Strengthening women in parliament

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Strengthening women in parliament
Susan A. Markham

Director, Women’s Political Participation

National Democratic Institute

“The world is wasting a precious resource today. Tens of thousands of talented women stand ready to use their professional expertise in public life; at the same time, they are dramatically underrepresented in positions of leadership around the world.”

—Madeleine K. Albright

Chairman, NDI Board of Directors

NDI has supported democratic institutions and practices in every region of the world for more than two decades. This paper provides an overview of strategies for improving democratic governance by increasing women’s representation and men’s awareness of the value of women’s participation in parliaments. Best practices include providing support to women legislators, strengthening the institution, promoting cross-party caucuses and working with gender affairs committees.
Governance is the way in which governments and public sector institutions guarantee the rule of law, promote economic growth and provide some measure of social protection to citizens. Generally, the term “democratic governance” refers to a government’s ability to deliver on these promises while adhering to the democratic values of transparency, representation, pluralism, and accountability. Governance programs seek to promote effective public-sector institutions and processes that operate in a manner consistent with these democratic values by working with legislatures, executive offices, and local governments. NDI delivers technical and institutional support to these bodies, while acknowledging their political nature.
Working with individual members, parliamentary leadership, committees, staff, and political party caucuses, NDI governance programs are tailored to help overcome the hurdles that developing legislatures commonly face. Ongoing training and advice are offered on a number of issues including committee structure and operations, constituency relations, executive-legislative relations, legislative and constitution drafting, negotiation skills, legislative agenda development, party caucus operations, legislative analysis and research, legislator roles and responsibilities, and legislative budget processes.
All these areas are relevant to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. Gender mainstreaming requires attention to the different impacts of governance programming on men and women. How legislation or government norms might affect men and women differently and might perpetuate disparities between them is important to consider as programs are implemented. Moreover, the opportunities and constraints to developing equitable legislation and gender-sensitive budgets need to be discussed with those involved in governance programs.

Why women
When women are empowered as political leaders, countries experience higher standards of living, and positive developments can be seen in education, infrastructure and health.1 Women’s participation positively affects communities, legislatures, political parties, and citizen’s lives, and helps democracy deliver. Several studies show that women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democratic governance, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs,2 increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines,3 and more sustainable peace.4
Women are deeply committed to peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction and have a unique and powerful perspective to bring to the negotiating table. Research and case studies suggest that peace agreements, post-conflict reconstruction and governance have a better chance of long-term success when women are involved.5 Furthermore, there is strong evidence that establishing sustainable peace requires transforming power relationships, including achieving more equitable gender relations.6
Research indicates that whether a legislator is male or female has a distinct impact on their policy priorities.7 There is strong evidence, for instance, that as more women are elected to office, there is a corollary increase in policy making that emphasizes the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities. Women must be actively engaged in governance to represent the concerns of women and other marginalized voters and to suggest policy alternatives.
Research specifically looking at gender styles in legislative committees shows that women’s leadership and conflict resolution styles embody democratic ideals and that women tend to work in a less hierarchical, more participatory, and more collaborative way than male colleagues.8 Women are also more likely to work across party lines and strive for consensus, even in partisan and polarized environments.
Moreover, women lawmakers say in studies that they see issues like health care, the environment and combating violence more broadly as social issues,9 and that women more than men see government as a tool to help serve underrepresented or minority groups.10 Women lawmakers are often perceived as more sensitive to community concerns. Recent focus groups convened by NDI in Kenya, for instance, showed that both women and men regard female members of parliament (MPs) as performing better than men in terms of constituent representation.

