Are women empowered through politics?

The representation of women significantly increased in politics worldwide at the turn of the 21st century, but current numbers show it still has long way to go.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (R) after being introduced by US Senator Elizabeth Warren at a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, US on June 27, 2016.

Updated Jul 2, 2016

Women around the world are stepping into the political realm more than ever and the gender gap between male and female candidates is closing. However, the process has been slow, studies conducted by international organisations indicate.

The world average of female representation in national parliaments currently stands at 22.7 percent, according to data based on reports of national assemblies around the globe that was gathered by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).  

Ten years ago, the global political participation rate of women stood at 16 percent, the same organisation’s research said. Five years prior to that, the representation-level of women was less than half of its current size.

IPU chief Anders Johnsson told the BBC in 2006 that women were "dramatically underrepresented" in the world of politics.

Interestingly, Rwanda, an African country with a past of violent conflict and genocide, boasts of a rare majority of female legislators at its parliament. The country’s lower house has 51 women members out of a total of 80, occupying top place in female representation in the world with 64 percent.

Bolivia, a Latin American country, comes second with 53 percent, and socialist Caribbean island-state Cuba is positioned third with 49 percent.

Senegal, South Africa, Seychelles, Ecuador, Mexico, Sweden and Finland are also placed in the top 10.

Rwandan female MPs clap during one of the parliamentary sessions in an undated photo.

Contradictorily, female politicians fare worst in the oil-rich Gulf countries of Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, where there is not a single woman in parliament.

Women also have no political representation in Haiti, Micronesia, Palau, Tonga, Vanuatu and Yemen.

But two countries, Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan, made some progress on women in politics.  

In 2006, Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan had no women MPs in their parliaments. However, ten years later, the representation rate of women in both countries increased by nearly 20 percent.

Now the Saudi kingdom is doing even better than the United States, the IPU’s recently updated list shows. The kingdom stands at 94th, while the US is in 97th position.

That does not, however, mean that Saudi women have more political power than their American counterparts. 

So why is there such a difference in female representation in both countries?

National quotas

The simple answer is that quotas which are enacted and enforced by states aim to increase female representation in national parliaments by promoting women as candidates and deputies.

In Saudi Arabia, the late King Abdullah issued a decree in 2013 which amended the kingdom's constitution, allowing women to be MPs in the country’s legislative body, the Shura Council.

The decree introduced a 20 percent quota for women in the Saudi assembly where all members are appointed by the King himself. Therefore, Saudi Arabia suddenly found itself with more female representatives in its lower house than the US, where there are no existing quotas for women.

Saudi female deputies attend one of the parliamentary sessions in Saudi Arabia in an undated photo.

Gender quotas were first introduced by several Western political parties through the establishment of rules in their respective charters since the late 1970s.

Quota projections eventually became "an increasing practice in legislatures for the state, or the parties themselves, to utilize formal or informal quota mechanisms to promote women as candidates and MPs" says American political scientist and an expert in the field Andrew Reynolds in one of his articles on the topic.

Indeed, that also explains why Rwanda is the number one country in terms of female representation. The country went through a terrible phase of violence in the 1990s and needed a post-conflict reconstruction for which the UN Security Council called Rwandan women to come forward. As a result, the new Rwandan constitution introduced a mandatory 30 percent quota for female representation in the country’s legislative body.

Rwandan MPs have been shown with the country's President Paul Kagame in an undated picture.

Other factors that have helped improve female representation worldwide include education, progressive legislative actions pushing equality, and grassroots movements strengthening the position of women in society.

At the same time, it would not be wrong to say that all these developments have partly been a byproduct of the women's suffrage movement which has defended the rights of women to vote in elections since the late 19th century.

Women's suffrage movement organises a demonstration in 1913 in Washington, D.C.

Rise of female leaders

At the turn of the 21st century, it became clear that world politics would no longer be owned by men. Currently, female leaders occupy top leadership seats in more than 15 countries including Germany, Poland, Scotland, Taiwan, Namibia, and Bangladesh.

There is also a serious chance that the world’s most powerful country could have a female president following the US presidential elections in November.

Hillary Clinton, a former first lady and US senator, claimed the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination this year after a series of wins in the primaries.

In the Netherlands, Khadija Arib, a Moroccan-Dutch woman of Muslim background, was elected as the new chairwoman of the House of Representatives in early 2016. She will oversee the Dutch parliament until March 2017.

Khadija Arib has been greeted by her Dutch colleagues at the Parliament following her election in Amsterdam on Jan. 13, 2016.

In fact, the changing political environment was evident in 1990s when Muslim majority countries, which have long been criticised for a lack of women's rights, had democratically elected female leaders as prime ministers.

Benazir Bhutto became the first Muslim woman to be elected as a prime minister in Pakistan in 1988. She was reelected in 1993 when Turkey, another Muslim majority country, also elected Tansu Ciller as their first female prime minister.

Benazir Bhutto speaks to the media in October, 2007. She was assassinated two months later.

Today, women of the world not only hold high positions in national governments, but they also aspire to take top leadership positions in international organisations.

Federica Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister, has been the current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission in the Juncker Commission since late 2014.

Angela Merkel, who has been the Chancellor of Germany more than a decade, is arguably the most powerful female politician at present. More to that, she is the leading personality in the European Union.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C), French President Francois Hollande (L) and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi attend a news conference at the chancellery during discussions on the outcome of the Brexit in Berlin, Germany, on June 27, 2016.

So are men finally stepping aside for women?

Hanno Rosin says yes to the question in her bestseller “The End of Men and Rise of Women.” Female skills and qualities are on the rise which heralds “the end of 200,000 years of human history and the beginning of a new era” of women, Rosin writes.

On top of that, Rosin states that “for the first time in history, the global economy is becoming a place where women are finding more success than men.”

Then, hail to thee! To the new masters of the world!

To the Cleopetras of modern times!

The lady in the case, an example of how some have interpreted women's involvement in government.

Author: Murat Sofuoglu