LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Faced with escalating violence, a lack of funding, and locked out of male-dominated networks, many women are reluctant to enter politics with growing concerns that a drive to get women into power globally is moving far too slowly, experts said.
Only about one in four parliamentarians worldwide is a woman, less than one in five government ministers is female, and the number of female heads of state or government is set to decline this year to 15 from 17, studies show.
Yet it has become widely accepted that when women rule, in local or national politics, it can make a difference, with women putting often over-looked issues like violence against women or women’s empowerment on the agenda.
With the United Nations’ global goals - the Sustainable Development Goals - aiming for women’s equal participation in politics by 2030, female lawmakers and experts on women in politics said it was time to change how politics work.
They said this included ensuring political parties take the lead in recruiting women, women politicians are given support, and parliaments lose their macho image and “old boys’ clubs”.
Silvana Koch-Mehrin, founder of the Women In Parliaments a Global Forum (WIP), a network of women lawmakers, said the number of women in parliaments may have increased but this has not translated into policy change or decision-making powers.
“In some countries the real power circle remains untouched,” Koch-Mehrin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“You find many women active in NGOs and other organizations involved in policy but when it comes to going into a political party they refuse because so much time is spent back stabbing and building friendships and less working on policy ... They can earn more in business.
“But on the positive side the view women are crucial, for equal opportunity and development for all of society, in both developing and developed countries, is now a mainstream view.”
FIGHTING FOR WOMEN’S ISSUES
Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the international organization of parliaments, shows women held 23.6 percent of seats in 193 parliaments on Sept. 1 this year, up from 17.7 percent a decade ago and 11.8 percent in 1997.
There are no global figures on the number of women in local governments which is seen as a significant gap in knowledge.
But the IPU acknowledges it is disappointing to see women’s participation in parliaments increasing by less than one percentage point a year - more than 120 years since New Zealand became the first country to give women the vote.
“It is moving ahead but too slowly,” said Kareen Jabre, director of the division of programs at the IPU.
“For women’s presence will often bring to the table issues that were not considered a priority. The first one that comes up is violence against women and particularly domestic violence. The mere fact that women have a voice changes the agenda.”
There is no global study to show the link between women’s political presence and policy changes but some national and thematic studies have indicated positive impact.
For example, research showed when peace processes included women as witnesses, mediators, or negotiators, there was a 20 percent increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years.
Individual examples also abound.
Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet was key this year in getting a new law to legalize abortions when the mother is at risk, the fetus is unviable or the pregnancy results from rape. Previously Chile banned abortions in all instances.
While the women’s caucus of Malawi’s parliament played a major role in a constitutional amendment this year to outlaw child marriage. Previously children as young as 15 could marry with parental consent but marriage is now illegal under age 18.
Jordanian parliamentarian Wafa Bani Mustafa, one of 20 women in the 130 seat lower house, said her greatest achievements in her three terms had been fighting for issues that impacted women, such protecting women in divorces and ensuring sexual harassment is made a crime in the penal code.
CONTROVERSY OVER QUOTAS
But she is most proud of her high-profile victory in August when Jordanian lawmakers voted to abolish a law that let rapists off the hook if they married their victims - a change first spearheaded by Bani Mustafa in 2013.
She said parents often agreed to such marriages to minimize “family shame”, but she said no girl should be “presented as a gift” to her rapist.
“(It was) the second time I (ever) cried in the parliament ... I felt like I was a mother again - it’s my baby,” Bani Mustafa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, recalling the day the law changed.
“In Jordan and the Arab world women in politics should focus on women’s rights, and (not) be ashamed to ... It is important that women are present in all positions, all places, including decision-making and leadership positions.”
Bani Mustafa also campaigned last year to increase the quota of reserved seats for women to 23 from 15 but was voted down.
For the idea of quotas for political representation remains controversial, even though the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance says half of the world’s countries now use some form of gender quota system.
Electoral quotas - that vary from reserving seats to legal candidate quotas and voluntary political party quotas - have gained international support as the most effective way to fast-track an increase in women in politics.
The IPU found women fared better when quotas were used.
