The slow march towards gender balance in politics

Linked with COUNCIL OF EUROPE … .

Received by mail from HREA, the Human Rights Education Associates, and their Newsletter.

Date: 21/08/2007

The distribution of power between men and women is still very unequal. This was the underlying motivation for a milestone recommendation by the Council of Europe four years ago. The Committee of Ministers agreed on action for “balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making”. The idea was to open the door for women into positions of power. The time has come to start assessing the results.

Interestingly, the Committee defined a precise benchmark. It stated that balanced participation in decision-making bodies meant that the representation of either women or men should not fall below 40 %.

A survey in September 2005 indicated that only one country, Sweden, had reached that level in the national parliament, while apart from the other Scandinavian countries, Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain were not far behind. In half of Europe, the representation of women was below 20 % and seven countries had less than 10 % (Albania, Armenia, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Turkey and Ukraine).


In some of these countries there have been elections since then and the situation has improved somewhat. However, the pattern is still very clear – there is a long way to go until the goal of 40 % is reached in our European parliaments .

The situation is similar in governments. Three countries had reached a complete balance of fifty-fifty – Austria, Spain and Sweden – while eight governments had no female representation at all and the average was below 20 %.

The Council of Europe is no exception. In the Parliamentary Assembly no more than 26% of the members are women and in the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities the figure is 27%. Among the Ambassadors in Strasbourg only 13% are women and among the 46 current Foreign Ministers not more than five (11%) are female.

The result is that progress towards gender balance is too slow. What ought to be done?

The Committee of Ministers in its 2003 recommendation asked for special measures to stimulate and support women’s will to participate in political and public decision-making. Such efforts are needed, especially in regions where patriarchal attitudes remain and women are kept on the sidelines. Social and family policies which help women to return to work after having children, ensure that women remain in active employment and feel able to join in on the political debate.

There has been indeed some progress in this regard. For instance, recent reports from Turkey indicate that some women are themselves seeking political positions. These are encouraging signs.

However, the Committee of Ministers went further and raised the issue of quotas. It recommended that member states “consider setting targets linked to a time scale with a view of reaching balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making.”

This approach is controversial. It has been said that quotas imply a form of discrimination against those not qualifying. Another argument has been that those favored through such target-setting might not be respected as fully competent as they got “help”. It has also been proposed that a target can merely preserve the status quo if it is not sufficiently ambitious.

Admittedly, positive discrimination can have negative consequences and should therefore only be used when there is an objective and reasonable justification for such measures. The underlying idea is however important: to compensate for a deep-rooted negative discrimination in order to break habits and perceptions which perpetuate the inequality. Indeed, gender quotas can, in my opinion, contribute to attitude change and thereby further progress.

Obligatory legal quotas are still unusual in Europe, while it is more common that countries try various forms of voluntary targets. In some cases the mere threat of a binding regulation has spurred political parties to rethink their nomination procedures.

In Spain and some other countries, the breakthrough started inside one or some of the political parties – for instance through a decision that every second candidate on the party list for the election should be a women. The list of nominations for the post of judge to the European Court of Human Rights, should also now contain candidates of both sexes to ensure a better gender balance.

In these countries it is now rather an electoral disadvantage not to be able to bring forward a gender balanced list. In fact, gender targets are no longer necessary; the nomination process has become self-correcting. This is what should become the normalcy.

Is this important?:

  • Yes, very;
  • It is a matter of the full enjoyment of human rights and social justice for everyone;
  • It is about genuine democracy. A society where half of the population is more or less excluded from political participation is not fully democratic;
  • It is a necessity in order to avoid the waste of intellectual and other human resources;
  • It would – as the Committee of Ministers put it – “lead to better and more efficient policy making through the redefinition of political priorities and the placing of new issues on the political agenda as well as to the improvement of quality of life for all”.

Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. Also available at the Commissioner’s website.

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