Gender parity in political life – beyond the electoral quota

Posted March 8, 2022

Written by Mirko Trajanovski, Communication Specialist, and Zaklina Gestakovska Aleksovska, Gender Specialist.

This blog post is also available in Macedonian and in Albanian.

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September 2000. The first local elections in the 21st century were held in the country. The epilogue is as follows: out of a total of 123 elected mayors, only three or 2.44 percent were women.

October 2021. Twenty-one years and five electoral cycles later, the citizens decided who will govern the municipalities in the Republic of North Macedonia for the next four years. The outcome is 79 mayors and only 2 mayoresses, i.e., 2.47% - a percentage almost equal to the one two decades ago. To get the whole picture, we will share the fact that from the first mayoral elections held in 1996 until the last ones in 2021, 642 men and 18 women were elected head of the municipalities [1].

These figures are an empirical indicator that the efforts of political elites for gender parity and inclusion of women in decision-making processes at the local level are anecdotal. While globally, 2021 was marked as the year when women reached the highest level of participation in decisive positions in politics, North Macedonia belongs to the group of countries where there are almost no positive shifts in the last two decades, which is particularly reflected in the positions of the executive power for which there are no legally defined quotas for gender representation. This claim is supported by the fact that in the new composition of the government elected on January 16, 2022, there are 17 men and only 4 women [2]. However, we must be objective that the global picture is not all rosy either. Global statistics show that major and truthful reform processes are necessary in order to achieve gender parity in political life.

However, why wait for the changes to happen in some other countries first? Why shouldn’t we be leaders and drivers of change when it comes to giving women equal opportunities to manage local development? The trend from the last local elections should raise the awareness, considering the fact that, within the next four years, there will be only two mayoresses – Danela Arsovska, who runs the city of Skopje and Žaklina Jovanovska, who won a new mandate in Staro Nagorichane. This low number should not surprise anyone, especially considering the fact that only 8.36% of the total number of candidates for mayor, were women. Of course, this may be the dominant, however not the only reason for the huge gender gap. The introduction of an electoral quota regarding the gender representation of women on the candidate lists does not solve the root of the problem, which is much deeper. Intra-party reforms are required towards increased democratization, as well as to raise the awareness of the importance of gender parity in all political entities in the country. Here, it is worth mentioning the fact that independent lists and smaller parties had a higher percentage of women candidates for mayoral positions [3], but also a lower chance that they would be elected, as shown by the election results.

"Unfortunately, I have to repeat that in the Republic of North Macedonia we have an exceptionally big problem if we look at the numbers. In fact, in the period from 2000 to 2021 we had 2.4%, 3.5%, 4.9% mayoresses, while in 2017 we had around 7.4%, and again in 2021 we came back to 2.5% mayoresses. In my opinion, this is actually a problem that requires a professional approach and an analysis of the reasons why it happens. So, during the campaign and party activities, the women can be the flag-bearers, however, when power is divided, it is considered that men should take their place." 
– 
Bujare Abazi, Deputy Mayor of the City of Skopje

Of course, the social and socio-economic context must be considered in the analyses of the situation. The publication Women Political Leaders: The Impact of Gender on Democracy, which is based on the analysis of more than 500 studies on the influence of women leaders in politics and public life as the biggest obstacles for women to reach leadership positions points to the trinity: money, violence and cultural norms. Specifically, violence, especially in the form of cyber threats, insults and humiliation, is one of the main reasons why women are discouraged from entering the “political ring”.

"Not only now, but in the future as well, there will be no women in senior management positions, especially not when the managerial positions were elected. It is very simple in cases with quota protection, and it is very simple where someone will allow you to be a minister or someone will include you on a list to be a member of parliament, however when you will have to fight on your own and come out frontally, to show and prove that meritocracy should be the main requirement, rather than political affiliation or obedient behaviour towards the leader of a specific political party, we will never have success in Macedonia. For this reason, I appeal to all of you here to get support for every single woman who is currently subjected to an attack, who is continuously degraded at this moment, and we should all know that this will not change until you all stand up against everyone who are trying to degrade, because now, at this moment, in Macedonia it is considered that you can do this and remain unpunished." 
– 
Danela Arsovska, Mayor of the City of Skopje

