How Gender Sensitive Parliaments Aid Empowerment

“Today’s woman of Afghanistan is not yesterday’s. She is knowledgeable, educated and independent, and she is in the minority”

After the member of parliament (MP) from Afghanistan uttered these words at the recent conference on gender and politics at the UK Houses of Parliament, she went on to articulate that even though she holds public office, she is not as empowered as her male colleagues, nor does she have the same influence as they do in Afghanistan’s legislative process. She entered into politics, she said, to help the women of Afghanistan. Though we often hear of geopolitical developments in Afghanistan, the statistics pertaining to gender equality are devastating; female literacy is 12 percent, and even lower in rural areas, where 93 percent of the population, the majority of whom is women, is unable to read or write, according to the United Nations.

The spirit of the parliamentary conference – a gathering of more than 40 female MPs from around the world – was both passionate and sobering. Despite advances in labour market participation and political representation, womens’ access to basic services, and its consideration in policy, has yet to find adequate representation in the legislative process. This has been evident in the context of the millennium development goal to reduce maternal mortality rates. In this light, foremost in the discussions and keynote speeches was how best to achieve change. In particular, there was an emphasis on how gender sensitive parliaments are instrumental in fostering both political and economic empowerment in a sustainable fashion.

Gender sensitivity, and gender sensitive parliaments in particular, help break what an MP from Zimbabwe called the ‘patriarchal padlock’. This is the notion that parliaments are inherently patriarchal – created by men for men – and operate with norms and codes of conduct culturally coded as male. As with gender mainstreaming, a gender sensitive parliament takes the impact of any planned action onboth men and women into account, including its legislation, policies and programmes. As the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) notes, it is crucial that change operates at two levels: (I) operationally (i.e. in the form of parliamentary sitting times, caucuses, childcare facilities that are gender friendly) and (II) institutionally in re-writing (the often unwritten) codes of conduct that are disadvantageous to women in the political sphere.

‘Re-writing the unwritten’ occupied the epicenter of almost all discussions. How does one foster gender sensitivity when, as one delegate noted, “governments are very good at coming up with excuses to deny resources to women”? To be sure, a critical mass of women parliamentarians in office is crucial; the interparliamentary union’s (IPU) survey of women and men in parliaments found “women are overwhelmingly the drivers of change in terms of gender equality in parliament.” A 30 percent female participation rate, cited by both MPs and academics, is a tipping point for a sustainably higher level of gender sensitive legislation. IPU’s global estimate is 19 percent.

It is clear that both economic and political empowerment come hand in hand in order to effect sustainable change in gender equality. Political representation alone falls short in achieving economic empowerment for women. The Philippines and Zimbabwe have similar female-to-male parliamentary participation, according to the UN. Why is it the Philippines has a Magna Carta for women yet Zimbabwe was characterized during the course of the conference as having ”gender apartheid”? The seeming similarity in female parliamentary participation speaks to the importance of how women are empowered, not just in representation by numbers, but the terms of their access to the political and economic spheres.

In her speech to delegates, Professor Naila Kabeer commented that women face not one but “an interlocking set of constraints” when trying to gain economic and political empowerment. A pertinent example, given that most women in the global economy work in the informal sector, is microfinance. Though it has been instrumental in facilitating access to the market, the terms of that access (limited to finance with high interest rates) has been disadvantageous, and in some cases, has led to disempowerment through debt accumulation. Economic opportunity, Kabeer argues, must be accompanied by a broader political and budgetary agenda that includes support for education and life skills training for women. A growing constituency of middle class women will, in turn, support further representation of their interests in government.

Though the trigger for this kind of virtuous circle is context dependent, education is key. For many delegates, family and cultural practices that keep girls out of formal education – or educational systems that teach submissiveness to them – were deemed to be a primary obstacle to gender equality. When drafting the communiqué for the conference, it was the censure of these patriarchal cultural practices that was most discussed, in order to take a particular message back home. Rightly so: education is the cornerstone of what Martin Ravallion has termed a country’s ‘initial conditions’ determining the degree to which benefits of economic growth go to the most marginalized, who are often women. As the MP from Afghanistan commented in her closing statement: “barring education is the worst form of violence against women; without it, a woman is deaf and blind. Others make her decisions for her.”


Phyllis Papadavid

Phyllis Papadavid is a writer, economist and advisor to the government of Mongolia, consulting on policies regarding its Millenium Development Goals. Prior to this, for over a decade, Miss Papadavid was international economist and senior strategist at Societe Generale and the former Lehman Brothers advising on international macroeconomics and economic policy. A regular commentator on major television networks, she has published on a broad range of topics including the informal economy, financial crises and structural reform. Her research and professional interests are in gender equality, poverty alleviation and capital markets.