Uneven Equation: Percentage of women in Parliament nearly doubles, remains 41 percent lower than representative population

Armenia has one of the lowest percentages of female politicians in the world, a study has revealed. Despite having a high percentage of well-educated women who hold leadership roles in civilian life, Armenia is near the bottom in female political representation, according to a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Out of 139 countries in which women are engaged in politics, Armenia ranked 124 according to the 2003 parliament. The parliament put in place May 12 did little To improve Armenia’s international standing in this regard.

Seven women (5.3 percent) served the outgoing Parliament. Twelve of the 131 seats this term will be filled by women, increasing representation, but still to just 9.1 percent in a country where more than half are female. (The new numbers would move Armenia to 103 on the Inter-Parliamentary Union list).

While it may come as no surprise that Armenia trails far behind the progressive European nations of Sweden and Finland (No. 2, 3 respectively), it is noteworthy that the No. 1 country in terms of female representation is Africa’s Rwanda.

Regionally, Armenia trails neighbors Azerbaijan (91st) and Georgia (101st) on the list.

“Women make more than the 50 percent of the total population in Armenia. It is therefore natural they should have the right to have a say and to participate in the decision-making procedure, which is not the case,” says Armineh Arakelian, Armenian coordinator of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). “This raises a question of how this community can develop harmoniously.”

The low representation also suggest that the concept of “sisterhood” bypassed Armenia, when it comes to vote-casting. Many of the countries leading the world in leadership by women did not have women’s suffrage until long after Armenia (1918).

“Unlike women in some other countries, women in Armenia are more educated and progressive. Similar to racial and ethnic minorities, women also need time to have their self-consciousness revived,” Arakelian says.

This year IDEA published “Designing for Equality”, a booklet showing the best-fit combinations of electoral systems and gender quotas in the countries. The book is a guide to how to make women better involved in the political decision-making procedures.

“In Rwanda, which is a leader on the list, women had a big role in the country’s liberation movement, consequently they managed to occupy 48.8 percent more seats in parliament. In northern Europe women organized movement in defense of their suffrage,” says Arakelyan. “Mainly it is due to such movement that women largely appear in politics. Something which wasn’t done, nor is being done in Armenia.”

Founded in 1995, IDEA unites 24 countries including Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland. The organization works in both developed and emerging democracies and supports the promotion of democratic institutions and culture in the countries.

A cooperation agreement with the Armenian government was signed in 2003.

“Our organization does not offer ready recipes of democracy, but means to find ways that will be proper to each country,” says Arpineh Galfayan, project assistant.

The organization launched cooperation with the South Caucasus countries in 2002. The organization’s representation on the regional level operated in Georgia by 2005. The Armenian projects – focusing mainly on electoral and educational issues – were launched in 2006. The general activities of the IDEA also include gender issues.

“They say today conditions are created in Armenia for equal participation of women and men in elections, so that the strongest becomes the winner. But we should take into notice that the patriarchic understandings of women’s role in our society move her to the backyards,” Galfayan says. “Moreover, women do not even see themselves in any position and are very passive while men do not tolerate women’s activity. The understanding of the problem among both common people and the elite is on quite a low level in Armenia.”

Judging only by numbers, though, it would appear that most nations join Armenia at that “low level”.

In 1995 Armenia signed the Beijing Declaration, which includes criteria for women’s involvement in politics. The signatory countries to the declaration are obliged to provide 30 and higher percentage of women parliament. This year’s report shows only 19 countries in the world provide the balance. (While the United States does not have a parliamentary system, its congress has only 16 percent women.)

Arakelian says gender issues are included only in the Armenian Democratic Party and the Armenia Revolutionary Federation platforms, which, however, lack a clear mandate for addressing the issues it raises.

The new electoral code of Armenia stipulates that 15 percent of party lists for elections should be women.

“But the results of the 2007 parliamentary election showed women will not exceed 12 percent in the new parliament,” Galfayan says.

Armineh Arakelian believes women have to first make a double effort and have courage to demand their right for being an equal citizen.

“The next step in providing women involvement in politics should be the creation of associations, educational systems and parties that support equality of rights,” Arakelyan continues.

She says the third step should be the changes in the state and economic management mechanisms, where women would be given maximum opportunities. The guarantee for the opportunities, she says, should be a comprehensive set of legislation.