The number of women in parliaments throughout the world is declining, an ironic descent caused mainly by the growth of democracy in Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, the Inter-Parliamentary Union reported Sunday.
As the U.N. women’s conference in Beijing nears, the international organization toted up the figures for 105 parliaments and found that only 11.3% of the members were women in 1995, a drop from a high of 14.8% in 1988.
Explaining the decline, Pierre Cornillon, the union’s secretary general, said the 1988 figures had been inflated by single-party systems, especially in Eastern Europe, in which the party leadership chose members of parliament to represent groups of society such as workers, farmers, youths and women.
“It was an artificial representation that did not create a change in society or a change in the habits of people,” he said.
As these countries switched to multi-party, democratic systems, Cornillon said, party leaders reverted to traditional habits and selected fewer women as candidates.
In Hungary, for example, the number of women in the 386-seat National Assembly dropped from 80 (or 20.7%) in 1985 to 28 (7.3%) in 1990. In Romania, the number of women dropped from 127 (34.4%) in the 369-seat Grand National Assembly in 1985 to 14 (4.1%) in the 341-seat Chamber of Deputies.
The union reported that the highest percentages of women legislators in 1995 were recorded by Sweden, 40.4%; Norway, 39.4%; Finland, 33.5%; Denmark, 33%, and the Netherlands, 28.4%.
In 1991, the Seychelles had a National Assembly with women occupying 45.8% of the seats, the closest any country has ever come to an equal division of the sexes in its parliament. But after a new constitution created a multi-party state in 1993, the percentage of women in the National Assembly dropped to 27.3%
The United States ranked 43rd among the 105 countries. But the eight senators and 48 representatives and non-voting delegates in the current Congress were the highest numbers of national legislative posts ever filled by women in the United States.
A dozen countries had no women in their parliaments: Bhutan, St. Lucia, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, the Comoros, St. Kitts and Nevis, Palau, Micronesia, Kiribati, Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait were the only ones on this list whose laws prohibit female representation.
Cornillon said that democratic countries like his native France often have parliaments with low percentages of women because “the political class is very closed to women.” For this reason, he said, the organization is advocating that political parties make a determined effort to appoint women to the committees that draft campaign platforms and select nominees.
He said that Argentina increased the number of women in its Chamber of Deputies by passing a constitutional amendment that requires that 40% of a political party’s nominees be women. Argentina elects its Parliament by proportional representation, with each voter casting a single ballot for the entire list of candidates of a party. The constitutional amendment leaves it up to the parties to decide how high on the list to put their female candidates.