“I can’t remember a single case when any woman politician publicly came out with a condemnation of the party that she comes from, regardless of the party that she comes from, if this same party attacked a woman from the opposite side. I honestly only see some pamphlets where we all pretend to support someone, however all of that is so pale. If it was not pale, now there would have been a legislation to prevent such attacks for sure, to make sure we don’t end up where we are today, and in this way, with certainty, we would have had a larger number of women who want to be involved in politics. From my personal experience, I must say what happened before the elections, both in 2017 and now. It is very difficult to find women who want to be on a list, especially an independent list. In such cases, all involved parties have a common denominator to degrade and devalue the whole idea that this woman presents. It is a very difficult process to reach women who have courage. We are not talking about having capable women, we are talking about women who need to be encouraged.” 
– Gabriela Ilievska, President of the Council of the Municipality of Bitola

On the other hand, when we talk about cultural norms, we primarily refer to the access to time, the free decision to make a choice and the mobility of women to be able to engage in political or business life. This claim is supported by the assessment that women in this country perform 72% of unpaid work at home and for child care, which significantly affects their ability and remaining time for paid work, career development or greater participation in public life, including politics [4].

Of course, the demand for women to have equal opportunities with men on the political scene is not based solely on simple mathematical equivalence, rather on the real contribution they can make in creating better and more inclusive environments. In fact, the extensive global survey by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) shows that women are more inclusive leaders and can contribute to the advancement of democratic processes in the society [5].

Namely, it states the following conclusions:

  • The more women in political positions, the lower the level of corruption, and the higher the quality of public services;
  • As policy makers, women include topics from the social sphere, education, healthcare and overall well-being, which contributes to a more equitable society and a society that cares for all citizens;
  • Countries with female leaders are less likely to be involved in military conflict and greater respect for human rights has been found is such countries.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) supports female leadership, especially at the local level, by strengthening the capacity of municipal councils and the committees on equal opportunities for women and men. The component of respect for the principles of gender parity exists in all projects dedicated to local self-governments, and UNDP always insists on the full implementation of these principles, because it is the only way to ensure that equality does not remain only a declarative commitment on paper. One of the central debates at the Annual Conference on Decentralization and Local Governance, held in December 2021, was precisely the provision of equal access to women in the decision-making bodies of local self-governments. Some of the women who managed to enter the bodies of the local government in the October 2021 elections sent inspirational messages and shared the obstacles and challenges they faced and are still facing. 

“A society cannot really develop if it overshadows half of its population. This means that actually the involvement of women in either managerial positions, public life or economic representation is at a very low level. All three components put a woman in an unequal position in the family and in the society. They consider equality as a threat, I apologize, maybe some women also consider it as a threat, that we are entering a territory that belongs to someone else, who has designed it for years: 'Now these people have come to tell us or take this territory from us.' I say, gender parity does not imply what you are saying, that we take the right that belongs to someone and we give it to someone else, rather, gender parity implies ways to create equal opportunities for everyone, and then meritocracy will show who can get to a specific position.” 
– Arbresha Vlashi, President of the Council of the Municipality of Struga

Still, in order to realize the vision of Mrs. Arbresha Vlashi, it is necessary to have broad social consensus, institutional commitment and responsibility and, of course, to raise public awareness. What can help in the short term?

  1. Financing and supporting women in leadership positions in politics.
  2. Quotas - where there are none, there are no women.
  3. Investing in a care economy, i.e., sharing the domestic responsibilities that are dominantly performed by women.
  4. Strict sanctioning of hate speech for changing cultural norms.
  5. Maximum involvement of men.
  6. Positive portrayal of women leaders because they are the ones whose example young people will follow.

Imagine a scene like this: pre-election TV debate, local elections 2041, five male candidates and five female candidates. Journalists ask the male mayoral candidates: How will you cope with the balance between family responsibilities and the responsibilities of the mayoral position? While the question for the female candidates is: Which female politician was your inspiration in 2022?

Equality is neither a threat, nor an unattainable dream. It is feasible. It will not happen overnight, nor will it be announced with fireworks. However, to make it happen, long-term and sincere joint efforts are required, by both men and women, in order to accelerate the process that is inevitably coming. For the sake of all!

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The video statements used in the blog are from the debate titled "Gender-Responsive Municipalities" which was held on 23.12.2021 within the Annual Conference on Decentralization and Local Governance, organized by the UNDP.

[1] Total number of elected mayors in the period 1996 - 2021 - Reactor - research in action (reactor.org.mk)

[2] Composition of the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia | Government of the Republic of North Macedonia (vlada.mk)

[3]  Local elections 2021, review of candidate lists for mayors and selected representatives from gender aspect - Reactor - research in action (reactor.org.mk)

[4] Women in the time of COVID-19: The value of unpaid labour - Reactor - research in action (reactor.org.mk)

[5] Women Political Leaders: The Impact of Gender on Democracy | Westminster Foundation for Democracy (wfd.org)