Michelle Bachelet remarks at lunch seminar “Women and Political Decision-Making” in Ireland

Date: Thursday, February 21, 2013

Michelle Bachelet remarks at lunch Seminar: ‘Women and Political Decision-Making’ hosted by the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the 50/50 Group. Dublin, Ireland. 21 February 2013.

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It is wonderful to be here with all of you today. I thank the National Women’s Council and 50/50 for inviting me. I would like to commend you for being a unifying force throughout Ireland for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Here in Ireland and throughout the world, women are coming together to raise their voices and demand equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal participation. We at UN Women applaud you for all your efforts to make it clear that gender equality and the human rights of women are not up for negotiation.

The resonance is strong and I am here to tell you that your voices are being heard. There is a rising recognition that more sustainable, more democratic, and more peaceful societies can only be achieved with the full and equal participation of women.

We know that women have made remarkable progress, but this progress has not yet been matched by women’s participation in political and public life. Women constitute 51 per cent of the world’s population, and yet they are grossly under-represented in the institutions that make key decisions affecting their lives. Seventeen Heads of State are women. On average about 1 in 5 of parliamentarians worldwide is a woman.

The voices of too many women and girls continue to be stifled through exclusion, discrimination, and violence. It is a reality faced by women around the world, and it is a reality that is holding back progress for women and for all members of society.

As you may know, I am an ardent supporter of temporary special measures such as quotas to level the playing field and increase women’s political participation and decision-making.

Some people believe that women are not interested in positions of leadership or that they don’t aspire to positions of power. The data on quotas puts that argument to rest. The fact is, quotas have successfully increased the number of female leaders and representatives worldwide.

And of the “five Cs” often cited as the challenges to women’s participation (childcare, cash, culture, confidence and candidate selection), “competence” is not one of them.
So the question is not whether women have a strong political opinion and voice. The question is, will it be heard?

We have often been asked the question whether numbers per se count and whether we err in working on numbers. To this I say, yes, numbers matter. In critical processes and decisions, there must be a critical mass of women. This is where the numbers come in and that is why those brave advocates at the Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing identified the critical mass as being at least 30 per cent.

Half of all countries in the world have implemented some form of electoral quota in the past 20 years. And of the 33 countries that have reached the critical mass of 30 per cent, 28 have achieved this by implementing gender quotas.

That is why it was so encouraging to follow the public debate in Ireland on women’s political participation and to hear men and women like you say, 15 percent representation is not enough. Now Ireland has made gender balancing a priority with the Electoral Amendment, which stipulates that political parties that fail to select a minimum of 30 percent female candidates for the next general election will face consequences—by losing half of state funding.

This is an important step forward in Irish politics. I know that so many of the faces I see today stood behind this bill and saw through the success of gender quotas from the early days of this debate.
This amendment targets political parties because they are the gatekeepers of women’s political participation, where networks are built, and where the selection of candidates takes place.
Women constitute around 40 to 50 percent of party membership, but hold only about ten per cent of the leadership positions. If we are serious about increasing women’s political participation, political parties must be held accountable for including women within their own leadership structures.

But it is not only in the upper ranks of political parties that women’s participation must be equal. Women must be in leadership and decision-making in all sectors of society. Yes, increasing the number of women in representation is about giving women their fair share. But it also about building a democratic society with more inclusive political processes and institutions.

We cannot talk about human rights, equality, representation and inclusion and continue to exclude entire sections of the population.

Research shows that the presence of women in political institutions qualitatively changes politics. When women and men lead together, decisions better reflect and respond to the diversity and the diverse needs of society.

Women leaders pave the way for equality by setting the example, especially for young women, in their societies. Women leaders challenge public perceptions of gender and show that “women’s work” is the work of legislators, justices and Heads of State.

Equality in political participation is important because race, religion, wealth, or gender should have no bearing on the human right of all individuals to participate in their societies. Equality is important to ensure that people at risk of being marginalized and rights at risk of being sidelined–including women’s right to sexual and reproductive health—are equally protected.

Since UN Women was created over two years ago, we have worked with some 28 countries to break down the barriers to women’s political participation through temporary special measures and quotas.

For example, in El Salvador, UN Women worked with a coalition of women’s groups, the Supreme Court of Justice and parliament to press for reform that led to the adoption of the Law on Equality, Equity, and Eradication of Discrimination against Women in 2011.

And UN Women supports women candidates with their election campaigns in Tunisia– where in 2011 the region’s most progressive parity law was passed, mandating an equal number of men and women on party candidate lists.

We all know that quotas are just the first step. Going beyond numbers, UN Women strongly believes in working with women leaders to share knowledge and ideas and to build networks so that more qualified women can vote and get elected.

And we look forward to the many positive changes to come here in Ireland in the next general election.

It is our collective commitment to gender equality and women’s rights that makes it possible to remove the many obstacles to women’s equal participation. UN Women looks forward to working with you to make our democracies stronger and our societies more equitable for all.

Thank you.