Nearly 18 percent of the members of parliament, worldwide, are women, according to a new study released this week as the Inter-Parliamentary Union meets in South Africa. The report says many of the barriers that have kept women from parliament are gone, but that much more needs to be done for women to be on an equal footing with men. For VOA, Terry FitzPatrick reports from Cape Town.

The report on gender equality in politics says women are making slow but steady progress. In 1945, only three percent of parliament members, worldwide were women. The number is now close to 18 percent. Researcher Julie Ballington, from the Inter-Parlaimentary Union, conducted the global survey. She says some of the biggest gains by women have been in countries recovering from war.

"Several post-conflict states did very well in terms of post-conflict representation," she said. "The reason for that is that all the rules and structures were written from scratch. Women also took part in the liberation struggles in several countries."

Rwanda tops the world's gender equality list: 49 percent of its members of parliament are women. By region, the Scandinavian countries average 41 percent female representatives. The Americas average 20 percent. Africa and Asia average 17 percent and Middle Eastern countries average ten percent.

The deputy speaker of South Africa's parliament, Gwen Mahlangu, says the growing presence of women politicians is changing the nature of political debate.

"Women take along the family all the time. Whatever women do, they think about the family. They think about the children," she said.

Mahlangu says this focuses legislative attention on social issues such as equal pay, maternity leave, pension rights and domestic violence.

"Once men understand some of the issues we are faced with as women, you will find a change in attitude," she said.

Although the percentage of women lawmakers is growing by one percent per year, women remain a minority. According to researcher Julie Ballington, this narrows their impact.

"You'll find that women tend to be concentrated in committees that tend to deal with social issues or with health issues of with education issues and have less representation in committees that deal with finance, that deal with foreign affairs, etc," she explained. "So there needs to be more women in parliament, to spend time in a broad range of committees."

There are still many barriers preventing women from being elected or even running for office. These include long parliament working hours without childcare facilities; a lack of financial resources to wage effective political campaigns; and, cultural resistance to women in positions of authority. Researchers here say women politicians are unlikely to achieve parity with men, until these problems are resolved.