Best practices
Democratic governments that fail to deliver basic levels of stability and services risk losing their legitimacy. NDI programs address these issues through programs that assist governments in listening and responding to the most pressing citizen concerns. NDI programs target legislators, legislative staff, executive offices, and local governments and build the capacity of representative institutions. Programs are designed to help shape laws and policies that reflect national and constituent interests—both men’s and women’s—and oversee the work of the executive branch, particularly with regard to the national budget.
Programs that specifically promote women’s participation in each of these areas of governance are critical for better responding to citizen needs and narrowing the gap that exists in all societies between women and men, in terms of access to resources, decision-making authority, and political power. Gender mainstreaming in governance programs ensures equality at all levels - in research, legislation, policy development, and program activities. It also helps to ensure that women as well as men shape, participate in, and gain from these activities. While, separate, stand-alone women’s programs can be extremely effective, too often they are an after-thought or an “add-on.” Frequently, they are under-funded and not integrated into overall programming goals. Divorced from day-to-day political realities in which male leaders dominate, they do not succeed in changing these dynamics. Programs to support women’s participation should, instead, be an important component of a comprehensive strategy to build democracy and improve governance.
Provide Support to Women Legislators

Once elected, women and men legislators need support, training and advice in navigating the institution of parliament. Training should be provided in the core responsibilities of legislators: constituent relations, legislative duties, and executive oversight, including consideration of national budgets. In addition to the provision of standard technical assistance such as tutorials in rules of procedure, committee structure and operations, legislative roles and responsibilities, and executive-legislative relations, training programs for newly elected legislators should take into account specific circumstances. For instance, women legislators are less likely to have previously served as politicians than their male colleagues and more likely to have a civil society background. This should be taken into account as programs are created.

For women to be effective parliamentarians, they must clearly understand the functions of the legislature and they must learn the rules of the game—both the written and unwritten codes, and the procedures and mechanisms for getting things done. They must first learn the internal practices of parliament in order to equip themselves to utilize these rules better and to devise effective strategies to change the rules to advance women’s interests and goals.
Training programs should address the gaps in women’s formal or political education, while seeking to maximize or “translate” their existing skill sets in areas such as service delivery, advocacy, household business and management skills into the political realm. Training should be conducted in a supportive, non-threatening environment that allows for growth and learning. Trainers should consider conducting mixed-sex and single-sex sessions. Single-sex sessions for women have proven useful in building self-confidence as they provide a “safe” learning environment in which women are more likely to actively engage. Given the need for women to ultimately interact with male counterparts to be successful, there is also a need to include forums for a mixed audience where men and women are exposed to the skills of their peers. When designing training for legislators, make sure that training on gender analysis and gender budgeting includes male and female participants. Training programs should be ongoing and progressively more advanced; the “one-off” training model should be avoided. Instead, sequential training sessions should be offered that allow legislators to apply what they have learned.
It is useful to make a distinction at this point between women’s issues and women’s perspectives. Women’s issues are issues that mainly affect women, either due to largely physical concerns (e.g. breast cancer screening, reproductive rights) or for social reasons (e.g. gender equality or childcare policy). Women’s perspectives are women’s views on all political concerns. New women legislators, because of their gender and/or their previous experience, are often pushed to focus on “women’s issues” and other “soft” topics such as education and health. Women legislators need to have the knowledge and understanding of both women’s issues and women’s perspectives, and therefore, should be offered training in an array of subjects such as finance, security, and defense so that they are able to access influential parliamentary committees where women have not traditionally served.
In Mexico, NDI collaborated with Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (INMUJERES, National Institute of Women) and the Gender and Equity Commission (CEG) to design and implement skills building workshops for congresswomen-elect. The workshops began with the discussion of the principal disparities between men in women in Mexico’s economic, political and social realms. The Executive Secretary of INMUJERES presented the Institute’s gender agenda for the upcoming legislative session. This was followed by message development training, a panel of women who discussed lessons learned in the current legislature, and a half-day legislative consensus building workshop based on best practices. The day ended with the presentation of a case study that described the benefits that local non-profits garnered in establishing a working alliance with the CEG to monitor the budgetary process in terms of gender. The second day featured a political negotiation and advocacy workshop, including skills such as alliance building and political mapping to identify allies and opponents.
Mentoring and networking with women who have previously served in elected office is also useful to women legislators. These connections provide quick access to the informal rules and procedures that enable effective legislating and invaluable support to new MPs entering the institution. Another type of training program that has been used successfully with women legislators is the study tour. These programs provide an education in comparative democracy and an opportunity to see how women in other countries have influenced the legislative agenda. They also foster international parliamentary networks and build the confidence and credibility of women legislators.
Several years ago, Somali women were seeking to play a greater role in government and the political process. To aid in this effort, NDI organized a study tour to Uganda and workshops in Mogadishu to help women MPs and civil society representatives plan legislative and advocacy initiatives. The Uganda study mission focused on the role women played in drafting the Ugandan constitution and on the operation of the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association (UWOPA), including how it prioritizes issues, builds consensus and crafts legislative strategy. UWOPA members explained the importance of women’s caucuses and how they complement parliamentary women’s/gender committees. The information was particularly useful for the Somali women, who faced a backlash from some members of the Somali Transitional Federal Parliament who argued that a women’s caucus was unnecessary because a parliamentary gender committee already existed.
Strengthen the Institution

