According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), more ambitious measures and greater political will are needed to increase women's representation in parliament and continue the significant progress made worldwide over the last decade. Nevertheless, the number of women presiding over parliaments has reached a record level, with 53 women heading a parliamentary chamber.
In 2016, women sought access to the circle of the world's top leaders. They demanded that they be listened to and that women's opinions be taken into account in decision-making processes. Not all their attempts have been successful. As in previous years, the political emancipation of women cannot be taken for granted.
An improving global average
The global average for women parliamentarians rose from 22.6% at the end of 2015 to 23.3% at the end of 2016. In December 2006, women held 16.8% of parliamentary seats worldwide. This represents an increase of 6.5 percentage points over the last 10 years. In 68 chambers (i.e. 25% of all single or lower chambers and upper chambers), at least 30% of parliamentarians are women. In 44 chambers (16%), on the other hand, women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians. Five chambers have no women at all.
The number of female Speakers of Parliament has reached a record level, with 53 women heading a parliamentary chamber.
A look at the world's regions
Pacific: small streams make big rivers
It's worth noting that in 2016, the biggest advances for women were recorded in the parliaments of the Pacific, a region not particularly renowned for the openness of its political leadership to women. The regional average for women parliamentarians (all chambers combined) rose by 1.6 points from 15.8% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016.
The advances seen in the Pacific are in line with the Pacific Leaders' Declaration for Gender Equality (2012), which emphasized women's participation in the decision-making process. The region's women political leaders have also had more opportunities to meet and discuss their experiences and strategies for moving things forward.
Europe: combining democracy and inclusion
The 2016 elections led to an increase in the parliamentary representation of women in Europe. The regional average (all chambers combined) rose from 25.4% in 2015 to 26.3% in 2016 (+0.9 points).
Significant progress has been made in Cyprus and Montenegro (over eight percentage points). Both countries have a system of proportional representation and have introduced temporary special measures that are legally binding. In Cyprus, the increase in the number of women coincided with one of the biggest reversals in the history of Cypriot elections. The loss of confidence in traditional political parties led to the election of the largest number of parties (some very small) in 15 years. Four of the eight parties represented in parliament have at least one woman MP in their ranks.
In Iceland, the repercussions of the 2008 global financial crisis were once again felt in the 2016 elections: once again, the electorate showed its distrust of traditional political parties. The Pirate Party, led by a woman, won a significant share of seats in parliament (Althingi) after pledging to increase direct democracy by introducing the world's first "participatory constitution". The Icelandic media reported extensively on the success of women parliamentarians in all parties.
Women now make up 47.6% of the Althingi, an increase of eight percentage points. Some commentators have noted that it would have taken just two more women (in addition to the thirty elected) for women to be in a position to form a government on their own.
More limited progress was seen in San Marino, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Georgia and the Czech Republic (with increases ranging from 2.8 to 6.7 percentage points).
However, the European elections also recorded electoral declines - particularly in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (-0.9 points), the Russian Federation (-0.9 points), Spain (-0.9 points in the lower house and -1.1 points in the upper house), Croatia (-0.9 points in the lower house and -1.1 points in the upper house) and the Czech Republic (-0.9 points in the lower house and -1.1 points in the upper house).
(-2.6 points), Lithuania (-2.8 points) and Belarus (-4.7 points).
Early elections have been called in Spain to break the country's political deadlock. Spanish electoral law provides for "gender parity" on party lists for both the Senate and the Congress of Deputies. However, the 40% mark proved difficult to surpass, and a slight drop was recorded in these elections.
(-0.9 points in the lower house) compared with the previous year, when women's representation in parliament had reached a record high.
Arab States: breakthroughs
The Arab states have made significant progress over the last ten years in including women in the conduct of public affairs. In 2016, the proportion of women holding a seat in parliament (all chambers combined) rose by just over half a percentage point (+0.5) to 18%. Above all, this trend is a response to growing public and international pressure for greater transparency and democratic accountability. It's no coincidence that the countries in the region where women made the greatest advances in 2016 (Morocco and Jordan in particular) are also the countries where the elites have acted on these calls.
In Morocco, the "Arab Spring" of 2011 led King Mohammed VI to adopt major constitutional reforms, including an increase in the electoral quota by gender, raising the number of seats reserved for women from 30 to 60. Unsurprisingly, in recent years, the proportion of women sitting in the lower house has doubled, from 10.5% in 2007 to 20.5% in 2016.
