Despite the remarkable progress of women in many professions, politics is not one of them. Indeed, around the world, women have been conspicuous by their absence in decision and policy making in government. When the United Nations First World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City in 1975, the international community was reminded that discrimination against women remained a persistent problem in many countries; and even though governments were called upon to develop strategies to promote the equal participation of women, political participation was not yet identified as a priority. Since then, though there has been an increasing focus on women's representation and their impact on decision-making structures, the increased attention did not reflect in immediate results. For example, in 1975 women accounted for 10.9 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide; ten years later it increased by one mere percentage point to 11.9 per cent.
It was not until the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, held in 1985 in Nairobi, that governments and parliaments pledged to promote gender equality in all areas of political life. The initiatives were further consolidated ten years later in the Beijing Plan of Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women. It was also at this conference that violence against women was identified as an obstacle to the advancement of women requiring specific attention.
Since the Beijing Plan of Action, women's representation in parliaments and impact on political decision making has been the subject of much attention. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which has been engaged in research and the collection of data on women in parliaments, threw its weight behind United Nations initiatives to achieve women's full participation in politics. Although articulated many times, IPU's commitment at its best was perhaps seen in its statement in 1992:
"The concept of democracy will only achieve true and dynamic
significance when political policies and national legislation are
decided jointly by men and women with equitable regard for the
interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population."
In September 1997, IPU adopted the Universal Declaration on Democracy. It articulated the principle that democracy presupposed a genuine partnership between men and women that recognized differences and was enriched by them, and in which men and women worked as equals and complemented one another. This ethos imbues all of the work of the IPU, ensuring that gender partnership remains at the heart of all of its activities.
Not surprisingly, and in keeping with its commitment to gender equality and gender partnership, IPU has been involved in two related and complimentary activities: first, supporting men and women in their parliamentary role, including the promotion of women in political decision making; and more recently, mobilizing parliaments to take action to eliminate all forms of violence against women. It is now universally recognized that violence against women is the worst form of discrimination against women and an affront to equality. As a denial of women's fundamental human rights, it is an issue for both men and women. Accordingly, both initiatives were aimed at strengthening parliamentary democracy and involved the political leadership of men and women to drive needed change.
The results of this global attention on the need for greater participation by women in politics are encouraging. Today, 18.6 per cent of seats in parliaments are represented by women--a 60 per cent increase since 1995. On the other hand, one quarter of all parliaments still have less than 10 per cent participation by women. Progress is being made, but the pace has been slow, and advances are not occurring everywhere. Prejudice and cultural perceptions of women's roles, lack of financial resources and institutional insensitivity continue to impede women's access to and participation in politics. …