South Asia Women Parliamentarians Take Lead
July 11, 2012
At the opening day of the South Asia Women Parliamentarians’ Conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dr. Miria Matembe, former member of parliament from Uganda, voiced an increasingly common theme: “The issue of women’s participation in politics is no longer in contention. What is central to the debate now is how to make their participation effective enough to influence the governance agenda and make it responsive to women’s interests, needs, and concerns.”
But, despite what seems like a growing consensus around this idea, still just 19.5 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women. Though this is an increase from 10 percent in 1995 and 16 percent in 2005, women politicians are still outnumbered four-to-one. The four-day conference this week in Dhaka, Bangladesh, jointly organized by The Asia Foundation and USAID, and titled Women Leading for Gender-Responsive Governance, brought together over 100 women members of parliament from across South Asia and generated lively discussion over these challenges. View a slideshow from the event.
There are some high points: the number of elected women heads of state and government in the world has increased from eight in 2005 to 17 in 2012. Of these 17, two are from South Asia, Bangladesh’s prime minister and India’s president. The number of women ministers has also increased from just over 14 percent in 2005 to currently nearly 17 percent. Rwanda is the first country to have equal women’s participation in politics with 56 percent, and Nordic countries have the highest regional representation in parliament with 39 percent. However, in South Asia, women’s representation in parliament across different countries stands between a high of 34 percent in Nepal, and a low of 5 percent in Sri Lanka. Women on average hold only 7 percent of ministerial positions and 15 percent of parliamentarian positions in national parliaments of eight South Asian countries which include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Despite this low representation of women leaders across South Asia, it is interesting to note that Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have had female heads of government. In the case of Bangladesh, both the current prime minister and the leader of the opposition are women.
This lack of access to political decision-making continues to have consequences on women’s equality worldwide. Without power to make decisions regarding their own lives, women are trapped in a society where they are subordinate and confined to patriarchal norms. However, efforts to enhance women’s political participation have gained new importance within the international community with the formulation of the third United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal (MDG) in 2000, which designated the number of women in politics as an indicator of a nation’s progress in women’s equality and empowerment.
The international community has created global strategy benchmarks to address women’s exclusion from the structures of power. It has also supported women with a platform to come together to discuss their experiences and initiate gender-based dialogues in their countries. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly called for an end to discrimination against women’s political participation and recommended legal and temporary measures to increase their voice in political decision making. The Beijing Platform for Action (1995) which originated from the fourth UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, also highlighted the discriminatory attitudes and practices and unequal power relations in the political arena. A major goal of the Beijing Platform was to increase women’s political participation in public and private spheres by demanding 30 percent women representation in national decision-making bodies through the adoption of gender-based quotas. Since the Beijing Conference and the formulation of the MDGs, countries have taken temporary special measures, such as quotas, to accelerate women’s participation in politics.
Of the 29 countries that have reached or exceeded the target of 30 percent women in parliament, at least 24 have used quotas. In addition to the 29 countries, increasing numbers of women are slowly gaining political power across the globe. South Asian countries have initiated legislative reforms and undertaken varied affirmative action at various levels, from the national to the grassroots level. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan have a constitutional quota in their national parliaments. However, there is still a long way to go before we see gender-balanced representation in political processes.
The conference in Dhaka focused on finding ways to promote more effective roles for women leaders across South Asia through greater regional collaboration. Our hope is that efforts like this can not only strengthen women’s political participation, but will also support the development of truly democratic and representative governments in South Asia. A new regional network was formed to provide ongoing opportunities for exchange and serve as a regional coordination center for future activities supporting women MPs from the participating countries.
Rozana Majumdar is a consultant in The Asia Foundation’s Bangladesh office. She is a lead coordinator of the conference and can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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