the challenge of tearing down cultural restrictions on how women should look, speak and act while, at the same time, transforming the political culture into a genuinely gender-fair environment. A gender-fair environment estimates women's capabilities not on how well they imitate 'male-speak' or how well they compete but on their capacity for collaboration, vision and leadership. Moreover, there is also the continuous need to resist and fight against the propensity of the state to homogenize its citizens. The state's propensity for homogenization is made apparent through policies and standards that claim equality in application but discriminate and marginalize in reality.

Aside from increasing women's access to decision-making positions in government, enhancing women's capabilities in implementing international mechanisms and instruments on women's rights at the national and local levels should continuously be pursued. International instruments that are in place, particularly the opportunities provided by the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) should be maximized; strategies to implement them such as advocacy, policy reforms, special measures and affirmative actions, accountability and evaluations systems, and other means should be explored. Women in government should continue to invest on sharing of strategies and information resources, as well as forming networks and strengthening linkages with other women in government and non-government women's groups and experts. They should continue to study the increasing complexities in politics and economies brought about by globalization. At the national and local levels, understanding and coming up with concrete ways to resist and fight against 'dirty' or corrupt politics is one of the biggest challenges for women who carry a feminist agenda.

Still a few women

While women's global activism, especially at the level of the United Nations, has instituted mechanisms for increased representation of women in politics, the assessment made by the United Nations Development Program for the Beijing Plus Five verifies that women are still greatly under-represented in political and bureaucratic posts around the world. The UNDP reported that women "are nowhere near half of the decision-making structures. The threshold of 30 percent advocated by the UNDP Human Development Report, as a prelude to the 50 percent is still a dream for most women" (UNDP, 1999). The Inter-Parliamentary Union's monitor pegs at 15.2 percent the total number of women in parliaments. Thus, campaigns for balanced gender representation in government such as the 50/50 Campaign of the Women's Environmental and Development Organization remain one of the most strategic moves to increase women's political participation.

Freedoms and rights

To participate in the political processes, women need to enjoy the full exercise of their civil and political rights. Democratic freedoms such as expression, media, opinion, peaceful assembly, association, and others are necessary vehicles for women's full political participation. In countries where the freedom of association is limited, women find themselves under constant surveillance and sometimes under threat by their own governments. In countries where religion and culture impose numerous social restrictions and impinge on state laws, women experience more difficulties in accessing education and engaging in the public political space. The fulfillment of basic survival and social needs, economic independence, and freedom from family and community violence are equally crucial requirements in women's realization of their political potentials.

Human Rights Mechanisms

Women's activism at the global arena has resulted in various strategic documents and instruments that ensure and promote women's political participation.

The 1985 Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action are strategic instruments that laid down the groundwork for women's political empowerment. The Nairobi Strategies guided governments in ensuring women's equal participation in all national and local legislative bodies. It also called for equity in the appointment, election and promotion to high-level posts in the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Beijing Platform for Action calls on governments, national bodies, the private sector, political parties, trade unions, employers' organizations, research and academic institutions, subregional and regional bodies and non-governmental and international organizations to implement "measures to ensure women's equal access to, and full participation in, power structures and decision-making" and "increase women's capacity to participate in decision-making and leadership".

Measures recommended for governments include: the establishment of "the goal of gender balance" in all government bodies and committees; taking measures to encourage political parties to also pursue the same; protecting and promoting "equal rights of women and men to engage in political activities and to freedom of association;" monitoring progress on the representation of women; and, supporting non-government and research institutes' studies on women political participation. Part of the advocacy for balanced representation is the recognition and promotion of shared work and parental responsibilities between women and men.

The Convention on the Elimination All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an important international treaty that upholds the importance of women's involvement in the political machinery of State Parties. The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women reports that as of September 30, 2003, 174 countries or 90 percent of the members of the United Nations have become party to the Convention.

Articles 2 to 4 of the CEDAW call on State Parties to actively pursue the elimination of discrimination in women's political participation through legal and temporary special measures and affirmative action. An example of a special measure to speed up achievement of de facto equality are quotas for women's seats in the legislative, executive or the judiciary branches of government.

Article 7 of the CEDAW instructs State Parties to "take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country…". It ensures women, "on equal terms with men, the right:

(a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies;

(b) To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government; and,

(c) To participate in non-governmental organisations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country."

Article 8 brings women's political rights to the international arena. It instructs State Parties to "take all appropriate measures to ensure to women, on equal terms with men and without any discrimination, the opportunity to represent their Governments at the international level and to participate in the work of international organisations."