In 2012, electoral quotas were used in 22 countries holding elections. With legislated quotas, women took 24 percent of seats and with voluntary quotas they gained 22 percent. Where no quotas were used, women took 12 percent of seats.
But some critics, particularly in liberal democracies, oppose quotas on the basis they discriminate against men and undermine the selection of candidates on the basis of merit.
Sarah Childs, a professor of politics and gender at Birkbeck, University of London, said quotas were not enough on their own.
“Quotas solve an immediate problem but you need a ‘quota plus’ system which is about tackling what is wrong with politics and what defines the making a good politician,” she said.
“Political parties should be doing more to create a supply rather than bemoaning the lack of women knocking on their doors.
“Also if politics is represented as a cut throat environment with late nights ... you need a way to make it attractive for women ... it needs to be clearer that this is a job that can be done by women with families.”
Even when women are voted into parliament, it can be hard to keep them in office.
“We see women leaving their seats or not standing again because in the political system there are so many obstacles,” said Julie Ballington, policy advisor on political participation at UN Women.
“The increasing incidence of violence against women in political life also keeps a lot of women from wanting to put themselves forward,” she added.
“But having women in power does change aspirations and shows that women can be leaders.”
Female lawmakers said rising numbers of attacks on social media, as well as physical attacks while campaigning, were a deterrent for many women - as was the constant focus on the appearance of female politicians.
A British tabloid newspaper was accused of sexism this year when it splashed a photo of Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s legs across the front page with the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”
While an IPU study last year found nearly 45 percent of women parliamentarians had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction during their term - and more than 80 percent faced psychological abuse, largely on social media.
In Nigeria, member of parliament (MP) Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje said she has experienced discrimination, sexual innuendoes, physical threats and insubordination, mainly from male colleagues.
She fears the treatment of women in politics in Nigeria, and the threats they face, is scaring women away despite a need to have them fighting for policies that affect women.
During the last election, people started firing guns as Elendu-Ukeje was campaigning and she was whisked away, unscathed, but some of her security personnel were injured. No one was arrested over the incident.
“If there’s no disincentives for the perpetrators of violence, my fear is that the political space for women is going to continue to shrink,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We must have people who actually understand, who are the beneficiaries of these policies, being part of the policy formulation,” said the 48-year-old single mother.
The country with the most women in its lower house is Rwanda where women held 61.3 percent of seats. The East African nation found itself composed of 70 percent women after a 1994 genocide. Before that women only held 10-15 percent of seats.
It is followed by Bolivia in Latin America where women hold 53.1 percent of lower house seats then Cuba at 48.9 percent.
But while Bolivia has more women in its national parliament than men, the Andean country has made fewer inroads at local government level where less than 10 percent of mayors are women.
Soledad Chapeton found herself in the firing line after becoming the first female mayor of El Alto, Bolivia’s second city, in 2015 - and says she was lucky not to be in her city hall office last year when an arson attack killed six people.
“It (the fire) was an attack that in our judgment was, and is, plagued with much political interest ... it was a nightmare,” Chapeton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation under the watchful eye of her female police bodyguard.
Chapeton, a former congresswoman and daughter of a policeman, said women find it hard to get financial backing to run campaigns and often face personal attacks on social media.
Of El Alto’s 14 deputy mayors, three are women. Chapeton said her goal was to achieve gender parity only to find that some women deputy mayors left because of the intimidation.
“Several of the women declined to participate afterwards because it’s much easier to attack a woman,” Chapeton said.
“People elected me because I do things differently than how things were done in the past and this gives me strength.”
Still five countries from the IPU’s list of 193 nations have no women MPs at all, including Qatar and Yemen in the Middle East and the Pacific island countries of Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea.
Micronesia has never had a women in politics while an election this year in Papua New Guinea - which has some of the world’s highest rates of violence against women - ended with no women among the 111 MPs for the first time in 25 years.
Since independence from Australia in 1975, only seven women have been elected to PNG’s parliament and efforts in 2011 to introduce a system to reserve 22 seats for women failed.
“This means 50 percent of the population have no representation in the highest decision-making institution of the country,” said Julie Bukikun, assistant representative for UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme.
