It is interesting, that, in discussions about gender equality, “merit” only comes up when we are speaking about women taking up positions that are traditionally male. Nobody questions whether it is meritocratic that, say, prostitution is a predominantly female profession, or that a disproportionate amount of women work in underpaid caring jobs. Similarly, to imagine that competence alone accounts for male dominance in politics is a fantasy. Merit, from Latin meritare, means “to earn”, and if any group in society has earned a fair chance to shape it, it is women. This is what my latest piece for the Guardian, there titled “On parliamentary equality the UK is 48th. It could learn from No 1: Rwanda” and shared below, is about.
If a new law proposed this week were already in place, there would be about 300 women instead of the 192 currently in the House of Commons. Which is why a new report by its women and equalities committee says the government should ensure that 45% of all parliamentary candidates are female.
If it seems petty to concentrate on the numbers, consider some of the bills that parliament has debated in the past two years – on prostitution, abortion, the armed forces, ovarian cancer and sexual offences, to name a few. Such bills clearly affect women’s and men’s lives in different ways, and their outcome can only be fairly reviewed by a representative parliament. Nevertheless, the report was met with typical resistance on the basis that MPs ought to be appointed not by gender quotas, but by the “cherished concept of meritocracy”.
But if any group has earned a fair chance to shape society, it is women. Since 1918 the total number of female MPs Britain has had is 455, less than the number of male MPs who sit in the Commons today. This has nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with age-old power structures. And that’s why the equality committee’s demands are urgent and necessary. Women gained suffrage, and the legal right to participate in politics, because they demanded them. And now we are demanding equal representation.
Part of the problem is the idea that discrimination is only an issue in “benighted parts of the world”, as the Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh condescendingly puts it. Interesting then, that the UK has a pitiful 48th position in parliamentary equality behind countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Serbia. Countries that rank among the top 10 in parliamentary gender equality – such as Rwanda (at first position), Iceland, Senegal, Sweden, Bolivia and Ecuador – all have gender quotas in place. Even Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be born a woman, has implemented quotas: 50% of the Afghan president’s appointees to the country’s upper house must be women. This is why, at 53rd position, the country ranks only five below the UK.
The use of quotas has transformed national policy in these countries. In Senegal, for instance, a greater share of the country’s GDP is allocated to education, and through “gender-budgeting mechanisms” more girls are receiving an education despite traditional barriers to girls’ education. In Rwanda, laws that protect children from violence, and laws that permit women to inherit land have been passed. It is hard to measure the direct role of women MPs, but both Senegal and Rwanda are now among the most stable countries in Africa.
In Ecuador, women have been more likely than men to introduce bills related to education, health and the environment. In 2008, it was the first country to pass a groundbreaking bill which recognises the rights of nature in its constitution. The Ecuadorian constitution goes even further than the WEC report in its demands: 50% representation or “candidate lists will be rejected by the electoral commission”. In Bolivia too, at least half of parliament candidates must by law be women.
In the past two years in the House of Commons, bills that protect women – such as one preventing and combating violence against women – have been vehemently opposed by male MPs, while other men have campaigned for bills that could harm women, such as providing anonymity to men accused of rape.
Of course, this does not mean that male MPs don’t propose bills that support women’s rights; or, for that matter, that female MPs always support women’s issues. Women come from different backgrounds and it is inevitable that their views differ.
But there is evidence that not only are women in public office more likely to promote bills that address the socio-economic and political challenges facing disadvantaged groups, but their presence is also key to decreasing corruption and increasing political interest among young women. There should be no question about their value to all citizens.
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