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Georgia’s Women Say Gender Quota Bill Better Late Than Never

Georgian deputy Eka Beselia is one of only 24 women in the country's 150-member parliament, but that could soon be about to change. (file photo)
Georgian deputy Eka Beselia is one of only 24 women in the country's 150-member parliament, but that could soon be about to change. (file photo)

Better late than never is hardly a battle cry, but at this point Eka Beselia -- one of the few female members of the traditionally male-dominated politics of Georgia -- accepts it as such.

Wedged within the Caucasus at the crossroads between East and West, Georgia and its 3.7 million people have been caught in a cultural clash between liberal political forces and religious conservatives since it broke free from the former Soviet Union and began a series of social and economic reforms aimed at moving the country closer to the European Union.

While change on some fronts -- such as antidiscrimination laws -- has been lauded, the participation of women in politics in Georgia has failed to keep pace, seemingly even taking a step backwards.

That is, Beselia hopes, until now.

Earlier this month senior lawmakers from several parliamentary parties, including the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG), announced their support for legislation mandating gender quotas aimed at increasing the number of women in national and municipal legislatures around the country.

"We might be late as it would have been better if we adopted the bill earlier, but we can improve it now and decide on it as soon as possible," says Beselia, one of only 24 women in the 150-member parliament and chairwoman of the committee for legal issues.

Uphill Battle

Beselia, who hopes the new quota law will take effect next spring, has been fighting an uphill battle as she and others push for increased participation by women in politics.

According to the Interparliamentary Union, Georgia ranks 147th in the world in terms of women's representation in parliament. Locally, women comprise only 11 percent of some 2,000 municipal councilors across the country.

Even worse, there are no female mayors in Georgia, and only two out of the country's 69 "gamgebeli," or governors, are women.

The proposal supported by lawmakers, which was drafted by a grouping of local and international organizations that advocate for gender equality and greater political participation by women, calls for the introduction of a "zipper system" that would see male and female candidates alternate when they appear on party lists upon the ballots in national and municipal elections.

It also mandates that when a member of parliament or a city council leaves during her/his term, they must be replaced by a person of the same sex.

If the bill becomes law, it is forecast to almost double the number of female deputies in parliament after the next general election to 38, and further raise it substantially, to some 75 women, by 2024.

That is the year that Georgia has targeted for it to become a fully proportional parliamentary system from the current system that allocates 77 seats proportionally and 73 to those gaining a majority of votes in single-mandate constituencies.

Mandatory quota systems aren't the goal itself, but are the "best measure" to encourage women's participation in politics and a way to ensure "equal opportunities for the development and self-realization of women and men in public life," according to parliament chairman Irakli Kobakhidze.

"If approved, the bill will increase women's representation in parliament at least to 25 percent, that will be significant progress from the current figure [of some 6 percent]," Kobakhidze added.

Clearing an equal path to the corridors of power is proving a tough task across the Caucasus and in the nearby Central Asian region.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan all have low levels of female parliament members similar to Georgia, while Turkmenistan leads with 25.8 percent, according to data from the World Bank.

In Kyrgyzstan, often noted as a leader in democratic reforms in the region, a new election law adopted in 2007 was enacted after no women held legislative seats in 2005.

Under the new rules, women must comprise at least 30 percent of a political party's slate of candidates, while their election lists had to place a woman in at least every fourth spot.

Tip Of The Iceberg

Subsequent elections boosted the proportion of women elected to parliament to just above 25 percent, though that number has since slipped to just under 20 percent due to the resignations of some deputies.

Legal changes are a start, say critics like Beselia, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.

Changing cultural attitudes in a deeply patriarchal society such as Georgia -- which is rife with contradictions -- will take a lot longer.

According to one commentator, Georgia is still "still very much defined by the traditional roles which leave women in the space of home and family." (illustrative photo)
According to one commentator, Georgia is still "still very much defined by the traditional roles which leave women in the space of home and family." (illustrative photo)

Research by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) this year shows that public perceptions among both men and women in Georgia demonstrate a belief that politics are a "dirty" and "rough" playing field that is too intense for women to handle.

"There is a lack of consensus of the existence of the problem," says Maka Meshveliani, who leads the UNDP's For Gender Equality initiative in Georgia.

"Georgia is still a patriarchal country, it is still very much defined by the traditional roles which leave women in the space of home and family, whereas politics is reserved for men," she adds.

While Georgia has jumped to the forefront among former Soviet republics on such liberal issues as decriminalizing marijuana -- which the Georgian Supreme Court did on November 30 -- the country has disappointed civil rights groups on gay rights.

Georgia was ranked as the world's third-most homophobic country in a World Value Survey, with more than 90 percent of Georgians saying they would not want to have a homosexual neighbor.

Well-known national soccer player Guram Kashia received an avalanche of criticism from Georgian journalists and in social-media forums when he wore a rainbow-colored captain's armband in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community during a game in the Netherlands in October.

Such attitudes towards the LGBT community in Georgia are greatly influenced by traditional stigmas and values held by the Georgian Orthodox Church, which has led protests against gay rights.

And although a 2016 study by the Heinrich Boll Foundation concluded that Georgia had made "significant progress" in recent years by passing laws protecting LGBT rights, it concluded that the new legislation was a result of "the country's declared pro-Western course" rather than an "informed choice of the political elite" or a sign of a changing society.