“It’s vital we have female leadership in PNG ... women need to be represented to address the major challenges they face including unacceptably high rates of violence, fewer job opportunities and poor health outcomes.”
POLICIES FOR WOMEN
Another strong proponent of the need to have women in power is Chhavi Rajawat, an MBA holder who quit her city job at a multi-national firm to become head of her village of Soda in the Indian state of Rajasthan - making history as India’s youngest elected sarpanch, or village leader, in 2010.
“I know I don’t fit the typical mould of sarpanch which is a man, and usually an elderly one,” said Rajawat, dressed in leggings, a loose top and hiking boots in Soda village, 80 km (50 miles) from Jaipur, Rajasthan’s main city.
Since taking office, Rajawat’s council has built roads, constructed toilets and brought water, power and even a bank to Soda’s 7,000 residents, which she credits to a law which reserves at least one-third of village council seats for women.
“The villagers asked me to stand for elections as it was required that the sarpanch be a woman,” she said.
“If it wasn’t for the reservation policy, I don’t know if I would be here and whether the development we’ve achieved would have happened,” said Rajawat, who was re-elected in 2015.
“But it’s one thing to have reserved seats for women at village level, women should also be given these chances at higher levels of politics.”
India ranks 149th in the IPU’s list of women in national parliaments with women holding only about 12 percent of seats in India’s lower and upper houses of parliament.
Few women in India are encouraged to enter politics, and those who join political parties are rarely selected to stand as candidates in polls. Often they face abuse such as sexual harassment and character assassinations, yet few report it.
Rajawat - who, with her father, once faced a physical attack over a land dispute - said this needed to change.
“This is important as women - who are often the carers in family - understand social problems like health, nutrition and education. All we need is the chance to change things,” she said.
An IPU analysis of portfolios held by women ministers found the most common areas for them were the environment, natural resources, and energy, followed by social sectors such as social affairs, family, youth, the elderly and disabled, and education.
SUPPORT AND MENTORING
Kenyan MP Peris Tobiko said education has always been her priority, with the budget in her constituency of Kajiado East focused on building and upgrading schools and paying bursaries to keep girls in secondary school.
Tobiko made national headlines when she was elected to parliament in 2013 - the first woman from her conservative Maasai community to win a seat despite elders performing a death curse on anyone who dared vote for her.
Kenya is now ranked 86th in the IPU’s list with nearly 22 percent of lower house seats held by women.
“I think (education) is the one single factor that can change society,” she said. “It’s the long-term solution to all those harmful traditions.”
Kyrgyzstan’s youngest female member of parliament, Aida Kasymalieva, knew domestic violence, child marriage and bride kidnappings weren’t a priority when she joined the parliament of the majority Muslim country in central Asia.
But she was shocked by the total disregard with which her male colleagues viewed these issues, walking out of the chamber when sessions on women’s issues started.
“Men will never think about domestic violence, kidnapping,” she said referring to the often brutal abduction of young women across Kyrgyzstan who are then forced into marriage.
With this disinterest in women’s issues, Kasymalieva said she was relieved that the Kyrgyz parliament, which was all men in 2005, now had a gender quota adopted after various campaigns that required women make up a third of party candidate lists.
Currently Kyrgyzstan has 23 women among its 120 MPs, all of whom are members of a cross-party group founded in 2011 credited with putting women and girls on the legislative agenda.
She said women working together was critical.
“I hope that in the future ... we won’t need an artificial quota to support women but for now I don’t see any solution other than the quota,” 33-year-old Kasymalieva said.
Ballington from UN Women said strong political will was needed to boost women’s representation in politics.
“Where you have political will by the main leader, you can have significant results overnight,” she said, pointing to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision in 2015 to make sure his cabinet had equal numbers of men and women.
Jabre from the IPU said women themselves also need to speak out to change the way politics work.
“There has always been a reluctance or fear of politics by women because they have seen it as a violent, confrontational world and they aren’t interested in that,” she said.
“But an increasing number of women are trying to change the way politics are being done and make it a bit more civilised.
“The more we have role models and the more visible they are then the greater chance there is to get more women involved ... Maybe a younger generation will be less reluctant to see women play a public role and this will open the door for more women.”