The CEDAW Committee's General Recommendation 23 on Women in Political and Public Life provides overviews on women's political and public lives and needs in various parts of the world. Importantly, it clarifies how CEDAW provisions on women's political participation and priority measures can be implemented at the national/local and international levels.

The international bill of human rights -the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)- all work together to provide the foundations for women's right to political participation.

Facts and Figures

  • In 2002, women still accounted for only about 14 percent of members of parliament worldwide. (BBC News through Online Women in Politics)
  • Out of over 180 countries, 14 are headed by women, six women are vice presidents. (Women's Learning Partnerships, 2002)
  • With 48.8 percent of seats won by women in the recent parliamentary elections, Rwanda became the country that has the most number of women parliamentarians in the world. Currently, women in Sweden hold 45.3 percent of seats in parliament, Denmark with 38 percent, Finland with 37.5 percent, and The Netherlands with 36.7 percent. (The Guardian, October 2003)
  • Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands and Germany had all reached the 30% goal of parliamentary seats taken by women by the end of 2002 along with Argentina, Costa Rica, South Africa and Mozambique. (BBC News through Online Women in Politics)
  • In May 2003, Qatar appointed Sheikha bint Ahmed Al-Mahmud as the state's first woman cabinet minister. The appointment followed an April 29 referendum in which Qataris overwhelmingly approved a written constitution recognising a woman's right to vote and run for office. (DAWN Internet newspaper, May 2003)
  • The proportion of women parliamentarians in the United States is 14 percent, France 11.8 percent and Japan 10 percent. In Rwanda, women compose 48.8 percent, and in Uganda 24.7 percent.
  • Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates do not give women the right to vote or stand for election.
  • 7 percent of the world's total cabinet ministers are women. Women ministers remain concentrated in social areas (14 percent) compared to legal (9.4 percent), economic (4.1 percent), political affairs (3.4 percent), and the executive (3.9 percent).
  • There are 9 women ambassadors to the United Nations. They are from Finland, Guinea, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Somalia, and Turkmenistan.
  • In the United Nations system, women hold 9 percent of the top management jobs and 21 percent of senior management positions, but 48 percent of the junior professional civil service slots.
  • In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation to grant women full voting rights.
  • Among the countries in the developing world that were the earliest to grant women the right to vote were: Albania (1920), Mongolia (1924), Ecuador (1929), Turkey (1930) and Sri Lanka (1931).
  • Some of the latest countries to grant women suffrage are: Switzerland (1971), Iraq (1980), Namibia (1989), South Africa - black population (1994).
  • Some countries still do not have universal suffrage. Among them are Brunei Darussalam, Kuwait, Sultanate of Oman, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
  • Among the developing nations which have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are: Bahrain, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sultanate of Oman, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates.
  • The United States is the only industrialized nation that has not ratified CEDAW.
Primary source: Online Women: Statistics, Online Women in Politics http://www.onlinewomeninpolitics.org/statistics.htm


"Meeting on Women and Political Participation: 21st Century Challenges," United Nations Development Programme, 24-26 March 1999, New Delhi, India

Gender Mainstreaming: Competitiveness and Growth, Nordic Council of Ministers/ OECD, November 23-24, 2000

Monitoring The Implementation Of The Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies For The Advancement Of Women, Commission on the Status of Women, Thirty-ninth session, New York, 15 March-4 April 1995

Facts and figures on women's participation in politics, governance, and decision-making, Online Women in Politics

WLP's Political Participation and Economic Facts and Figures, 2002

The CEDAW Convention, International Women's Rights Action Watch-Asia Pacific

"Qatar gets first woman minister," DAWN Internet, May 7, 2003

IPU Study No. 28, 1997, "Men and Women in Politics: Democracy Still in the Making"

Gender Budgeting: Myths And Realities, by Colleen Lowe Morna, Director, Gender Links Associates, at The 25 Years International Women's Politics Workshop, Bonn, October 13 to 14, 2000


Women Organizing in the Malaysian Socio-cultural and Political Environment, by Cecilia Ng, Director, Women's Development Collective (WDC) (October 2003)

An Interview with Hanadi Loubani, founding member of Women for Palestine, a feminist, anti-racist Palestinian solidarity group. (November 2003)


Online Women in Politics
Onlinewomeninpolitics.org was borne out of the vision of Asian Women Leaders to explore creative ways in organizing a network of Asia Pacific women involved in politics, governance, decision-making and transformative leadership. The Internet is used to maximize opportunities to link women leaders and visionaries from all over the world without worrying about the cost, time and geographical barrier.

Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)
The IPU is the international organization of Parliaments of sovereign States. It was established in 1889. The Union is the focal point for worldwide parliamentary dialogue and works for peace and co-operation among peoples and for the firm establishment of representative democracy. The IPU supports the efforts of the United Nations, whose objectives it shares, and works in close co-operation with it. It also co-operates with regional inter-parliamentary organizations, as well as with international intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations which are motivated by the same ideals. It carries on an active campaign to increase women's political participation, particularly the balanced representation of women and men in parliaments worldwide.

Women's Environmental and Development Organization
The Women's Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO) is an international advocacy organization that seeks to increase the power of women worldwide as policymakers at all levels in governments, institutions and forums to achieve economic and social justice, a healthy and peaceful planet, and human rights for all. It leads "50/50: Get the Balance Right!," a campaign that targets balanced representation of women and men in local and national politics worldwide.

International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW)
IWRAW Asia Pacific contributes to the progressive interpretation, universalisation, implementation and realisation of women's human rights through the lens of CEDAW and other international human rights treaties. It facilitates a process through which the CEDAW Convention is used as a tool for applying international human rights standards at the national level and in a wide range of contexts, including political participation, armed conflict, rights in marriage, violence against women, trafficking reproductive rights, employment, and others.

Center for Legislative Development (CLD)
CLD addresses the need for both capability building of legislatures and strengthening participation of civil society in legislative decision-making to ensure the passage of responsive and gender-fair legislation. It provides training, research and information development services to legislatures, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and other players in the policy-making process.

Global Database of Quotas for Women
The Global Database of Quotas for Women compiles up-to-date information on women's representation in politics and the status of quota law on women's political representation. You can search the database by country and by region.

International Women's Democracy Center (IWDC)
The International Women's Democracy Center was established to strengthen women's global leadership through training, education, research and networking in all facets of democracy with a particular focus on increasing the participation of women in policy, politics and decision-making. It organizes events for women national and local leaders around the world on a regular basis. You can also join IWDC's mailing list through this site.

Women Learning Partnership (WLP)
WLP is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to empower women and girls in the Global South to re-imagine and re-structure their roles in their families, communities, and societies. The website provides online resources on women, including facts and figures on political participation and economic decision-making.

Taking Action

50/50 Campaign: Get the Balance Right!
The Women's Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO) spearheads this campaign that targets balanced representation of women and men in local and national politics worldwide. Launched in New York on June 8, 2000, during the five year review of the Beijing Platform for Action, the 50/50 campaign is not just about numbers, it is also about women making a difference. At each major UN conference in the last ten years, women have successfully established that every issue--social, economic and political--- affects women and that all women's issues involve and reflect the concerns of society as a whole. When women bring their experiences and feminist perspectives to the table everyone benefits--peace and justice can become a reality in the present rather than in some distant future.


Afghan Draft Constitution Provides Weak Rights Protections
Afghanistan's draft constitution contains provisions guaranteeing human rights, equal rights, and non-discrimination for all Afghan citizens but lacks language that women's rights and human rights advocates have been pushing for. It does not explicitly define "citizens" as both women and men, and while Sharia law is not recognized in the constitution, the draft says that no law, political party, or speech can go against the principles of Islam. The Afghan president is required to nominate women to 50 percent of the presidentially appointed seats in the upper house of parliament. The president appoints one third of the delegates to the upper house. However, aside from these, the constitution contains no other requirements for quotas or representation of women in government. (Feminist Daily News Wire, November 5, 2003)

U.S. Pressing for U.N. Resolution to Help Increase Women's Political Participation
The United States is sponsoring a resolution in the United Nations promoting and protecting the rights of women to associate freely, express their views publicly, debate policies openly, petition their government and participate in the democratic processes in their countries. Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and a delegate to the 58th General Assembly session, says the resolution is an attempt to address legal, structural and societal barriers to women's political participation. (Judy Aita, United Nations Correspondent, Washington File, U.S. Department of State, October 23, 2003)

Rwanda has the most women MPs
The conclusion of the parliamentary elections in Rwanda brought the country to the top position of having the most number of women parliamentarians in the world. With 48.8 percent of seats won by women, Rwanda beats Sweden which currently has 45.3 percent women in parliament. (The Guardian, October 23, 2003)

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