In addition to supporting individual members of governing bodies, programming can also provide institutional assistance to legislatures – such as training for legislative staff, supporting legislative libraries, collecting relevant publications, instructing research staff with regard to information management, and providing guidance on the effective functioning of a Speaker’s Office. There are several types of support that can be provided to strengthen both women’s participation and gender integration efforts within legislative institutions.

When women enter a legislature, they often encounter an institutional culture that does not accommodate their needs. There can be infrastructure challenges such as the actual architecture or location of the building where the legislature meets and the availability of women’s restrooms, and there can be cultural challenges such as dress codes or how parliamentary members refer to each other.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union has conducted research on the question of gender-sensitive parliaments and institutional culture.11 In a survey of parliamentarians from more than a hundred countries “respondents were asked if the presence of women in parliament had brought about a change, particularly if parliamentary language and behavior were less aggressive. Responses were diverse, although overall two-thirds thought that there was a ‘noticeable’ or ‘small change’ in parliamentary language and behavior, and this was more strongly felt among men than women. Interestingly, those who believed that a ‘substantial change’ had resulted tended to be women from the Arab States and Africa where an increased women’s parliamentary presence is a relatively new occurrence.”
Often the changes that women put in place benefit men as well as women, and staff as well as members of parliament.12 When women entered South Africa’s first post-apartheid parliament, for example, they initially had difficulty balancing family and political responsibilities. Women fought to eliminate evening and nighttime parliamentary sessions, which conflicted with family responsibilities. They also instituted child-care services in the parliament building. Eventually, men began to use the childcare services for their families, too.
Another way to strengthen legislative institutions is to enable greater inclusiveness in the policy making processes. Changes in parliamentary structures and procedures might include the introduction of proportionality norms for men’s and women’s membership in committees, the establishment of women’s whips and formal or informal quotas for women in various legislative positions. Inclusiveness might also broaden the range of issues that are prioritized on the legislative agenda. All legislation affects both women and men. Women legislators can be influential on all issues – from defense to health care, financial reform to education policy. There are, however, certain categories of legislation that have a direct and specific impact on women’s rights and that women tend to prioritize. Key areas of concern for women in developing and post-conflict countries include nationality and citizenship, succession and property ownership, marriage and family law, and protection from gender-based violence.
In December 2009, Serbia’s first Gender Equality Law was adopted by the parliament. This was the third time that such a Law was considered, but previous efforts had failed due to a lack of political will and a lack of solidarity among women MPs. Apart from the adoption of this important law, the female MPs ongoing cooperation with each other during parliamentary debate resulted in significant improvements to the law, itself.. The three most important improvements in the legislation were 1) the obligation of employers to develop plans to ensure women’s equal participation in the workforce, in management, in equal access to training, and to report annually on the implementation of these plans; 2) the insertion of language that prevents exclusion and discrimination of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population; and 3) the obligation of local governments to establish bodies responsible for monitoring local policies from an equal opportunity perspective.
Similarly, all MPs – not just women – should learn how to conduct gender analysis and to review and revise legislation for gender-responsiveness. Training on gender issues and gender analysis should be included in workshops that are about other topics so as to reach beyond the usual suspects who are likely to self-select gender workshops. For example, a training session on budget analysis should include at least one section on gender-responsive budgeting. Or, training on constituent relations should include a review of the differences between men and women citizens’ policy priorities and abilities to access legislators. In other words, practitioners should ensure that their own training and capacity building programs are gender mainstreamed.
Promote Women’s Cross-party Caucuses

