The Missing 50 Percent

There’s no real democracy without full representation for women.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, women assumed 56 percent of the seats in the Rwandan parliament. This represents something of a paradox. Rwanda is still navigating the path to democracy — but women have been making a positive contribution to the country’s political life nonetheless. Women have been responsible for forming the first cross-party caucus to work on some of the country’s most controversial issues, such as domestic violence, land rights, and food security. They have also formed the only tripartite partnership between civil society and executive and legislative bodies to coordinate responsive legislation, and ensure basic services are delivered. Rwanda is just one example of why the full and equitable participation of women in parliaments makes a difference. Research shows women are also more likely to work across party lines even in highly partisan environments. Their leadership and conflict resolution styles embody democratic ideals, and women tend to work in a less hierarchical and more collaborative way than their male colleagues.

This is why the recently published article on FP, "Who Cares How Many Women Are in Parliament?" misses the point about gender equality and political freedom. Authors Joshua Foust and Melinda Haring argue that the number of women in a parliament does not necessarily reflect whether the country is democratic, citing some well-established authoritarian regimes that have plenty of female MPs. But they neglect the importance of women in politics (that is, in positions of power) and the potential for a broader, democratic context.

We often refer to women’s representation in national parliaments as a gauge of democracy; this is the measure cited, for example, in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Unfortunately, other data about women’s political participation is undercollected, so we tend to rely on the number of women in office as an imperfect but important measurement of gender equality.

It’s true: The number of elected women alone does not speak to whether a country is democratic. But when 50 percent of the population is missing from the public discourse, this is a symptom of a larger problem. The equitable representation of women in politics and government is just one piece of the democracy puzzle. Other political principles must be pursued, including an open and accountable government, free and fair elections, and an active citizenry. Without these other essential ingredients, a parliament, even one that includes women, will not be able to serve as a check on executive power.

And there is evidence that the full and equitable participation of women in public life is a critical part of the democracy equation. It helps to advance gender equality, and affects both the range of policy issues that are considered and the types of solutions that are proposed. Is this evidence supported by every woman, in every legislature, in every country? Of course not.

Women are not a monolithic bloc. The full participation of women — or any group — means expressing the full diversity of their opinions, beliefs, and experiences. But there are many indications that as more women are elected to office, policy-making increasingly emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities. Women’s political participation has profound positive and democratic impacts on communities, legislatures, political parties, and citizens’ lives. It helps democracy deliver.

When women are empowered as political leaders, countries experience higher standards of living. Positive developments can be seen in education, infrastructure, and health, and concrete steps are taken to help make democracy more effective. Using data from 19 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), researchers found that an increase in women legislators results in an increase in total educational expenditure. In India, research showed that West Bengal villages with greater representation of women in local councils saw an investment in drinking water facilities that was double that of villages with low levels of elected women, and that the roads there were almost twice as likely to be in good condition.

Women’s presence in politics ensures that the concerns of women and other marginalized voters are represented and helps improve the responsiveness of policy making and governance. Research shows that women lawmakers tend to see "women’s" issues more broadly as social issues, and that women are more likely to see government as a tool to help serve underrepresented or minority groups. Women lawmakers therefore have often been perceived as more sensitive to community concerns, and more responsive to constituency needs. Legislators in the U.S. agree that the presence of women in elected office has increased access to the legislature for economically disadvantaged groups and for the concerns of racial and ethnic minority groups. Additionally, women legislators are notably more likely to report that the attitudes of their constituents would be the most important consideration in determining how they would vote (42 percent versus 33 percent).

Women are not only more committed to good governance, but they also tend to be more actively involved in peace building and post-conflict reconstruction. They bring a unique and powerful perspective to the negotiating table precisely because women suffer disproportionately during armed conflict. Research and case studies suggest that peace agreements, post-conflict reconstruction, and overall governance have a better chance of long-term success when women are involved. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that establishing sustainable peace requires transforming power relationships, including achieving more equitable gender relations.

History tells us that waiting to promote women’s engagement until after governments deliver on the freedoms the authors believe to be so important would be a critical, missed opportunity. The role of women as elected officials, voters, party members, and citizens cannot be deferred for another day. Freedom for half the population is no freedom at all, and will never take hold unless a broad segment of the population, including men and women, is involved in the political process.

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