PHOTO: An Afghan parliament member (L) votes on a list of cabinet nominees at the parliament house in Kabul, January 16, 2010. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
It’s International Women’s Day, but hold the confetti. More than a century after the first Women’s Day celebration—a socialist proposal inaugurated in 1909—fewer than one in five parliamentarians worldwide are women.
Acknowledging the inequality, many countries have implemented voluntary or mandatory minimums for the percentage of women in government. Such quotas are supported by a wealth of leaders, including U.N. Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, who has said she “[encourages] countries to use quotas to expand women’s participation in parliament.”
Yet gender mandates have their detractors, who say the idea of reserving seats for women is ineffective at best and undemocratic at worst. One criticism holds that quotas delegitimize female politicians, who are seen as not having “earned” their positions. In some countries, women serve in government as puppets for their husbands, and in others female politicians with limited powers are seen as little more than window dressing.
What follows is a handful of national case studies, quick looks at where women’s representation – and particularly their meaningful participation – has increased or not. For more on quotas, this handy map outlines which countries reserve seats or legislate quotas for women.
UNITED STATES: American exceptionalism makes exception for women
For all the attention paid to Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, the United States remains decidedly mediocre when it comes to female representation in politics, ranking 77th in the world by percentage of legislative seats held by women. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of national parliaments, approximately 17.8 percent of the House of Representatives are women, as well as 20 percent of the Senate. In total, there have been just 39 female senators in the nation’s history, and 20 of them are currently serving. The U.S. does not employ quotas to encourage or mandate female participation in government or corporate America, but remains obsessed with Michelle Obama’s bangs.
UNITED KINGDOM: Beyond the Queen Mum
Prime Minister David Cameron’s pre-election pledge that one third of the UK’s ministerial jobswould be taken by women by before 2015 hasn’t exactly come true. In reality, just four of the UK’s 23 cabinet positions are currently held by women, down from five before a 2012 reshuffling. Gender equality is on better display in Parliament, where one in five members (22 percent in both the House of Commons and House of Lords) are female. Although the UK has made progress—prior to 1987, women never made up more than 5 percent of Parliament—critics say they have a ways to go: The country ranks only fifteenth out of 27 EU member states in its portion of female members of Parliament, according to a March 2013 report issued by the government.
SOUTH AFRICA: A quota success story
A dramatic example of gender quotas in action, South Africa currently ranks eighth in the world by percentage of legislative seats held by women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That’s up from a ranking of 141st back in 1994, when the African National Congress first instituted a quota system reserving 30 percent of parliamentary candidacies for women. Currently, 42.3 percent of South Africa’s 400-person National Assembly are women, as well as 32.1 percent of the 54 permanent seats in the National Council of Provinces. But all is not well in gender politics: The country is still struggling with its apartheid past, as well as disconcerting statistics on rape. The Medical Research Council of South Africa estimates that up to 3,600 rapes happen daily in the country of nearly 52 million, and more than one-third of South African men admitted to rape in a government survey.
NORWAY: The gender balance trendsetter
With an enviable 46 weeks of paid maternity leave, Norway is notoriously female-friendly (it was also the first country to introduce paternity leave). Although the country has no legal provisions for gender balance in government, Norway’s Socialist Left party first introduced a voluntary gender quota—aiming for a 40 percent minimum on female candidates—in 1975, and other parties have followed suit. In 2004, Parliament even passed a law requiring publicly owned companies to have at least 40 percent women on their boards of directors. Today, 39.6 percent of Norway’s 169-member Parliament are women.
AFGHANISTAN: Shaky gains at a crossroads before 2014
Recent improvements in women’s freedom could come under attack after the United States withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014. Since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention, the country’s parliament has implemented quotas that ensure female candidates receive a little over a quarter of parliamentary seats. Despite unclear rules on implementation, the system “has played a vital role in maintaining a significant presence of women in both parliament and [provincial councils],” according to a report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research organization. Yet trouble is brewing, beginning with a decree by President Hamid Karzai in 2010 that a man could take a woman’s seat if it were vacated, opening the door to intimidation attempts. Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were forbidden to leave the house without a male relative’s accompaniment.
IRAQ: Running for office because my husband told me to
Just because you’ve got the numbers doesn’t mean you’ve got the clout. The Iraqi Constitution mandates that women fill 25 percent of seats in parliament. Yet while women are much better integrated professionally in Iraq than Afghanistan, the quota system also serves as a good case study in how filling quota requirements may fail to benefit women. The New York Times noted that Iraqi women had “less political influence” after the 2010 election “than at any time since the American invasion.” Moreover, a woman’s candidacy may serve as a thinly-veiled bid for office by her husband or brother. As Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,points out, “Many of the women on party lists [in the 2010 elections] were relatives of politicians or from prominent families.” Once in office, women may be relegated to insignificant ministries and still be subservient to male party leaders.
ITALY: Moving beyond “bunga bunga”
With a former prime minister whose claims to infamy include paying for sex with an underage dancer, Italy isn’t known for its emphasis on gender equality. But while the country’s most recent elections ended in political turmoil, they also upped the share of women in Parliament to 31 percent—versus 20 percent in the previous legislature—a shift aided in part by the Democratic Party’s requirement that 50 percent of its candidates be women. Italy also passed a law last year requiring public companies to ensure that one third of their board members are women by 2015; in January 2012, women accounted for just 6 percent of corporate board membership.
RUSSIA: Putin fights tigers, jails women
Observed since 1913 in Russia, International Women’s Day is still widely celebrated there, despite the fact that just 74 of the country’s 613-member Parliament are women. Of course, one of those women is Valentina Matvienko, the first female chairperson of the Federation Council of Russia (the upper chamber of Parliament) and arguably the third-most important person in the country after President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. But Russia has a ways to go on gender equality: The United Nations has pegged the country’s male/female wage gap at over 30 percent, and Putin’s jailing of all-female punk band Pussy Riot was seen as indicative of the country’s limited political freedoms.
RWANDA: Women dominate parliament
If you had to guess the world’s only government where women are the majority, Rwanda might not come to mind. Yet following a genocide that left a 70-percent-female population and quotas guaranteeing women 30 percent of posts in decision-making bodies, women surpassed the minimum to make up 56 percent of Rwanda’s current parliament. Greater representation in parliament has meant women were able to pass legislation on gender issues, including abolishing patriarchal laws.