Globally, women members of parliament comprise less than 20% of the total – that’s a fact. Perhaps not surprisingly, they achieve the highest representation in Nordic countries (42%), but when Nordic countries are combined with the rest of Europe the number goes back down to just under 22%. Also not surprisingly, women have the lowest representation in the Arab states (10%).
There are many ways of interpreting these numbers, but focusing on the numbers alone may be misleading. What is the right rate of representation? Is it 40%? 50%? 60% or more? There is no right answer.
One way of approaching the problem can be changing the number directly (such as through a quota system). Yes, it can lead to some positive results, like in Rwanda where high representation of women in government has led to the development of many policies that facilitated the engagement of women in the economy.
But something else, not just the number, is at play in Rwanda, as the number of women in parliament and key cabinet posts has far surpassed the quota introduced through the constitutional amendment. The record shows that women get representation in Rwanda and not just because of the quota.
India is another interesting example. This week, India took an important step in increasing women participation in politics, when the upper house of parliament passed a bill amending the constitution to set aside one third of the seats in national and state legislatures for women. As a side note, it is important to note that the bill has been languishing for about a decade – so you know it was a touchy issue to begin with.
As the bill was being debated, it generated some passionate protests – and not just from men, as you may have immediately thought.
Ethnic minorities and the poor, for instance, have opposed it because in their view it does not do enough to secure their representation rights. Others have opposed it because they believe the bill would simply extend opportunities to wealthy women or have male politicians place their wives and daughters in their positions.
The point is that women representation is more than a number – its about access and opportunity. Its not just about passing the law – its also about the implementation. Moreover, the key problem in many countries is not that women hold only 10 or 20 or 30% of seats in parliament. The key problem is that they are often denied the opportunities to participate in the political life of their country.
Getting to the root of the problem – barriers to participation – should be the top priority of reformers.
Those barriers are complex. In most countries it is a mix of culture, politics, legal and regulatory barriers, institutional inertia, and perceptions. Only by removing barriers to participation we can increase participation rates to the point where women have the representation they deserve.
One can also think creatively about political representation of women and what it means. We, at CIPE, believe that political representation does not stop and end with politics. In fact, economic empowerment can be a very effective tool for giving women a political voice.
We’ve seen a business association model work effectively for entrepreneurs of all kinds. Through associations, business people can come together and advocate for change, whether its legal changes that benefit their companies or institutional changes that benefit societies more broadly.
Who is to say women-owned businesses can’t do the same? Who is to say they can’t come together and advocate for change? Who is to say they can’t increase property ownership rates, access to credit, or job training opportunities?
As such, supporting women associations can be a great way to both provide economic empowerment and strengthen governance by ensuring that laws and regulations are drafted with the input of women. Or that laws and regulations are actually enforced.
More than laws, supporting women associations can also change attitudes towards women; and removing cultural barriers to participation is, perhaps, the greatest accomplishment of all.