A tapestry of progress and challenges: Women's political participation in Europe and Central Asia

March 7, 2024

Ana Racu, MP of Moldova, is part of an emerging trend of women leaders in the country.

Photo: UNDP Moldova / Ion Buga


Despite commendable efforts over the past decade, the region struggles with the lowest gender parity in political empowerment. While North Macedonia, Belarus and Moldova's remarkable surge in women's representation offers hope, disparities still predominant in the region serve as stark reminders of the enduring obstacles women face in attaining political power.

Deep-seated barriers

The barriers hindering women's political participation aren't mere statistics; they are deeply ingrained societal norms and stereotypes which fuel discrimination, and often violence. The troubling belief in some countries that men make better political leaders casts shadows on women’s perceived capabilities and illustrates the uphill battle women face in dismantling these entrenched biases.

The toxic environment fostered by online harassment not only silences targeted women, but instills a sense of fear in the aspirations of young women considering political careers. Recent findings from Montenegro, where seven in ten women politicians experience some form of violence, also serve as a stark reminder that achieving gender parity requires more than just legislative measures.

Financial and structural barriers add another layer of complexity. In political campaigns, women face disproportionate challenges, both financially and in terms of time commitment. Unpaid care and domestic responsibilities place women at a significant disadvantage from the outset. The lack of access to finance and gendered donation patterns present formidable hurdles limiting women's entry into political races.

Peering into the future

As of 2023, women's representation in parliaments across Europe and Central Asia stands at 26.1 percent, trailing behind the global average of 26.5 percent. However, these numbers are not just data points; they offer hints of potential futures shaped by societal choices.

The Equal Future platform, looking at progress in women’s participation in politics and public administration since 1995, integrates historical data with contextual factors, like quotas, to  explore different scenarios and identify emerging trends. What will things look like if past or current trends continue?

Our data suggests the region is unlikely to achieve gender parity in parliament by 2030. 

In the Western Balkans and Türkiye, women currently occupy 26.1 percent of parliamentary seats; in the South Caucasus and Western Commonwealth of Independent States, 25.4 percent. Central Asia fares relatively better, surpassing the global average, with 27.4 percent. However, recent trends show that all these sub-regions are likely to only reach 28-36.7 percent of women’s representation. Despite encouraging results obtained by many countries and territories, especially after the adoption of legislated gender quotas, backlash against women’s rights, structural barriers (like household and care responsibilities limiting the amount of time women can devote to their political careers) and increasing online violence have contributed to stalling progress.

Albania, Moldova and Uzbekistan offer glimpses of success, propelled by a combination of legislative measures and societal shifts.

In Albania, the adoption of a 30 percent quota in 2008, accompanied by a placement rule, catalyzed a significant increase in women’s representation. The quota was not limited to parliaments, but also women’s participation in the judiciary and public administration, encompassing as many areas as possible to meaningfully contribute to decision-making. This has been coupled with the adoption of anti-discrimination laws public campaigns, and national action plans to involve men and boys as partners in promoting gender equality and preventing gender-based violence. The adoption of laws and quotas can produce enduring results only if accompanied by measures aiming at addressing social norms.

Founded in 2011, the  Women’ Network within the Congress of Local Authorities from Moldova is a platform dedicated to guiding and supporting women engaged in various capacities within local governance, including mayors, district heads and councillors. This has been a successful example in leveraging the experience of women role models to inspire future women leaders to enter politics. In 2008, Zinaida Greceanii became the first woman Prime Minister of Moldova. In 2021, Moldova became one of a few countries in the world where women serve as both Head of State (Maia Sandu) and Head of Government (Natalia Gavrilita).

In Uzbekistan, the role of prominent women, such as Chair of the Senate and former Deputy Prime Minister Tanzila Narbaeva, has been instrumental in unleashing the power of networking and elevating emerging women leaders. The National Women Leaders Caucus, launched by the Uzbekistan Senate and UNDP, now actively identifies and addresses barriers to gender equality in non-governmental areas (business, science, IT, sports and culture, mass media), combats gender stereotypes and harmful social norms, and devises initiatives within government agencies to substantially elevate the status of women across all regions.

Key changes for success

The path forward requires investing in dismantling existing norms and structures perpetuating gender inequality:

Legislated gender quotas: The adoption, increase and enforcement of gender quotas, alongside ranking and placement rules, have proven effective, particularly for countries with low women’s representation. In Armenia, the first gender quota (5 percent) in 1999 and subsequent increases in the quota percentage, have proven effective. The country moved from 3.1 percent of women’s representation to 35.5 percent in 2023. However, progress has slowed, showing that gains cannot be considered as granted, and continuous and concerted actions are needed to ensure parity.

Role models and advocacy: The presence of women role models and active advocates for gender equality, alongside women's parliamentary caucuses, fosters increased representation. Moldova's emergence of women leaders, and the launch of the Central Asia Women Leaders’ Caucus in 2020 are concrete examples.

Civil society engagement: Active involvement of civil society is pivotal. In Albaniacivil society organizations’ active role in discussions led to the formulation of domestic development policies and legislation, while in Uzbekistan, women rights activists and human rights defenders’ concerted actions resulted in the Senate adopting a package of amendments to the country’s Criminal and Administrative Codes, which criminalize domestic violence and provide women and children with additional protection mechanisms. 

As we navigate the uncharted path of women's political participation in Europe and Central Asia, projections serve as guiding lights illuminating possible futures. Data tells a story, not of inevitability, but of choices societies make. The journey towards gender parity is not a linear progression but a dynamic interplay of societal evolution, policy reforms and unyielding determination to reshape the narrative for women in politics – and the collective commitment to doing so.