Who Cares How Many Women Are in Parliament?

There are plenty of good yardsticks for the state of women’s rights around the world. Parliamentary representation isn’t one of them.


Last month The Economist published its annual infographic about the dearth of women in parliaments around the world. Not surprisingly, some of the most-developed countries — Sweden, Germany, New Zealand — top the charts. (Also present are two African countries, Rwanda and South Africa, that have mandated parliamentary quotas for women.)

Equitable representation of women in politics and government is an ideal promoted by every development organization and to which every Western government aspires. Though women comprise over 50 percent of the world’s population, they are underrepresented as political leaders and elected officials. The National Democratic Institute puts it plainly: “Democracy cannot truly deliver for all of its citizens if half of the population remains underrepresented in the political arena.”

There’s a problem with this argument, though: There’s no evidence to support it. In Cuba, women MPs comprise 45 percent of the parliament. Yet, in a country where women make up nearly half of the parliament, democracy is not “truly delivering for all of its citizens.” And so it goes in many repressive states. They may have plenty of women in power but lag far behind on every meaningful index of democracy.

The Eurasia region illustrates this uncomfortable reality all too well. In Azerbaijan, 16 percent of MPs are female, but every single female MP is a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, which loyally rubber-stamps every decree issued by strongman Ilham Aliyev. In fact, the parliament of Azerbaijan is entirely dominated by one party; there are zero opposition parties in parliament. In other words, there isn’t any party parity. Does the number of women matter in a fake parliament?

It is simplistic to assume that the mere presence of women in a parliament corresponds to greater political representation.

What’s missing from the focus on women’s political participation — in Azerbaijan and elsewhere — is political party affiliation. The point of getting women into parliament is to increase representation and, in theory at least, fairness. If a woman is in parliament but she votes however her leader tells her to (as do the male MPs), what difference does gender make?

Western governments and NGOs spend millions of dollars annually trying to increase the number of women in elected legislatures. But counting the number of women in a parliament does not actually tell you how free, fair, or representative that political system is; it just tells you how many women are in parliament. It says nothing about their freedom to think and vote as they choose without fear of reprisal, which should be the primary measurement of parliamentary health.

Women’s participation in government matters, of course, but that value comes only after a certain degree of freedom is established. Women can be just as venal, corrupt, and self-interested as men. (Imelda Marcos comes to mind, though pop star and dictator’s daughter Gulnara Karimova of Uzbekistan could give her a run for the money).

In the end, party, not gender, is where the focus should be. Yet the NGO community, including donor governments, wrongly focuses almost exclusively on increasing the number of women in parliament regardless of their party affiliation. That focus doesn’t make sense if the goal is to improve democratic governance around the world.

As an example of this tunnel vision, the global listing of gender breakdown in parliaments by the International Parliamentary Union fails to capture party affiliation (data from the South Caucasus was drawn from the Caucasus Research Resource Centers). Let’s take a look at the relevant gender data for these places:

Belarus leads the pack for gender representation. Similarly, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have a relatively high number of women in parliament — outdoing the United States in raw percentages — but that says nothing about how just or equitable their politics are or how independent their parliaments are relative to the president.

When we compare IPU’s data on female participation with Freedom House’s Freedom in the World rankings (with 1 being the most free), a dramatically different picture emerges:

Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, the three countries with the most women in parliament, are the least free, and do not have independent parliamentary bodies that check executive power. Georgia and Ukraine, which have the fewest women in parliament, are relatively more free than their neighbors with greater female participation.

While we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from these charts, we can at least conclude that there isn’t necessarily a relationship between a country’s political freedom and the number of women in parliament.

Gender equality in government is important, but it’s not the primary variable in ensuring true representation. Political freedom and good governance are basic rights that shouldn’t be confused with gender issues. Assuming that female representation indicates greater political freedom is sloppy thinking of the kind that has too often skewed the priorities and undermined the promise of the development community.

Joshua Foust is a Ph.D student at the University of Colorado Boulder studying strategic communication.

Melinda Haring is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.