Women in Politics - The Fight to End Violence Against Women

Despite the remarkable progress of women in many professions, politics is not one of them. Indeed, around the world, women have been conspicuous by their absence in decision and policy making in government. When the United Nations First World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City in 1975, the international community was reminded that discrimination against women remained a persistent problem in many countries; and even though governments were called upon to develop strategies to promote the equal participation of women, political participation was not yet identified as a priority. Since then, though there has been an increasing focus on women's representation and their impact on decision-making structures, the increased attention did not reflect in immediate results. For example, in 1975 women accounted for 10.9 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide; ten years later it increased by one mere percentage point to 11.9 per cent.

It was not until the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, held in 1985 in Nairobi, that governments and parliaments pledged to promote gender equality in all areas of political life. The initiatives were further consolidated ten years later in the Beijing Plan of Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women. It was also at this conference that violence against women was identified as an obstacle to the advancement of women requiring specific attention.

Since the Beijing Plan of Action, women's representation in parliaments and impact on political decision making has been the subject of much attention. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which has been engaged in research and the collection of data on women in parliaments, threw its weight behind United Nations initiatives to achieve women's full participation in politics. Although articulated many times, IPU's commitment at its best was perhaps seen in its statement in 1992:

"The concept of democracy will only achieve true and dynamic significance when political policies and national legislation are decided jointly by men and women with equitable regard for the interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population."

In September 1997, IPU adopted the Universal Declaration on Democracy. It articulated the principle that democracy presupposed a genuine partnership between men and women that recognized differences and was enriched by them, and in which men and women worked as equals and complemented one another. This ethos imbues all of the work of the IPU, ensuring that gender partnership remains at the heart of all of its activities.

Not surprisingly, and in keeping with its commitment to gender equality and gender partnership, IPU has been involved in two related and complimentary activities: first, supporting men and women in their parliamentary role, including the promotion of women in political decision making; and more recently, mobilizing parliaments to take action to eliminate all forms of violence against women. It is now universally recognized that violence against women is the worst form of discrimination against women and an affront to equality. As a denial of women's fundamental human rights, it is an issue for both men and women. Accordingly, both initiatives were aimed at strengthening parliamentary democracy and involved the political leadership of men and women to drive needed change.

The results of this global attention on the need for greater participation by women in politics are encouraging. Today, 18.6 per cent of seats in parliaments are represented by women -- a 60 per cent increase since 1995. On the other hand, one quarter of all parliaments still have less than 10 per cent participation by women. Progress is being made, but the pace has been slow, and advances are not occurring everywhere. Prejudice and cultural perceptions of women's roles, lack of financial resources and institutional insensitivity continue to impede women's access to and participation in politics. How can we tolerate a situation where democracy still does not reflect gender parity? The message is clearly that there is more work to be done.

We know that women's participation in politics makes a difference. Women bring different views, talents and perspectives to politics which help shape the political agenda. Changes in how parliaments operate reflect the positive impact of the presence of women, such as an improvement in the language and behaviour in parliaments; a different prioritization of issues and policies; gender sensitivity in all aspects of governing, including budgeting; and the introduction of new legislation and changes to existing laws.

Women's involvement in government decision making is giving significant political visibility to women's rights worldwide. Although women are not a homogeneous group, they tend to be supporters of other women and have been instrumental in placing women's issues and concerns on to the parliamentary agenda. One such major concern is violence against women. Although not an issue confined only to women, it is no coincidence that we have seen increasing attention directed to eliminate all forms of violence against women.

RWANDA We have also seen women making gains in their representation in parliaments and assuming positions of greater responsibility and influence. One of the most compelling cases is Rwanda. In 2003, women were elected to 48.8 per cent of the seats in Rwanda's lower house, propelling it to the top position in the world in terms of women's representation in parliament and well beyond what is usually accepted as the necessary "critical mass" of one-third. Today that number stands at 56 per cent. It is important to note, however, that it is not just the numerical increase in women parliamentarians that has led to success in Rwanda, but also the presence of an activist women's caucus and the highly developed model of consultative policy making which they have initiated.

The Rwanda Women Parliamentarians Forum, a cross-party political caucus, coordinates the women's agenda in Rwanda. Since 2003, it has worked to enhance gender equality within parliament, initiating gender-sensitive laws and improving gender-based governmental oversight. Its most significant achievement to date is the introduction in 2006 of a landmark bill to combat gender-based violence, which marked the first time the definition of rape in Rwandan law. What contributed to the ultimate passage of the bill was the highly participatory process guided by the leadership of Rwandan women parliamentarians over a two-year period, and the support from civil society through carefully nurtured strategic alliances. Equally important, the Rwanda Women Parliamentarians Forum collaborated closely with men, involving them in every stage of the policy making process and ensuring they took ownership of the issue along with them. When the bill was introduced it was sponsored by four men and four women. That the bill was passed 10 years after legislation combating violence against women was first discussed in Rwanda -- at a time when women did not have the influence within parliament -- is a testament to the fact that women's participation does make a difference to eliminate violence against women.

PAKISTAN Similar advances can be seen elsewhere. In Pakistan, under the leadership of the first female Speaker of the National Assembly, the first-ever bipartisan Caucus of Women Parliamentarians has enabled its members to work jointly for the cause of women in Pakistan. The Caucus has focused its efforts on policies and services for women, especially women survivors of violence. This has been reflected in the introduction of hotline services to provide access to medical, legal and security assistance in one phone call. Through the Caucus, attention is also being focused on the plight of acid and kerosene burn victims, their treatment and rehabilitation. Funds are being dedicated to the construction of burn centres, particularly in remote and underdeveloped areas, and campaigning is underway for empowering women survivors traditionally marginalized and excluded from society.

SPAIN In Spain, women's participation in decision making and within parliament accounts for more than 30 per cent, which has resulted not only in a comprehensive legislative approach to violence against women, but also included an important component of governmental oversight and monitoring. In 2008, the Congress of Deputies created a sub-committee of the Equality Committee charged with monitoring the enforcement of the 2004 Organic Act on Integrated Protection Measures against Gender Violence. The sub-committee was authorized to conduct hearings with various persons who could provide qualitative and quantitative data based on their experiences, including jurists, representatives of academia, administrators, the media and law-enforcement agencies. The purpose was to closely monitor the impact of the law and draw conclusions which the Government could employ to take new measures or amend and enhance the law. The first conclusions of the sub-committee were presented on 25 November 2009.

SWEDEN But the burden of change does not fall on women parliamentarians everywhere. In Sweden, for instance, men parliamentarians used their position as opinion leaders to change attitudes. The Swedish Male Parliamentarian Network, a cross-party grouping in existence since 2004, encourages men to engage in debate about their values, their prejudices and the equality of all human beings. The Network works on the prevent human trafficking and violence against women and seeks to influence civil society by encouraging men to participate in the dialogue within parliament, at the regional level and in cooperation with other organizations. The Network also organizes meetings with police officers, lawyers, judges, the military, sports coaches, schools and trade unions to discuss values, attitudes and the need for change.

As the world galvanizes its efforts in 2010 under the banner of the UN Secretary-General's UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, it is worth taking note of the progress made even as parliaments have just begun to represent the interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population. Whether the focus is legislation, governmental oversight or changing the mentalities, women's participation in political decision making strengthens us and our democratic institutions. Imagine, then, how much more can be accomplished when parliaments that speak for us all truly reflect a partnership of equality, where the voices of men and women are welcomed with full and equal respect, and where men and women join forces to ensure that ending violence against women becomes a reality.