Women Parlamentarians

Improvident reference to ratio


The Reporter (Addis Ababa) March 7, 2000

by Hailemariam Habtesellasie


 Addis Ababa - Encouraging the participation of women in politics, and particularly in the upcoming elections in Ethiopia, has become the agenda of several independent organizations, and of course, of the government. While the Canadian Embassy is supporting female candidates, the British Council has meanwhile organized a seminar to "empower women in political life."


While opening the seminar last Monday, the Council's deputy director, Simon Ingham-Hill, said that greater gender equality was the British Council's goal, adding that barriers to gender equality existed in every country, including "a modern country such as the United Kingdom." To support this statement, he said that "it was only in the last parliament that 18% of the country's parliamentarians were women although 52% of the electorate were female."


There is an obvious fallacy in this statement by the deputy director. First, there is no precept in a democratic system which states that the percentage of female parliamentarians must be proportional to the percentage of the female electorate. The fact that only 18% of parliamentarians are female does not mean that the interests of the 52% female voters have not been fully represented in parliament.


The rights of female voters is not safeguarded by female parliamentarians only. Male parliamentarians may as well be attentive to the interests of female voters and may ensure the protection of their rights. Contrary to the statements by Ingham-Hill, the UK is an excellent example in this regard. Although the number of female parliamentarians is substantially less than the number of male parliamentarians, Britain has however managed in modern times to offer equal pportunities to its male and female population regarding education, health services, employment, etc. Of course, the legacy of past history of discrimination against women may somehow manifest itself in unbalanced figures even up to this day, but the truth is that men and women in the UK have been treated equally in recent decades, even at a time when the percentage of female parliamentarians was a lot smaller than that of male parliamentarians.


Does the fact that 52% of the electorate are female mean that all female voters must vote for female candidates only? Suppose a female voter objectively evaluates the programs of a female candidate and a male candidate, and decides that the agendas of the male candidate would better serve her interests. Whom is she supposed to vote for? Wouldn't the interests of the voter be more important than the sex of the candidate? Or, conversely, let's say that a male candidate sees that the agendas of a female candidate would serve his interests better than that of other male contenders. Whom is he supposed to vote for?


The point here is that what candidates could do for their voters is the most significant element that voters should be concerned with. And in this way, female candidates may find their way into parliament through the support of male voters, just as male voters may find their way into parliament through the support of female voters.


In my opinion, it is quite immature to claim that gender equality does not exist simply because the percentage of female parliamentarians is low in comparison to the percentage of male candidates. Gender equality comes into existence only when policies to that effect are drawn and implemented. And this may be done, as can be seen in a number of developed countries, by male- dominated parliaments. Even here in Ethiopia, we have seen a lot of attempts (some of them acceptable and others not very much so) to bring about what has been perceived as "gender equality." The family law in the Civil Code, for instance, is in the process of amendment. And this is being done by a male- dominated House of Peoples Representatives. Before that, the Ethiopian Constitution now in force was made to include provisions regarding affirmative action and "the rights of women." Yet, it was prepared and drafted by a male- dominated Constitutional Commission, and was endorsed by a male-dominated Constituent Assembly. Thus, a simple glance at the male-female ratio in parliament is a desperately insufficient endeavor to demonstrate the presence or absence of gender equality.


Suppose the number of male and female members of the House of Peoples Representatives were equal, and suppose the number of men and women in decision- making positions were equal too. Are we to conclude that gender equality has been achieved? Are we then to conclude that the age-old discrimination against women has been abolished in our country? Of course not. 


In gender equality, the rise in the number of women in parliament or in decision-making positions is supposed to be a means (among many others), while the betterment of the lives of women is supposed to be the end. And since the betterment of the lives of women cannot come about only as a result of more female parliamentarians or more female ministers, citing the male-female ratio in parliament is a tactless way of evaluating the gender issue.