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Equal access of men and women to power, decision-making, and leadership

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right of every person to take part in the government of his or her country. Equal access of men and women to power, decision-making, and leadership at all levels is a necessary precondition for the proper functioning of democracy. Equal participation of men and women in political affairs makes governments more representative of the composition of society; it makes them more accountable and transparent and ensures that the interests of women are taken into account in policy-making. Women, however, have traditionally been excluded from power and decision-making processes.

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life, including the right to vote and to stand for election, as well as to hold public office at all levels of government (Article 7). States parties agree to take all appropriate measures to overcome historical discrimination against women and obstacles to women’s participation in decision-making processes (Article 8), including legislation and temporary special measures (Article 4). CEDAW consistently expresses concern over the low rate of implementation of Articles 7 and 8 of the Convention.

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, brought attention to the persisting inequality between men and women in decision-making. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action recognize women’s unequal share of power and decision-making as one of the twelve critical areas of concern. The Platform for Action outlines concrete actions to ensure women’s equal access to, and full participation in, power structures, and to increase women’s capacity to participate in decision-making and leadership.

The Agreed Conclusions 1997/2 of the 41st session of the Commission on the Status of Women on women in power and decision-making processes called for the acceleration of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in order to achieve women’s full and equal participation in decision-making. Governments were urged, inter alia, to establish time-bound targets for reaching the goal of gender balance in decision-making and ensure gender mainstreaming in legislation. The Agreed Conclusions stress the importance that achieving equal participation in decision-making has for the strengthening of democracy (para 2). 

The outcome document adopted by the 23rd special session of the General Assembly in 20001 reviewed achievements in the promotion of women into power and decision-making positions. It noted that an increasing number of countries had adopted positive discrimination policies, including the establishment of quota systems during elections, the setting of measurable goals, and the development of leadership training for women. However, there continue to be significant obstacles to reaching gender balance in decision-making bodies at all levels: “Women continue to be under-represented in the legislative, ministerial and sub-ministerial levels, as well as at the highest levels of the corporate sector and other economic and social institutions” (G.23).

The commitment to achieve gender equality in power and decision-making in political affairs was reaffirmed, inter alia, by Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security of 2000, which called for the integration of a gender perspective into the negotiation and implementation of peace agreements.

General Assembly Resolution 58/142 on Women and Political Participation in 2003 urged Member States to eliminate all discriminatory laws in their national legislatures, counter “negative societal attitudes about women’s capacity to participate equally in the political process” (para 1d), and “institute educational programs…in the school curriculum that sensitize young people about the equal rights of women” (para 1g).

The 49th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in February-March 2005 reviewed the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and of the outcome document of the 23rd special session of the General Assembly.2 Most Member States reported the introduction of measures aimed at increasing the participation of women in various levels of decision-making processes and reported progress in getting women into positions of power (para 327). Equitable participation remains a challenge, however, and only eleven Member States have reached the critical mass of 30% of women in parliament (para 331). While hailing the progress made by Member States so far, the Commission concluded that a wide range of customs, traditions, and stereotypes in most cultures impede women’s participation in decision-making processes (para 351); that despite significant democratization since 1995, the only steady increase in women’s participation in decision-making has been at the local level (para 351); and that devolution of power to the local level created opportunities for women to gain more meaningful participation (para 351). It called for the study of linkages between women’s economic and political empowerment (para 352), of the way in which women’s political participation leads to the transformation of political institutions and processes (para 353), and for the study of the costs of women’s exclusion vis-à-vis the goal of sustainable development (para 354).

Women have gained the right to vote, and possess de jure equality, in nearly all Member States of the United Nations. However, despite forming at least half the electorate in most countries, they continue to be underrepresented as candidates for public office.

#Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)

Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) Expert Group Meeting

24 to 27 October 2005, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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