Jordan has also seen substantial progress in women's participation in political life. In 2016, women took 20 of the 130 seats in the lower house (15.4%), compared with 18 of the 150 seats (12%) in the previous legislature. These advances can be attributed to a change in mentality. In the run-up to the elections, campaign posters extolling the virtues of women's participation in politics could be seen at crossroads and along the country's roads.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the Be 100 Ragl II campaign was launched in 2016. It is a video-on-demand service with an average of 13.3 million visitors per month. The video follows the daily lives of various women involved in public life and proposes innovative ways to empower women in the region.
In 2016, when the Saudi Parliament was renewed, the same number of women were appointed (20% of parliamentarians).
In Kuwait, one woman was elected to one of the 50 parliamentary seats up for grabs, out of a field of 15 candidates. By comparison, only eight women stood in the previous elections, but two of them were elected.
Asia: slow, steady progress
In Asia, elections rarely result in dramatic change. 2016 was no exception. The share of seats held by women in parliament (all chambers combined) rose from 18.8% in 2015 to 19.3% in 2016. Increases in the proportion of elected women - all relatively modest - were seen in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Mongolia, the Philippines and Viet Nam. In most cases, however, these increases reflect a steady evolution that remains significant and influential.
In Japan, there were elections to the upper house (House of Councillors) in July 2016. The number of women elected reached a record 28. These results bring the total number of women to 50 out of the 242 members of this chamber (i.e. 20.7% compared with 16.1% in the previous elections). At local level, a woman was elected for the first time as Governor of Tokyo in 2016. In Japan, women's fight for political inclusion is not limited to the challenges of the electoral system (which requires, among other things, each candidate to pay a sum equivalent to US$30,000). Women also have to battle against a rather conservative society, in which gender roles are strongly entrenched.
In Iran, women have scored small electoral successes against a backdrop of spectacular upheavals on the part of the hard-line conservatives. Iranians elected 17 women to parliament (6%), compared with nine in the previous legislature.
With this record number, women surpassed religious leaders, who had 16 elected. The number of women candidates has almost doubled compared to previous elections. The
17 elected women, all starting their first term of office, are considered reformists.
In Viet Nam, a 2015 amendment to the Electoral Law has stemmed the downward trend in women's parliamentary representation that had been underway for almost 10years. The Law now stipulates that at least 35% of candidates must be women and at least 18% must be from ethnic minorities. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the first woman to become President of Parliament, was elected with 95% of the vote. Women were subsequently appointed to chair three of the six parliamentary committees.
In the Republic of Korea, the proportion of parliamentary seats won by women rose by 1.3 points to reach a new all-time high (17%). Impressively, just over half of the 93 female candidates (10.5% of the total) were elected. Both government and opposition parties failed to keep their promises to include at least 30% women on their lists.
In the Philippines, the House of Representatives came even closer to the "critical" 30% mark, but failed to reach it. With the support of voluntary quotas for women candidates, women won 86 of the 203 seats (29.8%), an increase of 2.4 points. In the Philippine Senate, where half of its 24 seats were up for election, two women were elected, bringing the total number of female senators to six (25%).
India recorded the only decline in the region. At local level, seats have been reserved for women since the 1994 elections. By contrast, a proposed constitutional amendment to introduce reserved seats at national level, tabled in 2008, failed to make it through parliamentary debates. Following the direct and indirect elections and government appointments of June and July 2016, the upper house (Rajya Sabha) includes 27 women out of a total of 244 members (11.1%, down from 12.8% at the previous renewal).
Diverging poles in the Americas
For the past 10 years, the Americas region has been leading the movement towards gender parity. In 2016, with an increase of 0.8 percentage points, women occupied an average of 28.1% of seats in the region's parliaments (all chambers combined).
Latin America has made a major contribution to these advances. Indeed, in many Latin American countries, the women's movement has not been satisfied with having achieved a "critical mass" of political leadership, but has sought to go further with legislative reform enabling women to hold 50% of decision-making positions. Nicaragua, for example, amended its Electoral Law in 2012, so that candidate lists submitted by political parties must now include as many women as men. In 2016, elected women held over 45% of parliamentary seats.
In the US congressional elections, women failed to break the 20% barrier. The number of female senators rose by one percentage point to 21%. In the House of Representatives, the proportion of women declined slightly (-0.2 points to 19.1%). In the Senate, 16 women were elected on the Democratic side (versus 14 in the previous legislature) and five on the Republican side (versus six previously). These elections also led to greater diversity, with the election of the first Hispanic-American woman and the first female veteran.
