According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international parliamentary organization that conducts an annual head count of female lawmakers, it's developing countries -- and not the so-called "old democracies" -- that are doing the most to ensure a fair gender balance in parliament.
Flowers On Women's Day
Among the last-place finishers in this year's IPU survey of 189 national parliaments, is Kyrgyzstan, which has no female lawmakers.
The situation hasn't gone unnoticed. Activists in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on March 6 presented male lawmakers with flowers, congratulating them ahead of International Women's Day on March 8.
They would have preferred to give the flowers to female parliamentarians, the activists explained -- but since there were none, the men would have to do.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, former lawmaker Jolbor Jorobekov bemoaned the situation -- but offered a clue to the mind-set behind it.
"Of course, it's very sad that there are no women in parliament, and very few in higher positions of power," he said. "I think if we hold new parliamentary elections in 2010 based on party lists, then we'll have some women in parliament. I'm personally opposed to giving a certain number of seats to women, or giving them an equal number [to those of the men]. I think a woman's main mission is raising children, bringing up a new, worthy generation. But to have some 10-20 percent of women [in parliament] would look natural."
The tongue-in-cheek gesture came on the same day that lawmakers took a small step toward improving the gender equation -- approving a woman, Aichurek Eshimova, as head of the country's Central Election Commission.
Eshimova, holding a congratulatory bouquet of her own, brusquely took the floor and told parliamentary deputies that she would do everything in her powers to ensure clean elections.
"The election commission will organize the elections, not the authorities," she said. "I have been working [as a commission member] for a long time, and I have been fighting against the involvement of the government administration [in the election process]."
Equal, But Toothless
From Rwanda at the top to Kyrgyzstan at the bottom, there are surprising trends in which countries do best at incorporating women into their lawmaking structures.
For example, Cuba -- which just came under harsh criticism from the U.S. State Department for its human rights record -- is in eighth place. Women there hold 36 percent of the seats in its single-chamber parliament, the National Assembly of People's Power.
Then there is Belarus, which has been called the "last dictatorship in Europe." But with roughly 30 percent representation by women in both its lower and upper houses, it ranks higher (21st place) than many of its critics -- including Lithuania (32nd), Poland (48th), Canada (47th), and the United Kingdom (52nd).
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said he would be happy to see as many as 40 percent of parliament seats held by women. In defending the need for more female lawmakers, however, he has praised not their intelligence or determination, but their "kindness."
"The region that is doing best right now -- and this will come as a surprise to many people -- is the Arab world and the [Persian] Gulf countries," IPU Secretary-General Anders Johnson notes.
"They are starting farther behind than any of the other regions. They [have] the longest way to go," he continues. "But they seem to take it in large strides. And the one country, for example, that had the largest gain this year -- with well over a 20 percent increase -- is the United Arab Emirates. So that is a positive sign."
There are still notable exceptions in that region. In Iran, where more than 30 female activists were arrested on March 4, women hold just 4.1 percent of parliament seats.
One of Kyrgyzstan's companions at the bottom of the IPU survey is Saudi Arabia, where women are still unable to vote, let alone run for election.
Another is Qatar. Women there can vote, but officials this year ruled out the introduction of a quota system to grant women a minimum number of parliament seats.
The Question Of Quotas
A quota system is often the essential first step toward quashing traditional notions that women and government don't mix. Both Iraq and Afghanistan, in creating their first postwar governments, reserved a certain portion of seats for female lawmakers.
Johnson says quotas break through those gender stereotypes -- and often lead to better, more equitable legislation. "We find that the women who are in parliament tend to bring a different kind of sensitivity and sensibility on social issues than men do, and as a result that tends to lead to legislation, budgets, and programs that are more gender-sensitive, and therefore better in many ways from a gender-equality point of view," he says.
Post-Soviet Rhetoric, Not Reality
One region that "could be doing better," according to Johnson, is the former USSR. There, Soviet rhetoric about the social and economic emancipation of women has not translated into gender parity in government.
Apart from Belarus (30 percent) and Moldova, where women hold 22 percent of parliament seats, CIS countries fare poorly.
In Russia, just 9.8 percent of seats in the State Duma, or lower house, are held by women. In the upper house, the Federation Council, that figure drops to just 3.4 percent.
In that case, the figures may reflect public antipathy toward women in power. A 2006 survey conducted by the Levada polling center showed that 56 percent of Russian men are "strongly opposed" to having a female president. Perhaps more surprisingly, one-fourth of Russian women feel the same way.
"The attitudes of the population, of politicians, of decision-makers, is to a large extent determined by a Soviet mentality -- behind which stand even more archaic values," says Boris Dubin, a Levada Center sociologist. "The population believes that having women in politics is not bad, provided they don't occupy leading posts. In the opinion of Russia's general public, and of a large number of politicians, a politician is a man of mature age, preferably ethnically Russian."
Even countries eager to demonstrate their enthusiasm for democratic progress and reform fall fairly low on the IPU survey. Georgia and Ukraine, for example, have just 9.4 and 8.7 percent female representation in parliament.
At the same time, however, those women who are in politics there are often extremely powerful -- for example, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who currently heads her own parliamentary bloc.
Other figures include:
-- Tajikistan: 62nd place, with 17.5 percent (lower house) and 23.5 percent (upper house);
-- Uzbekistan: tied for 62nd place, with 17.5 percent (lower house) and 15 percent (upper house);
-- Azerbaijan: 89th place, with 11.3 percent;
-- Kazakhstan: 95th place, with 10.4 percent (lower house) and 5.1 percent (upper house);
-- Armenia: 123rd place, with 5.3 percent.
The repressive Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan fares somewhat better, ranking 68th with 16 percent of its parliament seats held by women.
Practice What You Preach
That puts it just below the United States -- where women make up 16.3 percent in the House of Representatives and 16 percent of the Senate.
It also puts it far above France, which comes in 86th place, with women making up 12.2 percent of the National Assembly and 16.9 percent of the Senate.
Apart from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, which are among the highest-ranked countries on the IPU survey, Johnson says there are few "old democracies" doing anything to boost the role of women in government:
"The ones that we hold forth as being shining examples of what countries should be doing are very often the developing countries, be they in Latin America; in Africa; increasingly, as I say, in the Arab region as well," he says.
"And of course, the Nordic countries in particular have a long and good track record. We would like the old democracies -- starting with the United States, France, and some others -- to learn from these countries and practice [at home] what they preach in those countries."
Meanwhile, the countries of Southeastern Europe generally do better than those of the former Soviet Union, with the notable exceptions of Montenegro and Albania:
-- Bosnia-Herzegovina: 76th place, with 14.3 percent (lower house) and 6.7 percent (upper house);
-- Macedonia: 24th place, with 28.3 percent;
-- Croatia: 45th place, with 21.7 percent;
-- Serbia: tied with Poland for 48th place, with 20.4 percent;
-- Montenegro: 105th place, with 8.6 percent;
-- Albania: 114th place, with 7.1 percent.
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report.)
A session of Forum 2000 in Prague on October 9, 2006 (RFE/RL)
'DILEMMAS OF GLOBAL COEXISTENCE.' RFE/RL has a close relationship with Forum 2000, an important global conference of ideas and initiatives. On October 9-10, 2006, RFE/RL sat down with several Forum 2000 participants to find out more about their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing the modern world.