Parliaments’ role in advancing equality: it’s time to (re)write history

Tuesday, June 30, 2020
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In 1889, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) — the global organisation of parliaments– was established. 131 years later, Women Political Leaders and Ms. Gabriela Cuevas Barrón, the youngest ever President of the IPU and Member of the Senate of Mexico, assess the role of parliaments in confronting global crises, preserving democracy and advancing equality between women and men in both politics and beyond.

Parliaments and parliamentary systems of government play an integral role in improving the daily lives of citizens around the globe. Strong parliaments are a cornerstone of democracy; through legislative initiatives, governmental accountability and community representation they are able to voice the concerns of the people. However, parliaments may also reflect overarching cultural narratives and institutional inequalities found in societies, including inequalities regarding women. 

Today is an opportunity to take stock of these challenges and move forward to address them effectively. 

The heart of democracy

“Parliaments are the very heart of democracy,” asserts Gabriela Cuevas Barrón. In this challenging moment for humanity, she continues, it is imperative that parliamentary democracies become closer to the people they represent. 

“I think that parliaments now need to be closer to the citizens. We need to understand that the only way to solve these problems is together; (it) is understanding that parliamentary democracies need to be closer to the people we represent.”  

While the international community seeks to collectively address the economic and severe health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and more, it is parliaments’ responsibility to implement solutions nationally and to create solidarity. 

“How are we translating international commitments into national realities?” asks Ms. Cuevas Barrón.

This translation is significant not just in terms of COVID-19, but in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals as well as inclusive and sustainable economic systems for the future. 

Representing the people

“If we really want to have more inclusive democracies we need also more inclusive parliaments.” 

More than half of the world’s population is women and girls. Yet, a majority of national parliaments do not reflect the population’s they represent: 

“When it comes to women, it is not fair. It is not inclusive. It is not democratic to have only 24% of the total seats of parliament in the world for women.”

In addition, Ms. Cuevas Barrón notes that despite over half of the world’s population being under the age of 30, a mere 2.2% of seats in parliament are occupied by people under 30. To better represent the unique needs and wants of their populations, parliaments must place greater emphasis on promoting representativity, specifically for women and for young people. This will also serve to strengthen democracy worldwide and within national settings. 

Creating opportunity for the next generation: “We are writing history” 

While progress for women’s representation in parliament has been achieved, it is not an achievement worthy of thunderous applause. As Ms. Cuevas Barrón points out that since 1995 the percentage of seats in national parliaments occupied by women has increased from 11% to 24.5%, a mere 13.5 percent in twenty-five years. 

“The only way to have more women in parliament is to change institutions and to change also our culture. The best way to do that is through affirmative action (and) gender quotas. Yes, there are some countries that are achieving parity through their own history or cultural changes, but the majority of the countries are going really slow.”

Cultural change and institutional change go hand in hand. Entrenched narratives dictating the roles that men and women are permitted to occupy in society must be uprooted by the systemic transformation of the institutions that enforce these very narratives. 

In her native country of Mexico, Ms. Cuevas Barrón describes the multilevel progression of substantial change: Mexico first implemented a 30% quota for women in parliament, followed by a 40% quota and finally gender parity in parliament, an achievement that only three other countries (Cuba, Rwanda and Bolivia) have accomplished, according to the IPU Parline database.

In addition to institutional change and cultural reflection, intergenerational support between women is a key ingredient to advancing equality in politics: 

“We are writing history. And we want better opportunities for the next generations, for the girls and women who want to join us in politics.” 

“We are here because previous generations of women were very brave.” 

Century for equality

To push forward the ambitious agenda for equality originally intended for 2020, including at this year’s Reykjavik Global Forum- Women Leaders, Ms. Cuevas Barrón emphasises the vital importance of protecting the progress that has already been made. Not only are women bearing a disproportionate burden, in addition to serving as a majority of health workers and care takers, because of COVID-19, but they will also be the first to suffer the short and long-term economic repercussions.  

In the months to come, Gabriela Cuevas Barrón highlights providing opportunities for women as the greatest obstacle to equality: 

“The real challenge is going to be about opportunities, it is going to be about respecting and defending the spaces we have conquered. And I mean jobs, salaries, equal payment. When an economic crisis is coming the first ones that are affected are women.”

In order to make the 21st century the “century for equality,” economic opportunities for women must be delivered without excuse. The same is true for politics and in parliaments. COVID-19 has once again altered the landscape of the battle for equality between women and men, but it has also provided a unique space to facilitate lasting change. An area that needs specific focus from the international and national communities is parliaments.

By increasing the number of women in parliament, governments worldwide can help fulfill their democratic imperative to represent the people. This will also help eradicate biased perceptions of women, and men, in leadership and will put the global community on a better path to achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.