Women are barely winning more seats in parliament, says IPU

The year of 2021 started off with Kaja Kallas taking office in January as Estonia’s first woman Prime Minister. (Credit: Stenbock House)

The progress of women in politics stalled in 2021, with female lawmakers barely holding more seats in parliament by the end of the year than they did at the start, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported on Friday. 

In its annual report on women in parliament, the IPU said that the global average of female parliamentarians inched forward by 0.6 percentage points to reach 26.1 per cent by the end of 2021. This was the same pace of progress as in 2020 and 2019. 

Meanwhile only 18 women were made speakers, the top parliamentary position, out of 73 elected across chambers around the world. 

“Every woman who is elected brings parliaments one step closer to becoming more inclusive and representative. But progress is still far too slow with half the world’s population still under-represented,” said Lesia Vasylenko, president of the IPU bureau of women parliamentarians.  “There is an urgent need to remedy this to strengthen democracy everywhere.” 

In total, 48 countries held parliamentary elections in 2021, with women candidates winning 28.6 per cent of the new seats – a cumulative improvement of 2.1 percentage points compared to previous elections.

Five countries (Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and the United Arab Emirates) achieved gender parity or a greater share of women in parliament –  up from three in 2021 – and many other countries such as Cabo Verde and Peru also made significant headway. 

Overall, the Americas region saw the highest share of female representation of all regions across the world, with 39.1 per cent of MPs elected or nominated in 2021 being women.

But there were also dramatic setbacks in Algeria and elsewhere, with women’s representation remaining stubbornly low in countries such as Japan and Tonga.

The case for quotas

Electoral quotas, which require countries to appoint a minimum number of female lawmakers, are still one of the most critical success factors in increasing women’s representation, according to the IPU. 

Among the 30 countries that had some form of quota in place for the single or lower house in 2021, 31.9 per cent of MPs elected were women, compared to 19.5 per cent in countries with no form of quotas, it said. 

The IPU gives the case of Cabo Verde, which in 1999 became one of the first countries in the world to introduce a quota system. In 2019, it introduced a new law requiring at least 40 per cent representation for women and men on candidate lists. 

At last year’s elections, almost half of candidates (48.6 per cent) were women, compared with just 13.3 per cent in 2016. This helped play a role in the final results, which saw women make up 37.5 per cent of all those elected – up 14.5 percentage points on 2016’s election and the highest share of the 10 countries that held parliamentary renewals in the sub-Saharan African region in 2021.

But despite the “critical” role of quota in closing the gender gap, some are not having the impact they set out to have, particularly in Latin America, where women in the region still face a high threat of political violence, and violence in general. 

Speaking to Bloomberg about the limitations of gender quotas in Latin America, Maria-Noel Vaeza, regional director of UN Women for the Americas and Caribbean, said that “parties often understood quotas as the ceiling and not the minimum requirement for women’s participation”, and that it was time now to move from quotas to parity. 

In the Americas region, women were elected to 38.2 per cent of seats in lower or single chambers where some form of quota existed, but only 14.5 per cent women were elected in the absence of any quota.  

“These examples underscore the fact that simply having a quota in place may not facilitate greater women’s representation. To be effective, quotas must be clear, well drafted and supported by enforcement mechanisms,” the IPU said in its report. 

Women and Covid-19

Covid-19 hit women harder in a multitude of ways around the world, but it has also put female leaders in the spotlight as role models in successfully steering their economies through the pandemic. 

From New Zealand to Germany to Taiwan, women paved the way forward for how to manage the coronavirus crisis. Plenty of countries with male leaders have also done well, but few with women have done badly. 

IPU President, Duarte Pacheco, said: “If there is one success story that came through clearly during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that women leaders were very successful in mitigating the impact of the virus on people’s health and lives. More women in parliaments means post-pandemic leadership will be more attentive to all people. We cannot afford for the momentum to slow in electing more women to parliament.”

Women claim top political leadership roles

In addition to the women being elected to parliaments, last year also saw women winning leadership roles for the first time in many countries around the world.  

Eight countries elected or swore in their first woman head of state or government, according to UN Women, with Barbados, Estonia and Moldova having women as president and prime minister for at least part of the year.

Kaja Kallas took office as Estonia’s first woman prime minister in January,  Samia Suluhu Hassan was elected Tanzania’s first woman president in March and Najla Bouden Ramadhane became the first woman to lead a country in the Arab region after being elected prime minister of Tunisia in September. 

Samoa, Uganda, Sweden, Honduras, and the new republic of Barbados – which held its first elections last year after parting ways with the British monarchy  –  also elected female presidents or prime ministers. 

In the US, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman vice-president in the history of the United States of America and also the first Black-American and Asian-American to fill the role. She also became president of the Senate.

IPU secretary general, Martin Chungong, urged countries to adopt stronger laws and policies, strengthen their workplace culture and create “a safe political space” for women so that they can increase their presence in politics. 

“Despite uneven progress worldwide, 2021 was full of positive examples of women stepping up to claim their space in politics. However, we can and must do so much more. Especially men. We cannot achieve gender parity without men and women working together,” he said.