Women’s caucuses serve to amplify women’s voices. By coming together in a formal caucus, women are more likely to be able to shape the parliamentary agenda. In sharing resources such as staff time, training materials, and research budgets, women caucus members can more efficiently and strategically advance their agendas. Such caucuses not only advance women’s policy priorities, they provide an important model of democratic governance and collaborative policymaking, particularly in post-conflict or highly polarized environments.

Women have proven themselves to be particularly adept at cross-party collaboration. This is a critical skill when forming a women’s caucus. Because their leadership style tends to be less hierarchical, more participatory and collaborative, women are more likely to work across party lines than their male colleagues. This commitment to collaboration holds true even in highly partisan environments, and has particular implications for post-conflict countries. In Sri Lanka, NDI worked with women politicians from all parties to identify non-partisan issues on which they could all come together, despite extreme political tensions, to draft and endorse a platform for improving women’s political participation. They demonstrated that women party members are prepared to cross the boundaries of party, ethnicity, religion, language and district to meet their objectives.
Women’s caucuses are not without their challenges. In some political systems, women are elected indirectly or are elected through party lists, feel beholden to their party leadership and thus may feel that crossing party lines may result in their not being selected to serve again after the next election. Often women’s caucuses get no budgetary or staffing support from the parliament and have to look for donors and partners among the international community. And in some countries, particularly those with very few women parliamentarians, a women’s caucus can be easily marginalized, particularly in its early days. Caucus members can quickly become over-whelmed, particularly if they have greater capacity or commitment to analyzing and drafting gender-sensitive legislation than the members of the parliament’s gender committee (see below for more information on these).
Women’s caucuses can also act as the primary entry point to provide women legislators with the information and support they need and to build connections between civil society and legislatures. Women’s organizations of all kinds can provide research, experts and even draft policies on a range of women’s issues and provide insight into ways in which other legislation involving issues such as water, education reform or land rights may affect women differently than men. Women’s caucuses can identify important upcoming committee meetings or votes for CSOs in order to help them strategize to influence the outcome.
Governance programs should provide ongoing technical and financial assistance to women’s caucuses, including support for research, legislative drafting, constituent services, and skills-building in areas such as public speaking, lobbying, and strategic planning. Support like this enhances not only individual women’s capacity, but also overall institutional capacity.
Work with Women’s and Gender Affairs Committees

In addition to meeting in plenary with the full body, most legislatures or parliaments conduct a significant portion of their work through committees. All legislatures organize themselves according to internal rules of procedure, and committee systems vary from country to country. Usually, however, they include some combination of standing (permanent) committees and select or special committees. There are typically committees in parliament that serve as legislative counterparts to and correspond with each government ministry.

Many, but not all, legislatures include committees that have jurisdiction over women’s affairs or gender affairs. Typically a committee with jurisdiction over women’s affairs will review legislation that specifically addresses women’s status, rights, or needs. This could include, for example, a national maternity leave policy, legislation mandating non-discrimination in employment, or funding for reproductive health care. “Gender” committees, on the other hand, may have a wider mandate. In some cases, they have the authority to review all legislation from a gender perspective. A gender perspective includes a consideration of the needs of both women and men and recognition that a policy may have a different impact on women and men. For example, a gender committee might review a pending land rights bill, even if it does not mention women specifically, to ensure that men’s and women’s equal right to land ownership is not undermined and that both women and men will have access to redress if their land is seized.
Either a women’s affairs or a gender affairs committee can be an effective vehicle for ensuring the gender-sensitivity of legislation. The strength of such committees is dependent on several factors, including the capacity of the staff and committee members, the seniority or influence of individual committee members, and the rules and procedures that regulate its jurisdiction. Both men and women should serve on the committee so that the committee’s recommendations are not dismissed or marginalized as “only women’s issues.” Likewise, committee members and committee staff must have training on gender analysis and legislation drafting. NDI supported the creation of such a committee in Serbia in 2004, which helped to establish a non-partisan atmosphere, and define a work plan for the first year. NDI staff reported that the main challenge was to ensure that the committee was not marginalized. In order to demonstrate its worth, the committee had to ensure that legislative initiatives were reviewed from a gender perspective throughout the policy process and that interventions were well timed so as to be successful.
Another option for ensuring the gender-sensitivity of legislation is to include a committee staff person, a gender focal point, whose responsibility it is to review all legislation before every committee from a gender perspective. Again, the capacity and authority of the focal points will determine whether this is an effective mechanism. In Rwanda, men and women play a leadership role in all parliamentary committees. If the chair is female, her deputy is male and vice versa. This structure is designed, in part, to ensure that a gender perspective is included in all committees, and not relegated solely to the gender affairs committee. Legislatures can also appoint independent commissions to carry out specific tasks. While committees are a subset of the larger legislative body, commissions are typically semi-independent entities. Many countries have Gender Equality Commissions tasked with reviewing and evaluating both legislation and its implementation or enforcement. Commissions can be convened on a short-term basis to investigate a specific problem, or established as long-term, ongoing bodies.

