Move Over India: Gender Equality in Politics is a Global Farce

If you thought only India has abysmal numbers for women representation in politics, it’s time to think again.

5 min read
‘Liberal’ countries like the US and France have never had a woman head of state. (Photo: For representational purposes. iStock)

It was on 20 July 1960 that Sri Lanka elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the world’s first woman Prime Minister.

Today the world looks forward to an iconic time, where by 2017, three of the world’s six strongest economies could be led by women – Angela Merkel in Germany, Theresa May in UK and Hillary Clinton in the US, if she manages to trump Donald’s meagre chances.

Everything sounds great, except that it isn’t.

It’s not only India that’s reeling under the burden of abysmal representation of women in the Parliament. ‘Liberal’ countries like the US and France have never had a woman head of state.

Women representation in politics globally is abysmal. (Photo Courtesy: United Nations)
Women representation in politics globally is abysmal. (Photo Courtesy: United Nations)

Global numbers of women in politics now is the lowest in recent time and coupled with that is the omnipresent blanket of casual sexism that women leaders face. Where, then, are all the women in international politics?

Sluggish Progress on Women in Politics

The UN’s 2015 report on women in politics has the answer to that question.

  • Globally, only 22 percent of all national parliamentarians were female as of August 2015.

  • As of August 2015, 11 women served as Head of State and 10 served as Head of Government.

  • Rwanda had the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide, with women occupying 63.8 percent of seats in the lower house.

  • Globally, there are 37 States in which women account for less than 10 percent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses.

  • Only 17 percent of government ministers were women, with the majority overseeing social sectors, such as education and the family.

In India, having women chief ministers in states like Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana or giving the world its second head of state in the form of Indira Gandhi, has not done much for the cause.

India is ranked 103rd out of 140 countries with a mere 12 percent representation. For women Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) across all state Assemblies in India, the number is even worse, with the national average being a pitiable 9 percent.

In South-East Asia, Nepal with 29.5 percent women, Afghanistan with 27.7 percent MPs, Pakistan and Bangladesh at 20 percent each, are ahead of the world’s largest democracy.

A chart depicting women representation in parliament in Asian countries. (Photo Courtesy: Factly)
A chart depicting women representation in parliament in Asian countries. (Photo Courtesy: Factly)
Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)
Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton. (Photo: The Quint)

Britain, America and Sexist Politics

Anybody who thinks sexism and patriarchal notions find manifestation only in Indian politics, is in for a rude shock.

While Britain hailed Theresa May as its second woman prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, the country is far from reaching gender parity with respect to sexist abuse, objectification and representation of women in British politics.

Only 29 percent of Britain’s members of parliament are women. The country ranks 39th in the world for female representation in parliament, according to latest UN statistics.

This comes on the heels of international media’s deep interest in May’s fetish for high heels, rather than her opinion of same sex marriage, policies to govern the country, or how she plans to steer Britain in the aftermath of “Brexit”.

The focus on Theresa May’s shoes created quite a stir. (Photo Courtesy: <i>The Sun</i>)
The focus on Theresa May’s shoes created quite a stir. (Photo Courtesy: The Sun)

The UK is hardly alone. The number is as low as 19 percent in the US Congress, with a global ranking of 96. For America, it will take another 500 years for women to reach fair representation in the parliament, if it continues at the same rate of progress.

But is that entirely shocking?

If elected, Hillary Clinton will become the first female US president, which is a fact that puts in context the abysmal statistics stated above.

In the US, only five governors are women and twenty-four states have never had a female governor. The percentage of women holding statewide and state legislative offices is less than 25 percent.

File photo of Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Reuters)
File photo of Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Reuters)

With the race for President in full swing in the US, Hillary Clinton merchandise is 100 times more popular that that of Donald Trump, according to TIME magazine.

The reason why Clinton’s merchandise sells like hot cakes has nothing to do with her political capabilities.

“It’s the sexualised, gender-specific stuff that sells best. Top sellers include buttons with lines like ‘Hillary will go down faster than Bill’s pants’ and ‘Trump that Bitch’,” reports TIME.

Clinton has been a victim of vitriolic, mostly misogynistic abuse from all quarters.

Travis County Republican Party’s chairman Robert Morrow, a conspiracy theorist, regularly tweets explicit sexual jokes about her. Trump openly joked that Clinton’s success, if at all, will only be a by-product of her gender.

“If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote,” he said. “The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.”

File photo of Benazir Bhutto. (Photo: Reuters)
File photo of Benazir Bhutto. (Photo: Reuters)

South Asian Countries Leading the Way?

When it comes to having female heads of government or state, some of the South Asian countries have shown the way.

Sri Lanka became the first country to have a woman prime minister and Indira Gandhi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan emerged as iconic, albeit equally problematic figures. Bangladesh too, has had female head of states, with Khaleda Zia (1991-1996) and Sheikh Hasina (2009-Incumbent) taking charge,

These women have however, endured their share of misogyny in the public domain. While Indira Gandhi was (in)famously dubbed “gungi gudiiya” ( a dumb doll), Benazir Bhutto had to overcome severe objections by conservatives on Pakistan who objected to a woman ruling an Islamic nation.

Some argue that Asian countries faring slightly better than those in the West has to do with the ‘feudal’ structure of power, wherein wives/daughters of previous leaders have it easier when it comes to assuming a political position.

While this is true in some cases, it can’t be quoted as a blanket reason for success in countries like Nepal or Afghanistan.

What has emerged as a reason for better women representation numbers, however, is that most of these countries have ensured constitutionally mandated quotas or reservation for women.

Rwanda has 30 percent reservation for women, Nepal has 29 percent legislated quota for women, Afghanistan has 28 percent, Pakistan and Bangladesh have 20 percent seats reserved for women.

In India though, the battle is still being fought, as the women’s reservation Bill has been pending for years now.

(With inputs from data on women in Parliament from Inter Parliamentary Union, TIME magazine and Reuters.)

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