• Road to Rio: Women 'out of sight, out of mind’| Helen Clark

    11 Apr 2012

    Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shaking hands with Helen Clark
    Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and former UNDP staff, is the first elected female head of state in Africa as well as Nobel Peace Prize winner. Photo: UNDP

    Today, there are only eight women heads of state – representing slightly more than five per cent of the total.  This seems extraordinary in the second decade of the 21st century.  The global average of women holding parliamentary seats remains under twenty per cent, which is well below the thirty per cent target set in the Millennium Development Goals.  At the current rate of progress, that target will not be reached globally before 2025, and long beyond that in many countries.  That is too long for women and the world to wait.

    The proportions of women in national legislatures in the world’s regions range from roughly 22 per cent in the Americas and Europe (with the 42 per cent in Nordic countries pushing the average figures up) to 20.2 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, 17.9 per cent in Asia, 14.9 per cent in the Pacific, and 10.7 per cent in the Arab States.  Five countries – all in the Gulf and the Pacific – have no women parliamentarians at all. Only sixteen per cent of ministers are women, and most often they are allocated portfolios like those for social welfare, women, and children.  

    When women are “out of sight, out of mind”, meeting their needs does not get prioritized. Conversely, when there is a critical mass of women decision-makers, the issues which previously went unaddressed can become priorities.

    Rwanda provides a compelling example of a society where the empowerment of women as decision-makers has played a key role in its transformation. Quotas helped place Rwanda in the first place in the world for the proportion of its parliamentarians who are women. A thirty per cent quota for women MPs was established in the country’s 2003 constitution. Rwandan women now hold 56 per cent of seats in their parliament’s lower chamber. In addition, 32 per cent of ministerial positions are held by women.

    Having women well presented in Rwanda's political landscape has put the country on the path to sustainable development. Other countries have to follow suit if we want to achieve a truly sustainable future. The time for talking about what to do next is over. It is time for action and it is time for change for women.

    Talk to me: How can we ensure that women are better represented in leadership and decision-making world-wide?

    “Road to Rio” is a series of posts by senior officials of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), outlining some of the key challenges around human development central for achieving the sustainable future we want.


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Helen Clark became the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme in April 2009, and is the first woman to lead the organization. Before her appointment at UNDP she was the second female Prime Minister of New Zealand.

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