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World: Women Represent Influential Minority In Politics

  • Robert McMahon

A new study released ahead of International Women's Day indicates that the participation of women in politics has made a positive, "humanizing" impact on policy in a number of areas. But the survey says that, worldwide, women are still poorly represented in positions of political power. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 8 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which groups parliaments worldwide, was based solely on the perspectives of nearly 200 women politicians in 65 countries.

The politicians gave extensive written interviews about their experience as party members, parliamentarians or members of government.

The result, note officials of the IPU, showed a striking degree of commonality shared by a diverse group of women politicians worldwide. IPU Secretary-General Anders Johnsson told reporters earlier this week said there was a strong sense among women politicians that their perspective on life is making a difference in the way governments and legislatures deal with a number of issues.

"Basically they are sending the same message, and in their belief their great contribution to politics is that they bring a human dimension to it. Women, they find, are much closer to people, to the needs of people, to the social development of people."

The study said 86 percent of the respondents believed that the participation of women in politics had a positive impact on political discourse and activity. For example, women politicians in El Savador claim to have been instrumental in legislation to prevent domestic violence. Women parliamentarians in Ireland say they led the effort to require the mandatory reporting of child abuse.

Women politicians in Russia say that it is primarily women who are preparing legislation in the sphere of social policy, especially in labor and social security and protection of children's rights. There were claims similar to these from women politicians throughout Europe, Central America and in Asia.

But the IPU study said there are still entrenched attitudes by the male-dominated political culture in many countries that impede the access of women in politics. The study showed that only 13 percent of lawmakers in the 65 surveyed countries were women. It showed that the parliaments of only eight countries -- the five Nordic states, Germany, The Netherlands, and South Africa -- had a membership of 30 percent or more women.

Johnsson, the IPU secretary-general, said change needs to begin at the leadership level of political parties. He said parties need to allow women to advance to senior positions and become eligible to be placed on electoral lists. "The real target has to be political parties. The study shows there is now a gradual change in those same political parties. "

There are also practical matters preventing women from joining the political ranks in greater numbers. Sheila Finestein, a senator from Canada and a member of the IPU executive committee, noted that a large number of women politicians in the survey were concerned with family responsibilities. Respondents to the survey mentioned the strong pull of family duties for women, whether in educating and caring for children, or for older parents. They described a sense of guilt when holding political office because of the lengthy periods of time away from home.

Finestein spoke of the need for men and women to engage in a partnership on the political level. Together, she said, men and women are capable of accomplishing more.

"I would say to you that the message that I get is that it takes women as well as men and their life experience, which is different, to work together to create synergy to tackle community problems. "

One contributor to the survey from Eastern Europe -- those interviewed were not identified by name -- gave the same message as Finestein. Identified only as a leader of her parliamentary group, the woman told the survey that if the decision-making positions in parliament were distributed in a balanced manner between men and women, the working climate of politics would be enhanced.

She said her country needs to have a parliamentary committee on the status of women but she stressed that this committee should include male and female parliamentarians. Remarking on the poor representation of women in parliamentary committees, the Eastern European politician said: "Every man wants his daughter to live in better conditions. But not every man is aware of the effectiveness of having women on each parliamentary committee."