We must dismantle barriers to women’s political participation. Here’s why

July 5, 2023

Inclusive and accountable governance requires greater participation of women as voters, poll workers and candidates.

Photo: UNDP Liberia

I have been at UNDP for one year as part of the  African Young Women Leaders (AfYWL) Fellowship. The AfYWL is a partnership between the African Union Commission and UNDP and works to enhance women’s representation in public and private institutions. The fellowship equips young African women leaders with the skills and experience required to advance the UN’s 2030 Agenda and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the blueprint for transforming Africa into a global powerhouse of the future. Unfortunately, this critical ambition makes little impact if the challenges to women’s political participation around the world are not addressed. 

The recently released 2023 update of UNDP’s Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) underscores the significant obstacles women and girls confront in realizing their potential, spanning from politics to corporate boardrooms. These are largely attributable to deeply entrenched social norms. Disturbingly, nearly half of the world’s population believe men make better political leaders than women. Stereotypes such as these create barriers for women to participate equally in government institutions. These incredible hurdles warrant immediate action.  Here is why: 

  • Women make up half of every country's population and should rightfully have equal participation in decision-making systems.
  • Higher levels of women’s political participation are associated with lower risk of civil war and reduced likelihood of state-perpetrated political violence — fewer killings, forced disappearances, torture and political imprisonment.  
  • When women are elected to political offices, they are more likely to be held accountable by their constituencies, which leads to responsive and transparent governance.
  • Lived experiences give women unique perspectives on gendered issues such as domestic violence, reproductive rights and equal pay.
  • Women in leadership positions break down stereotypes and change social norms and perceptions of female leaders. 

Women participate in a practice parliament in Maldives. UNDP works to support the next generation of women leaders to gain the skills and networks they need to succeed.

Photo: UNDP Maldives

There is a long way to go in attaining gender equality in politics globally, despite its clear positive outcomes. UN Women notes that, under the current trajectory, it will take 130 years to achieve gender equality in the highest positions of power. As of January 2023, 34 women in 31 countries were serving as head of state and/or government; 22.8 percent of government ministers were women; 13 countries achieved the quota of 50 percent or more women in cabinet; and in national parliaments, just 26.5 percent of members in single or lower houses were women.  

The march towards equal participation has been agonizingly slow. Despite a modest uptick in numbers over the years, women still face discrimination and barriers, including cultural and societal norms as well as access to financial resources to fully participate in decision-making roles. 

Many countries have adopted measures such as quotas, affirmative action, and other temporary special provisions to increase women’s participation. However, these interventions alone are not enough for global gender parity.

"The march towards equal participation has been agonizingly slow."

I recently helped to undertake a stocktaking exercise which mapped 73 UNDP programmes advancing women’s political participation. This allows UNDP Country Offices and partners to connect and learn from each other. UNDP’s women political participation work has six broad areas of engagement: women’s participation in elections, parliaments, civic life, public administration, peacebuilding and peace processes, and politics and the media.  Together, these reflect UNDP’s ability to work holistically with a range of actors to strengthen gender equality in governance. Here is a snapshot from the stocktaking: 

The biggest proportion of projects focus on women’s participation in elections. 16 are in Africa, 12 are in Asia and the Pacific, six are in Latin America and the Caribbean, three are in Europe and Central Asia, and nine are in the Arab States. Women in Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina works to strengthen female participation in political life with a two-pronged approach – vertically by proposing structural adjustments to accommodate more significant numbers of women in politics and horizontally by supporting the next generation of women leaders in communities through tailored networking initiatives. Similarly, the Women in Leadership in Samoa programme is designed to increase civic awareness of the need for inclusive women's representation in public processes through partnership building, advocacy and outreach.

Many countries have adopted measures such as quotas, affirmative action and other provisions to increase women’s representation in parliament.

UNDP photo

Twenty-one projects focus on parliaments, including four projects in Africa, nine in Asia and the Pacific, two in Europe and Central Asia, and three in the Arab States. Strengthening Democratic institutions in Sierra Leoneworks with the women’s parliamentary caucus to advocate for gender-related issues. In Serbia, the Parliamentary Democracy and Inclusive Dialogue initiative strengthens women’s parliamentary networks to advance women’s political participation, create gender-sensitive legislation, and promote women’s economic empowerment at the local level. 

Twelve projects are advancing women’s participation in peacebuilding processes. In Liberia, UNDP and UN Women supported the New Elections Law (1986, 2014) which requires a 30 percent mandatory party gender quota for political party candidate listings. Its passage followed a concerted effort of advocacy, lobbying, and collaboration with the Women Legislative Caucus of Liberia and the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection. Unfortunately, the bill still awaits presidential assent and will not be in effect for the 2023 general elections.

By empowering women to participate fully in politics, we stand to cultivate societies that are more equitable as well as sustainable. This will have a ripple effect, resulting in in better governance, increased economic stability and improved social cohesion. The pursuit of gender equality in politics isn't merely an ethical obligation — it's a foundational requirement for a prosperous, balanced and inclusive future for us all.