Women in parliaments: Contested geographies

Examining female participation rates in parliaments reveals a new picture of women’s rights across the globe.

US Congress
The US Congress has only 16.8 per cent women - a proportion similar to Turkmenistan [EPA]

Paris, France – The war in the US over women’s reproductive rights is appalling. The all-men panel at the congressional hearing that discussed female contraception was patently offensive as much as it was ironic. The pressure on women’s health in the US is particularly disturbing because it takes place in broad day light, in a democratic context of a country that claims to be a world leader in individual freedoms.

While some societies appear to grant women considerable political equality, the form and content of political debates can be symptomatic of underlying structural inequalities that rarely receive scrutiny. There are many ways to analyse the current erosion of women rights in the US; one of them is that women’s voices are too often absent or marginal when crucial decisions are made.

On International Women’s Day, it is worth pausing to assess the presence of women in politics. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), at the end of 2011 women only comprised an average of 19.5 per cent of all parliamentarians in the world.

We know that in many countries women remain totally excluded from formal politics and exercise no political leverage, but what we are less aware of is which countries actually enable women to participate – and to what extent – in politics. In that way, gender statistics on parliamentary representation shed an unexpected light onto the geography of political freedoms.

Where women are politicians

Rwanda is most women-friendly parliament in the world, with 56.3 per cent females in the lower house. In fact, since it surpassed the Nordic countries in 2003, Rwanda consistently tops the rankings and has boasted a solid female majority since 2008. Andorra follows in second with a gender balanced Congress at exactly 50-50. The Seychelles, Sweden and South Africa regularly oscillate in the following positions.

It is surprising to discover the geography of states that promote women’s participation in politics. Our collective imaginary expects to find Finland and the Netherlands in the top 20, but not Costa Rica, Nepal and Uganda. Women parliamentarians in non-democratic states like Cuba are a charade with little significance for gender empowerment.

In countries in the midst of institution building, however, women’s presence is key to good governance. Mozambique ranks 12th globally, with 39.2 per cent of parliamentary seats, a proportion that is higher than Denmark, while Angola’s 38.2 per cent is over 10 percentage points above Austria. The countries with most women in their Senate are, unexpectedly, Bolivia and Burundi, with 47.2 per cent and 46.3 per cent, respectively.

 Inside Story – Getting women to the top

At the global level, not all countries that claim women’s freedoms are necessarily those who practice it. The United States ranks 78 at the global level, behind countries usually seen as having poor records for women freedoms, like Iraq, Pakistan and South Sudan. With merely 16.8 per cent of women in the US Congress, similar to Turkmenistan, the US is in fact about 11 percentage points behind Afghanistan. Islamic states, where women’s political participation tends to be more contested, may have a relatively high proportion of women in parliaments. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, and the United Arab Emirates both have a higher proportion of female representation in their lower chambers than the US.

Another interesting finding on the IPU rankings is that putting women in executive positions does not correlate with solid female participation in legislative spheres. Despite having elected Michelle Bachelet to the presidency, Chile continues to struggle to elect women into parliament, with just over 14 per cent women in the lower house. And Brazil ranks 116 globally, with only 8.6 per cent of women. President Dilma Rousseff remains an exception in a political system that has yet to be democratised in terms of gender.

Trends and perspective

The small Nordic region boasts exceptionally high levels of female legislators in the lower house (42 per cent). If we consider regional averages in the rest of the world, the Americas have the highest indicators of female presence in both houses combined. With 22.7 per cent, the Americas are followed by Europe, which stands a full two percentage points behind the OECD countries, with the Scandinavian countries excluded. In statistical terms, women are equally present in lower houses in Sub-Saharan Africa (20.4 per cent) and Europe (20.8 per cent). This means that there are more women in parliaments in the Americas, even taking into account the disastrously low ranking of the US and Brazil, than in the EU (Nordic region aside).

The presence of women matters. A 2008 IPU survey showed that women are overwhelmingly the main parliamentary drivers of gender equality. The absence of women is therefore an indicator of an absence of freedoms. The IPU rankings along gender lines show that taking women’s political participation into account reveals a different geography of rights than gender-blind rankings might suggest.

Many nations usually thought of as less modern not only have more women in politics than European nations but also have extended political rights to women earlier. For example, Ecuador was the first Latin American country to give women the right to vote in 1929, whereas Bolivia, often portrayed as under-developed, gave women the right to vote in 1938. Kyrgyzstani women were voting two years before Americans and Turkey gave women the right to vote before most European countries (France, the country of intellectual enlightenment, only allowed women to vote in 1944). Yemen granted women the right to vote a year before Switzerland, in 1970.

A measure of development

Measuring the scope of women presence in parliaments invites reflection regarding mainstream understandings of development. First, the geography of development is not quite the same once women political participation is considered. Second, there is nothing particularly European about the presence of women in politics.

Politically powerful countries are not leading global trends when it comes to women’s presence in politics.

If there was a time when development was measured in GDP, global paradigms have begun to shift. People-centred indicators now evaluate development in terms of freedoms.

Women’s participation in parliaments alone is of course not a sufficient indicator of democracy. Yet if development is indeed an accumulation of freedoms, notably political freedoms, as economist Amartya Sen contended in his Nobel-winning analysis, then measuring women’s presence in political decision-making is indubitably a crucial and indispensable barometer of development. The IPU rankings are surprising not only because of what they tell us about women, but also for what they tells us about the geography of development: The distribution of women’s presence in parliaments around the world generally shows little correlation with other mainstream maps of development.

Further, the IPU rankings show that it is not necessarily in the so-called modern, developed states that women have a better chance at participating in electoral politics. Women’s presence in politics signifies neither a cultural pattern unique to Europe nor is it a monopoly of a presumably more civilised West. Many non-European societies do as well or better, proving the universality of women participation in politics as well as the inadequacy of claims to export women agency.

Politically powerful countries are not leading global trends when it comes to women presence in politics. In fact, indicators show that it is often quite the contrary, meaning that the US and Europe cannot invoke women’s rights when attempting to justify political, economic or military interventions.

Political decision-making is not sufficient to secure women’s well-being and formal political participation is not equivalent with substantive equality in practice. Yet parliamentary presence is intrinsic to the accumulation of freedoms and a necessary ingredient to reframe debates and expectations. In this regard, it will be difficult for women to win the current war in the US on contraceptive rights and women’s health in general without a much more significant presence of women in political and legislative realms.

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.