By Georgiana Grozescu
Women’s full and equal participation in all facets of society is a fundamental human right. Women’s full and equal participation in the political process and decision-making is necessary to provide a balance that more accurately reflects the composition of society. Women’s representation is needed to strengthen democracy and promote its proper functioning. Women’s representation plays a pivotal role in furthering women’s equal status, including improving women’s socio-economic status, and contribute to redefining political priorities and providing new perspectives on political issues. Under international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to take part in the government of his or her country and the right of equal access to public service. Every citizen shall have the right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives and to have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his or her country. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right to participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government.
Women shall be, on equal terms with men and without any discrimination, entitled to hold public office and to exercise all public functions established by national law. The 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation (A/RES/66/130) calls on UN Member States to encourage greater involvement of women, including women who may be marginalized (such as indigenous women, women with disabilities, women from rural areas and women of any ethnic, cultural or religious minority), in decision-making at all levels, and address and counter the barriers faced by marginalized women in accessing and participating in politics and decision-making at all levels.
Despite the plethora of legal instruments today, women’s political representation globally only amounts to around 1 in 4 parliamentary seats held by women. Women continue to be significantly underrepresented in the highest political positions. In October 2019, there were only 10 women Head of State and 13 women Head of Government across 22 countries. This gender disparity has been painfully highlighted during the current COVID-19 crisis when, with very few exceptions, women are overwhelmingly missing from decision making. That is despite the fact that women represent most of the essential workers or 75% of healthcare workers involved in fighting COVID-19.
Arguably, this might have happened because advancing women’s participation has targeted or has achieved some success with legislatures, judicial bodies or lower status public servants, which are mostly silent during the times of crisis, when the (exclusively or predominantly male) higher executive branch assumes all the power. As a result, government responses to the current crisis remain largely oblivious of issues women specifically face or have resulted in making women more vulnerable. Some governments even passed measures that were obviously discriminatory, such as gender curfews allowing only “the head of the family” out of the home. The media now displays stories of men making decisions, asserting power and asking for public compliance, alongside with stories of women facing abuse, financial difficulties or marginalization. The message thus being sent should be a sobering call for women’s rights advocates.
*Georgiana Grozescu is an assistant-magistrate at the High Court of Cassation and Justice of Romania. She is currently a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at American University - Washington College of Law DC where she researches access to justice and gender inequality.
The views expressed in this entry belong to the author.