TBILISI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the rough-and-tumble world of Georgian politics, election campaigns can be merciless - especially for the small number of women candidates who enter the fray.
But as the ex-Soviet Republic gears up for elections on Saturday, a new gender quota law will bring a record number of women into parliament in a nation with one of Europe’s lowest rates of female representation.
Women’s advocates say the reform marks a small but significant shift that could pave the way for deeper change in the country’s male-dominated political scene.
“More women in parliament will motivate other young women and girls to become politicians because... they need role models to see that it’s possible to get into politics,” Khatuna Samnidze, who heads the opposition Republican Party.
While Georgia elected its first woman president in 2018, only 14% of lawmakers in the outgoing parliament are women, well below a global average of 25%.
In Europe, only Hungary and Malta have less, according to U.N. development agency (UNDP) data.
“If you happen to go to parliament on the average day and look down from the observers’ balcony, you really see just men on the floor,” said Louisa Vinton, the UNDP’s representative in Georgia.
She said a history of election campaigns overshadowed by sexist comments, lewd gossip and leaked personal recordings might discourage some women from stepping forward.
Opposition lawmaker Elene Khoshtaria, who is seeking re-election on Saturday, knows first-hand about the rough treatment often meted out to women running for office.
Footage of her blocking a police car during a protest last year was widely shared on social media, unleashing a torrent of online abuse questioning her “unfeminine” behaviour as well as her choice of clothing.
“They say ‘look she’s jumping on a car, no woman behaves like that... she’s mannish, she’s not a woman’,” Khoshtaria, who represents the European Georgia party, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“Many, don’t expect this kind of (political) action from women. They believe only men should be doing that.”
Last year, a secretly recorded sex tape featuring a ruling party lawmaker was shared online soon after she fell out with the party’s leadership.
The lawmaker, Eka Beselia, later became a feminist icon of sorts when she slapped a male colleague who questioned her moral values in an apparent reference to the video during a parliamentary session.
“Society punishes women more than men for such things. It’s an additional pressure,” Khoshtaria said.
Women also have to contend with stereotypes such as the notion that politics is a man’s job, Vinton said.
About one in two respondents to a 2020 survey commissioned by the United Nations said politics was a man’s domain and about the same number said women’s main duty was to take care of the family rather than seek a professional career.
“You have to work twice as hard to really just show that you have as much professionalism as men,” said Khatia Dekanoidze, a former minister who also served as chief of police in Ukraine, now running for the opposition United National Movement (UNM).
In turn, parties tend to present more male candidates, thinking they stand a better chance of winning, Vinton said.
Under the gender quota law approved earlier this year, one in every four candidates has to be of a different gender to the rest, but the requirement applies only to proportional lists electing 120 of the parliament 150 seats.
The remaining 30 seats are assigned in single-mandate constituencies, where the ruling Georgian Dream party has put forward only one woman out of 30 candidates, and the largest opposition party (UNM), three out of 25.
Vinton described it as a “missed opportunity” noting that attitudes towards female politicians in the socially conservative country have started to change.
Still, the reform, which will also boost women’s presence in local administrations, should deliver a larger contingent of about 30 women to the new parliament - something Dekanoidze said could help improve the political scene.
“Women in Georgian politics are very united. We show solidarity to each other despite the fact that we’re from different parties,” she said by phone.
“We can really create a better environment for women, especially young women, to be involved in politics”.
Khoshtaria said some newcomers might struggle to be heard, burdened by the perception that they might have been elected because of the law, rather than on merit.
But others said a bigger female presence could pave the way for more women to launch political careers.
“It’s a step forward,” said Vinton, the UNDP representative.
“There’s no shortage of smart, creative, powerful, effective women leaders in Georgia, it’s just that they don’t tend to be the appearing on the party lists.”
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org
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