Although women remain significantly underrepresented in today’s parliaments, it is important to look beyond the numbers to focus on what women legislators can actually accomplish while in parliament—how they can make an impact, whatever their numbers may be. In many countries, the presence of women is increasingly common but unless they are able to demonstrate impact, men -- and other women – may question their utility and this trend may be reversed. NDI programs seek to increase this impact by improving the quality of their interventions and measure it in a way that demonstrates the importance of women as legislators within the framework of good governance.
It should be noted that women are not a homogeneous group. Depending on whether women are young or older, educated or uneducated, live in rural or urban areas, they have very different life experiences that lead to different objectives and needs. Also, women and women’s groups often have contentious relationships because of different perspectives that result from a competition for resources or judgments about commitment to gender equality. Moreover, not every woman elected to parliament or another legislative body will place women’s issues or rights at the forefront of her agenda. NDI’s programs have sought to build bridges among women and facilitate points of consensus that will accelerate effective policy advocacy and monitoring. The simple presence of women within these traditional male institutions is an important opportunity to assess the role of women within the political system and the status of women throughout society.
Male and female legislators must work together in order to solve the myriad of problems in their countries. In order to meet worldwide development goals and build strong, sustainable democracies, women must be encouraged, empowered and supported in becoming strong political and community leaders.

1 L. Beaman et al., “Women Politicians, Gender Bias, and Policy-making in Rural India,” Background Paper for UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children Report 2007, 11, 15-16,

2 A. Cammisa, A. and B. Reingold, “Women in State Legislators and State Legislative Research: Beyond Sameness and Difference,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly Vol. 4, No.2 (2004): 181-210,

3 C.S. Rosenthal, “Gender Styles in Legislative Committees” Women & Politics Vol. 21, No. 2 (2001): 21-46,

4 C. Chinkin, “Peace Agreements as a Means for Promoting Gender Equality and Ensuring the Participation of Women” United Nations: Division for the Advancement of Women (2003),

5 Chinkin.

6 Richard Strickland and Nata Duvvury, “Gender Equity and Peacebuilding: From Rhetoric to Reality: Finding the Way,” International Center for Research on Women (2003),

7 Women and Children: The Double Dividend of Gender Equality (New York: UNICEF, 2006),

8 Rosenthal.

9 Karen O’Connor, “Do Women in Local, State, and National Legislative Bodies Matter?: A Definitive Yes Proves Three Decades of Research By Political Scientists” (paper presented at the Why Women Matter Summit, Washington, DC, March 3, 2003), 24-28,

10 Cammisa and Reingold.

11 Julia Ballington, Equality in Politics: A Survey of Men and Women in Parliaments (Geneva: Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2008), http://www.ipu. org/pdf/publications/equality08-e.pdf.

12 Gisela Geisler, “’Parliament is Another Terrain of Struggle:’ Women, Men, and Politics in South Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 38, 4 (December 2000): 605–30.


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