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Gender equality in politics still far away

This year, for the first time in history, women in every country will have the right to vote; Saudi Arabia ended its status as the final holdout by granting women the right to campaign for office and vote in municipal elections later this year. But it is still critical for the United States and others who work to build democracy around the world to focus on advancing women's political participation.

In the last 20 years, the number of female members of parliament (MPs) has doubled to 22 percent, which is still well below the 30 percent target set 20 years ago by the U.N. Only nine women are heads of government. Even when elected, women are seldom appointed to significant legislative committees or awarded the most prestigious ministerial posts. As of January, only 17 percent of MPs held ministerial posts, many of them focused on social sectors such as education and family.

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Women are rarely in leadership positions in sectors of society often seen as test grounds for higher political office, including business, the military and the legal profession. In the United States, only 24 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, and only five women have risen to the rank of 4-star general in the U.S. military. Women account for only 27 percent of federal and state judgeships and only 20 percent of partners in private law firms. Society's concept of "leadership" relies on models that have been chiefly defined by men.

Growth in women's political participation is often thanks to procedural measures that actively promote their role, such as quotas and electoral system reforms. In Rwanda, often cited as an example of the success of quotas, nearly 60 percent of MPs are women. Women hold 25 percent of parliamentary seats in countries that use proportional representation electoral systems, compared to about 20 percent of seats in countries that have a plurality/majority system (as in the United States). The more important factors are women's roles in society, attitudes of voters, women's willingness to become candidates, the challenge for many women of balancing public and private life, and the incentives for political parties to support female leaders.

Quotas for women legislators and electoral reform are controversial, and there are other ways to increase women's representation in democratically elected bodies, such as providing women with critical tools and information regarding participation as voters and candidates, and how to be successful as political leaders.

To advance women's political participation, international democracy assistance should not only provide women the tools they need for political leadership but address the societal and attitudinal changes that are slower in coming: New Zealand extended women the right to vote in 1893, but more than 120 years passed before women secured the vote worldwide.

U.S. civil society can help. The Carter Center is playing a leading role in highlighting the importance of access to information for women — and has documented the disadvantaged place of women in several country case studies. Freedom House has helped women build their political capacity at the community level in Jordan, through petitioning in Venezuela, and by weighing in about a new constitution in Zimbabwe.

Democracy must "work" for all people, women and men alike. The core principles of democratic governments — participation, accountability, transparency and quality — envision women playing leadership roles both in politics and every other sector of society.

Mary Ann Peters (maryann.peters@cartercenter.org) is CEO of the Carter Center. Mark P. Lagon is president of Freedom House (lagon@freedomhouse.org). Both organizations are members of the Advancing Democratic Elections and Political Participation (ADEPT) consortium.

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