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Global South leads world in sending women to Parliament

Rwandan legislators attend a parliamentary session in Kigali, Rwanda

As Indian Parliament in a specially convened session to see the Women Reservation Bill 2023 through for reserving 33% seats in Parliament and state assemblies, a look at Legislative Houses in the Global South countries reveal that they lead in having gender parity than their counterparts in the developed world. Not only this, women in these countries also lead in holding executive positions, with several of them being heads of state.

Global South represents 130-odd developing countries from the regions of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Despite weak eco-political structures, these countries are achieving gender empowerment with unprecedented pace.

Overall, there are 24.6-26.5 per cent women members in Parliaments globally, and gender parity is on the rise gradually. Women percentage in cabinet positions has also gone up.

Six countries from the Global South have 50 per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses: Rwanda (61 per cent), Cuba (53 per cent), Nicaragua (52 per cent), Mexico (50 per cent), New Zealand (50 per cent), and the United Arab Emirates (50 per cent).

A further 23 countries have reached or surpassed 40 per cent, including 13 countries in Europe, six in Africa, three in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one in Asia.

Women hold 36 per cent of parliamentary seats in Latin America and the Caribbean and make up 32 per cent of parliamentarians in Europe and Northern America. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 26 per cent of women legislators followed by Eastern and South-Eastern Asia with 22 per cent, Oceania with 20 per cent, Central and Southern Asia with 19 per cent and Northern Africa and Western Asia with 18 per cent of women Members of Parliament.

Of the 47 countries holding elections last year, seven saw women elected or appointed to at least 40% of seats in a lower, upper or single chamber – Costa Rica, Sweden, Senegal, Denmark, Slovenia, Australia and Barbados.

Australia’s Senate made history when women won 56.6% of seats, the highest share of any upper chamber.

Women held at least 30% of seats in 64 countries by the end of 2022, up from 61 the previous year.

Leading countries

Out in front is Rwanda, where women hold more than 60% of seats and which in 2008 became the first country to have a female-majority Parliament. Women also outnumber men in Cuba (53%) and Nicaragua (52%).

New Zealand, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates have an even gender split, while Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden and South Africa are not far off.

The UAE did not have any women in its Federal National Council before 2006, but achieved gender parity in 2019 following a presidential decree.


Other countries making strides

Dominica, Chad, Mali and Uzbekistan have also made significant progress in recent years.

A new gender empowerment law in Sierra Leone, where women hold 13% of seats, will ensure they make up at least 30% of the parliament and cabinet after elections in June.

Worldwide, only a fifth of government ministers are women — and they are often given portfolios that focus on health, family, social affairs or the environment.

Countries that have appointed a female-majority or an equal-gender cabinet include Spain, Albania, Colombia, Rwanda, Canada and France.


Countries with poor record

Yemen has no women in its lower house, and just one in its upper house.

Vanuatu’s Parliament welcomed a lone female lawmaker last year, its first since 2008.

Women hold fewer than 10% of seats in more than 20 countries including Nigeria (3.6%), Qatar (4.4%) and Iran (5.6%).

Despite having the world’s first female prime minister in 1960, Sri Lanka is another laggard, with women making up about 5% of Parliament for the last 25 years.

Algeria and Tunisia are the main backsliders.

In 2021, Algeria saw the share of women in parliament fall from 26% to 8% following changes to its quota system.

The setback came despite women accounting for 37% of candidates.

In Tunisia, the number of female lawmakers is set to plunge following a recent election in the North African country – traditionally seen as a regional leader on women’s rights.

As in Algeria, Tunisian women say changes to the electoral system have made it harder for them to contest and win seats.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban Islamist group has erased women from public life since seizing the country in 2021.


Women heads of state, cabinet ministers

As of 1 January 2023, there were 31 countries where 34 women serve as Heads of State and/or Government. At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

Just 17 countries have a woman Head of State, and 19 countries have a woman Head of Government.

First-time compiled data by UN Women show that women represent 22.8 per cent of Cabinet members heading Ministries, leading a policy area as of 1 January 2023. There are only 13 countries in which women hold 50 per cent or more of the positions of Cabinet Ministers leading policy areas.

The five most commonly held portfolios by women Cabinet Ministers are Women and gender equality, followed by Family and children affairs, Social inclusion and development, Social protection and social security, and Indigenous and minority affairs.


Women participation and success of grass-root governance

While most countries in the world have not achieved gender parity, gender quotas have substantially contributed to progress over the years. In countries with legislated candidate quotas, women’s representation is five percentage points and seven percentage points higher in parliaments and local government, respectively, compared to countries without such legislation.

There is established and growing evidence that women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. For example, research on panchayats (local councils) in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was 62 per cent higher than in those with men-led councils. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage was found.

Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through parliamentary women’s caucuses — even in the most politically combative environments — and by championing issues of gender equality, such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws, and electoral reform.

(Sources of Statistics: UN Women, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and World Bank)