In 2008, women assumed 56 percent of the seats in the Rwandan parliament. This represents something of a paradox. Rwanda is still navigating the path to democracy -- but women have been making a positive contribution to the country's political life nonetheless. Women have been responsible for forming the first cross-party caucus to work on some of the country's most controversial issues, such as domestic violence, land rights, and food security. They have also formed the only tripartite partnership between civil society and executive and legislative bodies to coordinate responsive legislation, and ensure basic services are delivered. Rwanda is just one example of why the full and equitable participation of women in parliaments makes a difference. Research shows women are also more likely to work across party lines even in highly partisan environments. Their leadership and conflict resolution styles embody democratic ideals, and women tend to work in a less hierarchical and more collaborative way than their male colleagues.
This is why the recently published article on FP, "Who Cares How Many Women Are in Parliament?" misses the point about gender equality and political freedom. Authors Joshua Foust and Melinda Haring argue that the number of women in a parliament does not necessarily reflect whether the country is democratic, citing some well-established authoritarian regimes that have plenty of female MPs. But they neglect the importance of women in politics (that is, in positions of power) and the potential for a broader, democratic context.
We often refer to women's representation in national parliaments as a gauge of democracy; this is the measure cited, for example, in the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Unfortunately, other data about women's political participation is undercollected, so we tend to rely on the number of women in office as an imperfect but important measurement of gender equality.
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It's true: The number of elected women alone does not speak to whether a country is democratic. But when 50 percent of the population is missing from the public discourse, this is a symptom of a larger problem. The equitable representation of women in politics and government is just one piece of the democracy puzzle. Other political principles must be pursued, including an open and accountable government, free and fair elections, and an active citizenry. Without these other essential ingredients, a parliament, even one that includes women, will not be able to serve as a check on executive power.
And there is evidence that the full and equitable participation of women in public life is a critical part of the democracy equation. It helps to advance gender equality, and affects both the range of policy issues that are considered and the types of solutions that are proposed. Is this evidence supported by every woman, in every legislature, in every country? Of course not.
Women are not a monolithic bloc. The full participation of women -- or any group -- means expressing the full diversity of their opinions, beliefs, and experiences. But there are many indications that as more women are elected to office, policy-making increasingly emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities. Women's political participation has profound positive and democratic impacts on communities, legislatures, political parties, and citizens' lives. It helps democracy deliver.