By posing this question to parliamentarians from all over the world, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) caused something of a stir. An IPU study found that women are overwhelmingly the main drivers of change in terms of gender equality in parliament, and that there was scope to lay some of the responsibility for that change with parliaments more broadly. Increasing the direct responsibility of parliaments in achieving gender equality is one of IPU’s objectives. This means not only that parliaments should legislate and oversee government action in gender matters and include more women parliamentarians but also that parliaments need to be institutions that organize themselves and function in such a way as to allow women and men to work under conditions that meet their specific needs and interests. Parliaments must be able to embody gender equality and deliver on it. In other words, IPU works towards helping parliaments become gender-sensitive institutions in terms of their structures, functioning, working methods and action.
That is all well and good but what do parliaments think about this?
From 2009 to 2011, IPU conducted a survey on the level of gender-sensitivity in parliaments. In its ensuing report, the organization highlighted that many initiatives are being taken by parliaments with a view to better deliver on gender equality.
The survey also made it clear that there can be no gender-sensitive parliaments without the necessary political will among parliamentarians. Since then, members of parliament have shown their willingness to transform parliament. Women Speakers of Parliament were the first to be engaged in the road to change. In New Delhi in September 2012, they drew up a series of measures contained in the New Delhi Initiative for Gender-sensitive Parliaments. Soon after, in October 2012, the parliamentarians participating in the 127th IPU Assembly adopted unanimously the Plan of Action for Gender-sensitive Parliaments. The Plan of Action laid out a set of gender-related objectives for parliaments and outlined the necessary measures to achieve them.
Would it be fair to say that parliaments are in the process of changing now?
The first step towards progress is for parliaments to conduct a self-assessment in order to understand how they measure up on the gender-sensitivity scale and set specific targets. The second step is to plan the change while the third consists of undertaking the necessary reform and conducting regular evaluations. Several parliaments were pioneers in implementing these measures, including the parliaments of Bangladesh, Chile, Rwanda, Turkey and Uganda, which have conducted self-assessments and initiated reform as a result, while many others are preparing to follow suit.
How can a gender-sensitive parliament enhance women’s participation?
A gender-sensitive parliament is one that is open to women and will consequently attract more women. It will promote their participation in terms of numbers through legislative reform while ensuring women’s access to decision-making positions within the parliament and, through an enabling working environment, will improve the effectiveness of their participation. A gender-sensitive parliament will set itself apart through its welcoming culture for women members of parliament and parliamentary staff. It will help its staff and members reconcile work and family life and will be attractive for women who want to enter politics without fear of stepping into a world that may appear ill-suited to them.
Will it be more responsive to women’s needs?
Among the primary characteristics of a gender-sensitive parliament is that it sets itself gender equality targets, which it will achieve through its legislative, oversight, budget approval and representative roles. To accomplish this, it will set up or strengthen its bodies, mechanisms and strategies to create suitable conditions for achieving gender equality, eliminating discrimination against women and enhancing the status of women. In this respect, two parliamentary structures have proven to be key: dedicated committees and women’s caucuses. These structures have proven their effectiveness in delivering on gender equality objectives and building the capacities of women in parliament. The soon-to-be-launched IPU publication, Guidelines for Women’s Caucuses highlights and elaborates on this issue. One of the interesting phenomena addressed in the report is a recently recorded trend of men’s growing participation in such bodies.
Precisely … what about the men in all of this?
Men parliamentarians’ commitment is a sine qua non for parliaments to achieve gender equality. A gender-sensitive parliament is a place where women and men can work, gain a sense of fulfilment and develop side by side. Having equal rights can only be beneficial to all. For example, a gender-sensitive parliament will offer the same parental entitlements to women and men. It will promote parental leave instead of only maternity leave. It will have working hours that will allow all of its members and staff to have a family life and be involved in their children’s upbringing. It will encourage its male members to work on issues affecting their male and female constituents.
When parliamentarians enter parliament they rarely take decisions on their own. What about political parties?
Political parties often wield significant influence in parliamentary life. It is often political parties that field candidates who are future elected officials, and who vie for the various positions within parliamentary bodies. They are also the ones that advise their members how to vote. Without the commitment of political parties, parliament cannot easily claim to be or become gender-sensitive. However, globally, political parties are not conduits for gender equality in parliaments or within their own structures. To take on that role, they must themselves have more women among their ranks, develop a more inclusive culture and establish more egalitarian rules and procedures.
A word to the wise …
Gender Partnership Programme
Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)
 Equality in Politics: A Survey of Women and Men in Parliaments, IPU, 2008 http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/equality08-e.pdf
 Plan of Action for Gender-sensitive Parliaments, IPU, 2012 http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/action-gender-e.pdf