Faced with escalating violence, a lack of funding, and locked out of male-dominated networks, many women are reluctant to enter politics with growing concerns that a drive to get women into power globally is moving far too slowly, experts said.
Only about one in four parliamentarians worldwide is a woman, fewer than one in five government ministers is female, and the number of female heads of state or government is set to decline this year to 15 from 17, studies show.
Yet it has become widely accepted that when women rule, in local or national politics, it can make a difference, as they often put over-looked issues like violence against women or female empowerment on the agenda.
With the United Nations’ global goals – the Sustainable Development Goals – aiming for women’s equal participation in politics by 2030, female lawmakers and experts on women in politics said it was time to change how politics work.
They said this included ensuring political parties take the lead in recruiting women, women politicians are given support, and parliaments lose their macho image and “old boys’ clubs”.
Silvana Koch-Mehrin, founder of the Women Political Leaders Global Forum (WPL), a network of women lawmakers, said the number of women in parliaments may have increased but this has not translated into policy change or decision-making powers.
“In some countries the real power circle remains untouched,” Koch-Mehrin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“You find many women active in NGOs and other organisations involved in policy but when it comes to going into a political party they refuse because so much time is spent back stabbing and building friendships and less working on policy … They can earn more in business.
“But on the positive side the view women are crucial, for equal opportunity and development for all of society, in both developing and developed countries, is now a mainstream view.”
Even when women are voted into parliament, it can be hard to keep them in office.
“We see women leaving their seats or not standing again because in the political system there are so many obstacles,” said Julie Ballington, policy advisor on political participation at UN Women.
“The increasing incidence of violence against women in political life also keeps a lot of women from wanting to put themselves forward,” she added.
Female lawmakers said rising numbers of attacks on social media, as well as physical attacks while campaigning, were a deterrent for many women – as was the constant focus on the appearance of female politicians.
A British tabloid newspaper was accused of sexism this year when it splashed a photo of Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s legs across the front page with the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”
While an IPU study last year found nearly 45 percent of women parliamentarians had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction during their term – and more than 80 percent faced psychological abuse, largely on social media.
In Nigeria, member of parliament (MP) Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje said she has experienced discrimination, sexual innuendoes, physical threats and insubordination, mainly from male colleagues.
She fears the treatment of women in politics in Nigeria, and the threats they face, is scaring women away despite a need to have them fighting for policies that affect women.
During the last election, people started firing guns as Elendu-Ukeje was campaigning and she was whisked away, unscathed, but some of her security personnel were injured. No one was arrested over the incident.
“If there’s no disincentives for the perpetrators of violence, my fear is that the political space for women is going to continue to shrink,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We must have people who actually understand, who are the beneficiaries of these policies, being part of the policy formulation,” said the 48-year-old single mother.
Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the international organisation of parliaments, shows women held 23.6 percent of seats in 193 parliaments on Sept. 1 this year, up from 17.7 percent a decade ago and 11.8 percent in 1997.
There are no global figures on the number of women in local governments which is seen as a significant gap in knowledge.
But the IPU acknowledges it is disappointing to see women’s participation in parliaments increasing by less than one percentage point a year – more than 120 years since New Zealand became the first country to give women the vote.
“It is moving ahead but too slowly,” said Kareen Jabre, director of the division of programmes at the IPU.