Inequality in politics

Children have a powerful stake in political outcomes, but they have little power to shape them. Unable to vote or directly represent their own interests in governing bodies, their ability to influence policy is limited. The advocates who speak on their behalf – if there is anyone at all to do so – can make a vast difference to the fulfilment of children’s rights to survival, development and protection.

A growing body of evidence suggests that women in politics have been especially effective advocates for children at the national and local levels. They are equally powerful advocates when represented in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction.

Few women in government and politics, but signs of progress

Women’s participation in politics and government, however, remains limited. Although their parliamentary representation has steadily increased over the past decade, gender parity in politics at all levels is still a long way off. By July 2006, women accounted for just fewer than 17 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide. Ten countries have no women parliamentarians at all, and in more than 40 others, women account for less than 10 per cent of legislators. At current annual rates of growth in the proportion of women members of national parliaments – about 0.5 per cent worldwide – gender parity in national legislatures will not be achieved until 2068.

The under-representation of women at the ministerial level and in local government is even more marked than in national legislatures. As of January 2005, women accounted for just over 14 per cent of government ministers worldwide. Nineteen governments had no women ministers at all, and among those governments that did include women, most had a token presence of around one to three women ministers. As of March 2006, only three countries – Chile, Spain and Sweden – had achieved gender parity in ministerial portfolios. At the local level, women account for less than 1 in 10 of the world’s mayors.

There are, however, some encouraging trends in women’s participation at the highest level of national politics. Sub-Saharan Africa has its first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, and Michelle Bachelet was elected to the presidency of Chile in early 2006. Latvia became the first former Soviet Republic to choose a female president as chief of state in 1999. Finland, Ireland and the Philippines also currently have women presidents. Women are heads of government in Bangladesh, Germany, Jamaica, New Zealand, Mozambique, Netherlands Antilles and the Republic of Korea.

Advocating for women, children and families

Though constrained by the limited and nascent nature of women’s participation in national legislatures, the available evidence indicates that their involvement fosters direct and tangible changes in policy outcomes that reflect the priorities, experiences and contributions of women, children and families. Women in politics are making a difference in at least three important arenas: national legislatures, local government and post-conflict reconstruction.

National politics: A better representation of women in parliament can make legislatures more gender- and child-sensitive and can influence legislation and policies that address the rights of both groups.

Case studies confirm a strong commitment by women legislators to issues related to children, women and families. For example, a pioneering study of women legislators in Latin America found that in the 1993-1994 parliament, women deputies in Argentina were 9.5 per cent more likely to sponsor children and family bills than their male counterparts. Recent evidence suggests that this pattern held true over the subsequent decade, with women legislators in Argentina playing a crucial role in ensuring the passage of a law that modified that country’s penal code to explicitly define sexual crimes against women and children and toughen the penalties for such egregious acts.

Initiatives to promote children’s rights often accompany efforts to advance the rights of women. Sub-Saharan Africa provides several examples of this advocacy. In South Africa, for example, women parliamentarians provided significant support to the 1998 Domestic Violence Act.

This pattern of advocacy by women legislators on behalf of women and children is also found in industrialized countries. A recent examination of New Zealand’s parliamentary debates on childcare and parental leave over a 25-year period (1975-1999) reveals that women legislators, though only accounting for 15 per cent of parliamentarians, initiated two thirds of the debates on childcare and parental leave.

Local politics: The presence of women leaders in local politics often serves to focus greater attention on issues related to women and children. Although evidence about the behaviour of local politicians is limited, a number of studies from industrialized and developing countries indicate that women in local government tend to prioritize social issues.

In the United States, for example, a 1994 analysis of more than 9,800 bills introduced in three states over a two-year period found that women legislators were twice as likely as their male counterparts to sponsor child health bills. In Norway, children’s issues, and particularly the lack of childcare spaces, are one of the most frequently cited reasons for women entering local politics.

In developing countries, research on the impact of women in local government is an emerging area of enquiry. Evidence from one important documented case in India shows that women’s increasing participation in local politics has led to a more equitable distribution of community resources. In 1998, India reserved one third of all leadership positions in village councils for women. An extensive research project examining the impact of the reservation policy focused initially on 165 village councils in the state of West Bengal. The study found that the level of provision of public goods – including highway maintenance, visits by health workers and investment in drinking-water facilities – were markedly higher in villages with active reservation policies than in villages where quotas were not in operation.

Peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction: There is increasing recognition that the contribution of women is critical both to the long-term success of peace processes and to post-conflict stability.

Women’s participation in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction is vital to ensure the safety and protection of children and other vulnerable populations. Experts suggest that peace agreements, post-conflict reconstruction and governance have a better chance of success when women are involved, in part because women adopt a more inclusive approach towards security and address key social and economic issues that might otherwise be ignored.

Yet women’s role in peace processes remains, at best, informal. While governments and other political actors appear to encourage engagement with women’s groups that often cut across conflict lines, women rarely make it to the peace table. Women’s exclusion from formal peace negotiations means that their rights and interests, as citizens and as victims, are not fully represented. In addition, as one former mediator pointed out, women at the peace table tend to increase the likelihood that issues critical to the rights and well-being of children, women and families – such as the reintegration of women and children, increased domestic violence as people return to their homes, landmines, and post-conflict accountability – are included in negotiations.

Despite these constrains, women have become increasingly involved in conflict-resolution processes across the world, including Afghanistan, Burundi, Darfur (Sudan), Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sri Lanka, among others. But they continue to have to fight hard to gain even limited representation and are often excluded entirely from negotiations or relegated to a ‘parallel’ track.

The presence of women in local politics often serves to focus greater attention on issues related to women and children. Read more about how Zahra, from Iran, uses her position in the governor’s office to empower women and help change mentalities.