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March 06, 2011

Women’s Representation in World Parliaments Remains Low

by Lisa Schlein

A new survey released to coincide with International Women’s Day shows women are making political gains, but their numbers in world parliaments remain low.  The survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union finds just over 19 percent of parliamentarians worldwide are women, compared to 16.3 percent in 2005.  

As in previous years, the Nordic countries come out on top with an average of nearly 42 percent women in parliament.  The survey finds Arab states are at the bottom of the world table for women in parliament; nevertheless the region is making progress, going up from 4.3 percent in 1995 to 11.7 percent last year.

In the Americas, Costa Rica has the highest level of participation of women in politics with nearly 39 percent, compared to about 17 percent for the United States.  

In other findings, the survey shows a slightly backward trend in both Europe and Asia, a large drop in the Pacific states and no big changes in Sub-Saharan Africa, where an average of 19.2 percent of women have been elected to parliaments.

The secretary-general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Anders Johnson, says quotas remain the single most effective way of increasing the number of women in politics.  Otherwise, he says no progress is made.

“Once women get into parliament, it is a lot easier for women to actually have sway and influence, if there are more than one or two," said Anders Johnson. "You need to move beyond symbolic numbers, and that is why there has been such a huge push, both within the U.N. and the IPU to reach what we call this threshold of 30 percent.  And more and more countries are reaching that threshold.”  

The survey finds women politicians worldwide generally do not get equal coverage with men in the media.  And when they do, the women report coverage tends to dwell more on what they are wearing and how they look than on their political positions.

Johnson says laws change for the better when more women are in parliament.  He says women bring something to the table that men do not.  They are more sensitive to social issues.

“We argue that in fact the laws that are made, the work that is made in parliament is better because of that," he said. "It is better attuned to the needs of society. In some countries, you will find that they start addressing issues, which are of particular concern to women…for example about violence against women or genital mutilation of women.  These are issues that very often are driven by women and through their presence in parliament, they are able to force change on those issues.”  

Johnson says the IPU is closely following events in the Middle East.  He says the organization is concerned at the noticeable absence of women in the bodies of power that are taking over in Egypt and Tunisia.  For example, in Egypt, he says there is not a single woman involved in the committee that is drafting a new constitution.

He says the IPU plans to work with both Egypt and Tunisia to make sure they focus attention on women, on gender equality and on women’s ability to be elected to their national parliaments.