Women’s political participation is crucial to the global goals of achieving democracy and sustainable development. Without women’s full and equal participation in politics – be it as voters, candidates, elected officials or electoral administrators, at all levels of government – democracy has not been achieved. Indeed, the legitimacy of political institutions can be called into question where they do not adequately mirror the societies they aim to represent. Parliaments that do not fully reflect their people cannot, by definition, draw on the full range of talents in their society. Nor can they fully understand and address the needs and interests of their entire population.

In most societies, women represent more than 50 percent of the population and yet this has not translated to positions of political leadership. Globally, the goal of ‘gender balance’, as expressed in the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995, has not yet been achieved. As of January 2016, women represent 22.6 percent of all national parliamentarians (across both chambers). In executive government, only 12 women served as Head of State and 11 served as Head of Government as of February 2016 and 17 percent of the world’s ministers were women as of January 2015.

The countries of the Pacific region have found it challenging to reach these global averages, let alone the targets of 30 or 50 percent women’s representation. In this region, women represent on average 6.3 percent of all parliamentarians. Only in January 2016 was the first woman elected President of a Pacific country, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Furthermore the three countries in the world without women in parliament are in the Pacific, including Vanuatu.

In many countries a fast-track measure to improve the number of women elected to parliaments has been the adoption of electoral gender quotas – namely reserved seats or candidate quotas. Vanuatu adopted reserved seats at the municipal level in 2014. This means that under Municipalities (Amendment) Act No. 11 of 2013, a seat is reserved for women in each ward, and the provision is considered a temporary measure and will be in place for four terms, or 16 years.

What Are The Conditions for Successfully Increasing Women’s Political Participation?

Temporary special measures are proven strategies to increase women’s political representation and have allowed women to bypass the persistent challenges in seeking election. These challenges include a range of cultural, financial and political barriers that perpetuate women’s under- representation.

However studies have frequently concluded that electoral gender quotas can be ineffective unless they are context-appropriate and relevant to the electoral system. For the most effective results, electoral gender quotas should be accompanied
by a range of other measures including special media and advocacy campaigning; capacity development programmes for women candidates and elected officials; as well as campaign financing support for women running for office. More specifically, there should be:

  • Political will among parliamentary/political leadership
  • Monitoring and accountability mechanisms for the gender equality legal and policy framework (e.g. sanctions for non-compliance)
  • A gender sensitive electorate that accepts women’s role in public life and leadership
  • Political parties that actively promote women’ s participation and leadership
  • Advocacy support and lobbying from women’s organisations and civil society
  • Media (both traditional and social) that moves beyond gender stereotypes when it interacts with women MPs
  • An international development community that funds these activities and works collaboratively to promote gender equality

What are the arguments for and against Temporary Special Measures?

Arguments against:

  • Quotas are not based on merit; they give preference to women over men.
  • Women may be uneasy with being selected just because they are women, and may be stigmatised as ‘quota women’ (i.e. not as competent).
  • Quotas can act as an upper ceiling to women’s participation rather than a lower floor.
  • Legislated quotas (especially reserved seats) make women compete against women rather than campaign together to achieve greater influence.
  • Some view quotas as undemocratic by limiting the voters’ choice of candidates.
  • Some quotas might presume that only women can represent women.

Arguments for:

  • Women have the right to equal representation, and to have their life experiences reflected in politics, just as men do.
  • They are a ‘fast-track’, temporary way to achieve a better gender balance.
  • They compensate for barriers that prevent women from election.
  • Quotas give voters a chance to elect both women and men.
  • If women perform well, voters are likely to be more willing to elect women candidates in future elections, even in the absence of quotas.
  • Role model effect of having more women in parliament: more women will stand and gain election.
  • More women in parliament benefits society by drawing on wider range of talents and resources and strengthening democratic participation.

This article draws from the report: Temporary Special Measures to Increase Women’s Political Participation in the Pacific: Case Studies of Implementation in the Region. It was written by technical specialist Dr Sonia Palmieri, and mirrors the high quality discussions of the Pacific Regional Conference on Temporary Special Measures held in Port Moresby in November 2015.

Originally published in the November edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post Life and Style magazine