More generally, the region, which used to have a reputation for many stateswomen, has faltered in this respect. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's Argentine presidency came to an end at the end of December 2015, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was impeached. Hillary Rodham Clinton, although not elected, was the first woman to win the nomination of a major political party in the United States of America. During the campaign, the debate took a distinctly sexist turn. From degrading slogans and sexual innuendo to the continual questioning of women's rights, this campaign has emerged as the most unpleasant in American electoral history. Clinton's defeat is indicative of the challenge of electing a woman to America's most coveted office.
Sub-Saharan Africa: quotas keep us on course
Over the past 10 years, legally-binding electoral quotas have played a major role in opening up the political sphere to women in sub-Saharan Africa. In countries where quotas have been introduced, the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women has remained relatively stable. In other countries, there have been substantial declines. As a result, sub-Saharan Africa recorded one of its lowest rates of change in 2016. The proportion of women in parliament (all chambers combined) rose from 23.2% in 2015 to 23.6% (+0.4 points).
In the Central African Republic, the first post-conflict elections to the National Assembly resulted in a low representation of women. Neither the country's constitution nor its electoral laws provide for quotas. In 2016, 11 women (7.9%) were elected to the 139-seat Assembly. Catherine Samba-Panza, the country's first female president, kept her promise not to seek re-election.
In this region, the biggest increase was recorded in a country that has no official quotas: Zambia. In this country, 26 women were elected and four were appointed, including the Vice-President of the Republic and the First Vice-President of Parliament. As a result, 18% of Zambian parliamentarians are women, an increase of over seven percentage points compared to the 2011 elections.
In Uganda, seats are reserved for women in each of the 112 constituencies. There has been little change in overall representation, with women finding it very difficult to gain a larger share by winning open seats.
In Cabo Verde and South Sudan, where quotas ensure women's access to parliament, changes have been minimal but positive.
Women Speakers of Parliament - a better rate of progression than for members of parliament
A woman at the head of a political institution is also a great asset for the promotion of gender equality. Women presiding over parliaments (or parliamentary chambers) are role models and ambassadors. They can also influence the tone of debates and decide which issues should be given priority in parliament.
As of January 1, 2017, women held 19.1% of parliamentary chamber presidency positions worldwide, one percentage point better than the previous year. Nine new female Speakers of Parliament were elected or appointed in 2016. For the first time, a woman was elected Speaker of the Parliament of the Syrian Arab Republic and Speaker of the Parliament of Viet Nam. Seven women were re-elected as Speakers of Parliament in 2016, often for the second time and in some cases for the third time. With an increase of almost three percentage points since 2015, the rise in the proportion of women Speakers of Parliament exceeds that of women parliamentarians.
Women's rights: growing importance at the heart of political debate
Women's rights were the subject of intense discussion in various political campaigns during 2016. In some cases, hard-won rights such as women's reproductive rights and their rightful place in public life were even seriously challenged. Clearly, neither women's right to express themselves in politics nor their right to self-determination can be "taken for granted". Political leaders, some of them women, have pledged to reverse court rulings and gender equality laws, or have even moved from words to deeds.
In 2016, misogynistic and sexist ideas manifested themselves in public and private spaces as women asserted their desire for political leadership.
Women candidates have been subjected to vile harassment, degrading stereotyping and blatant "mecinterruption". This type of behavior shows just how much women still have to fight for their political action to be considered legitimate.
Faced with this situation, women politicians in some countries have "put the problem on the table". In Canada, parliamentarians from different parties have spoken out in parliament about their own experiences of harassment and misogyny.
Female members of the Israeli Knesset have revealed that they have been subjected to sexist assault and harassment. In Italy, the Speaker of Parliament declared on Twitter: "Men, that's enough sexism, it's 2016" and called for a move away from the hackneyed cliché of inflatable dolls. Seventeen French politicians have drafted a manifesto against sexism. In it, they call on political parties to "verify" whether acts of harassment have been committed, and to help victims "get the truth out". Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has played a leading role in a campaign to denounce sexist acts against female politicians as loudly and quickly as possible. The murder of British MP Jo Cox is an appalling example of the increasing exposure of parliamentarians - particularly women - to violence. Women's participation in political life is a key element of gender equality. However, it is equally important that political institutions are sensitive to the diverse needs, interests and experiences of the people they represent, and evolve accordingly.
Progress towards gender equality is also measured by the achievements of parliaments, particularly the laws they pass. Over the past year, parliaments have passed laws to: increase women's participation in politics (Liberia); condemn acts of violence against women (Algeria) and so-called honor killings (Pakistan); guarantee women, in exceptional circumstances, the possibility of safe abortion, for rape victims for example (Morocco); and, ensure that parents have the opportunity to take time off to care for their babies (Rwanda). The Mexican Parliament has also approved a protocol for dealing with cases of political violence against women.