Why Democracy Must Give Space For Women

What is democracy? For some it is simple. One man, one vote. But if you were to ask the men and women on the streets of Tunis, Tripoli and Cairo just a few years ago, the answer would have been more complex. Free and fair elections are a solid basis for a democracy. But the ability of all groups in society to be heard in the one institution that represents all the people in the country - parliament -- and to be actively involved in making the decisions that define our daily lives, is just as fundamental. That is why people around the world continue to fight and die for democracy.

When the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and its member national parliaments put down on paper the only modern definition of this political philosophy and system, with a parliament at its heart, gender equality and human rights underpinned it.

Women have fought long and hard for the right to vote. For some, the right to stand for election was simultaneously achieved. For others, not. More than 125 years after the USA became the first country in the world to grant women the right to stand for election and now well into the 21st century, we face a strange anomaly.

Women's rights, equality and political empowerment remain buzz words in global strategies and action plans. This year is the 20th anniversary of the much vaunted Beijing Platform for Action on women's empowerment. Yet, IPU data has found that in 2015, when there are more women Members of Parliament (MPs) than ever before in the world, women only account for 22.1 per cent of all parliamentarians. Five countries have no women MPs at all. How is it possible that more than half the world's population can remain so marginalized when there is a general recognition that the future of human development depends on equal opportunities and respect for human rights?

The obstacles facing women in politics are daunting. If they overcome the many barriers of a very un-level playing field and succeed in being elected, they face the new challenges of life in a well-established "gentlemen's" club that shuts the door on equal participation in parliament and its decision-making.

Thirty years ago, a group of 22 women MPs from all over the world attending an IPU assembly in the Togolese capital, Lomé, met at the very first gathering of its kind.

The Meeting of Women Parliamentarians was created to give women MPs a unique platform to share thoughts, experiences and ideas on any and every subject. Together, they could find common solutions to shared problems. However, the Meeting was much more than a forum for debate, particularly on the perennial problem of how to get more women into politics and into leadership positions.

Women's different perspective and approach to politics led to innovation and reform. Quotas for women's participation within IPU were introduced, the first organization to take such measures. Through the Meeting, women MPs began providing their own perspective and input into the formal political decisions taken by all IPU member parliaments -- international decisions for national follow up. For the first time, women MPs were integrated into international political decision-making. That experience has proved to be invaluable. Many argue that the opportunity to take leadership positions within IPU not only helped them in their national political careers and spurred the creation of women's caucuses within parliament, but also exposed men MPs from around the world to seeing and working with women at a different level. Like it or not, there was a new gender landscape in politics.

Last week, more than 200 women MPs at the 30th anniversary meeting at an IPU Assembly in Hanoi took stock of how far women have come in politics in the intervening years. Politics without women's involvement is now unthinkable. Women are firmly at the table, even if they are not always equal partners. But the road ahead is proverbially long. Figures on women's political participation continue to obsess us all as they are the most important barometer of progress. However, the lesson women MPs have learned, and are still learning, is that nothing will be given. Significant progress will only be made when men and women come together on this issue. This is the real battle for the minds. Until then, the fight for women's political space will continue. But democracy depends on its success.