MIDDLE EAST: Quota, What Quota? How Parliaments Lack Female Touch in Arab Region

Monday, March 5, 2012
Al Arabiya News
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Across the Middle East, countries are witnessing parliamentary changes under newly-installed governments which have been credited as a result of the Arab Spring.

It means issues such as setting quotas for women in parliament have stepped into the limelight under a post-revolutionary glow, in the hope that new governments can take advantage of pro-democracy reform.

However, this has not resulted in the greater gender equality in parliament that bystanders were expecting, recent reports and analysis reveal.

The pro-democracy protests which toppled leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya throughout 2011 – leaving these countries in a politically transitional limbo – has led to a fewer number of women in their parliaments.

“We can see setbacks have occurred, particularly in Egypt where the percentage of women parliamentarians has fallen from 12 to 2 percent,” Abdelwahad Radi, president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, told a news conference in New York this week.

Parliamentary elections were held in Egypt over the past four months, the first since the overthrow of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

While in October, voters headed to the polls in Tunisia - the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings. No date has yet been set for elections in Libya.

But Radi said that opportunities for parliaments to have a greater female touch after the Arab Spring were not being seized in the region, where women make up 10.7 percent of parliamentarians in 2011, unchanged from 2010.

Quotas in government ensure that women constitute a certain number or percentage of the members of a body, whether it is a candidate list, a parliamentary assembly, a committee, or a government. The system has been internationally identified as a method which enhances female participation in political arenas, proving extra beneficial in weaker democracies. The system has had a positive effect on increasing women's involvement in politics, according to a U.N. report. Out of the 59 countries around the world which held elections last year, 17 of them had legislated quotas, the “Women in Politics 2012” report noted. In those countries, women gained 27 per cent of parliamentary seats compared to 16 per cent in countries without quotas.

“I encourage countries to use quotas to expand women's participation in parliament,” Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and executive director of U.N. Women, which focuses on gender equality said in the New York conference.

“It is also good to open public debate about the right of women to take part in government and to hold public office. Democracy grows stronger with the full and equal participation of women,” she added.

Of 188 countries, the report found 20 had parliaments where women made up at least a third of the representation. Rwanda and Andorra were the only countries with more than 50 percent. But at the other end of the scale were seven countries with no female representation: Belize, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Solomon Islands.

But a “strong affirmative measure” by Tunisia was reported in the study, after the post-revolutionary country required parties to list women alternately with men on ballots. But in practice, this did not lead to an improvement in female participation as more than 80 parties competed for one seat in any one constituency.

“As a result, two fewer women were elected in 2011 than in the previous election in 2009,” the report found.

In light of the dismal figures in Egypt, a women's rights group has taken action. The Egyptian Alliance for the Participation of Women, which is made up of 450 associations and NGOs, sent a letter to the country's ruling military council on Monday calling for the representation of women in the

Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, with a percentage of not less than 30 percent, according to a report by online Egyptian news website Bikya Masr.

But increasingly shocking figures have continued to be reported. According to the United Nations study, the Arab region is the only area in the world without a parliament of at least 30 percent women.

“(The election of women) doesn't happen by accident,” says Bachelet. “Temporary or transitional measures, such as quotas ... it's necessary to include those kinds of measures if we want to accelerate women's participation in politics.”

And Kuwait, a Gulf state which recently introduced a cabinet after a snap parliamentary election, has shown how recent governmental changes can take a turn for the worse for women.

The election came in the wake of popular frustration with corruption and political paralysis, but the election resulted in a 16-strong cabinet devoid of women members for the first time since 2005. The country's last assembly had included four female lawmakers.

Perhaps the time has come for such countries to introduce quotas as part of their constitution or national legislation, as is the case in Uganda, Argentina, India and the like, “reserving seats” for women and ensuring their political inclusion.

In the Arab countries which aim to start anew, the implementation of a quota system could prove easy under new political structures being created. On an international level, quotas have been criticized for preventing an increase in women's representation, namely above the quota level or the number of “reserved seas.” But most Arab countries are yet to reach this stage, despite political changes throughout the region opening doors for legislative change.