Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, recently knocked Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, from first place on Forbes' list of the world's most powerful women, but women still account for under 17 per cent of parliamentarians in the world and only six per cent are heads of government.
 
Forbes voted Chancellor Merkel, left, the most
powerful woman in the world [GALLO/GETTY]
Nineteen governments have no women ministers at all.
 
Where women are involved in politics, the report shows, they greatly influence their governments' priorities.
 
In New Zealand, women make up only 15 per cent of the parliament but were responsible for the majority of debates relating to childcare and parental leave.
 
In Rwanda, female politicians increased spending on healthcare, education and support for disabled children.
 
But in many countries there is a widely held belief that men make better political leaders than women.
 
Unicef's report says more than half the people surveyed in East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa thought that men made better political leaders than women. In the Middle East and North Africa, three-quarters shared that view.
 
The report also says female politicians are often perceived as "weaker" than men and can face open hostility if they pursue a political career.
 
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Afaf al-Jamri, a Shia activist and politician in Bahrain, said that society still finds it difficult to accept female political leaders.
 
She said: "There has been a lot of progress in recent years but society still does not appreciate women in the same way it appreciates men. We are still forced to convince society that we can be leaders."
 
Al-Jamri, a member of the opposition Islamic National Accord Association, was dismissed from was jailed for speaking out.
 
"I was put in prison, so was my husband and my father, because we opposed the king. We opposed peacefully, we simply called for the constitution to be applied," she said.
 
"Assassination targets"
 
Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem), has said there is a need for fresh efforts to ensure the safety of women in countries emerging from conflicts.
 

"Women are becoming assassination targets when they dare defend women's rights"

Noleen Heyzer, Unifem executive director

In October, she told the UN Security Council: "What Unifem is seeing on the ground - in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia - is that public space for women in these situations is shrinking. Women are becoming assassination targets when they dare defend women’s rights in public decision-making."
 
Quotas are an effective means of bolstering women's representation in government and Afghanistan's new constitution includes a directive that the Wolesi Jirga (House of People) have at least two female delegates from each province and that half of the presidential appointments to the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders) should be women.
 
However, when Afghanistan's new constitution was being debated in the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) in 2002, female politician Malali Joya caused outrage when she spoke out against her fellow delegates, denouncing them as "war criminals".
 
Sighbatullah Mojadeddi, who chaired the Loya Jirga, told her: "Do not try to put yourself on a level with men. Even God has not given you equal rights because under his decision two women are counted as equal to one man."
 
Joya, who represents the province of Farah in north-western Afghanistan, now travels accompanied by at least 10 security guards and regularly receives death threats.
 
She was offered asylum in Europe but turned it down, and has gone on to become one of the country's highest-profile and most outspoken politicians.