OSCE pushes for more women participation in politics in the South Caucasus

A meeting hosted by the OSCE in Yerevan analysed the role of women in the 6 May Parliamentary elections.

As part of its mandate to support and promote pluralism and equal democratic representation, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recently organised events to address the issue of women’s political participation in Baku and Yerevan.

On June 21 and 22, the OSCE office in Baku with support from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) brought together over 30 senior political party officials to discuss how to increase participation amongst women in political parties.

In her opening remarks, Melissa Stone, Deputy Head of the OSCE Office in Baku, began, “Given that political parties are the primary and most direct vehicle through which anyone can access elected office and political leadership, the deliberate inclusion of women in political parties’ values, practices, structures and policies is essential for women’s equal participation in political life.”

While women’s involvement in politics in Azerbaijan has improved in the past decade, the results are certainly not breath-taking. Female Members of Parliament have increased from a feeble 11 per cent in 2005 to 16 per cent in 2010. The local level, however, has seen greater advances in women’s participation. Numbers increased from just four per cent of municipal councillors in 2004 to 26 per cent in 2009.

Diana Digol, a project officer with ODIHR noted that “Political parties can play a key role in increasing the level of women’s political participation in elections, both as voters and candidates.” She went on to say that, “Women’s chances of gaining higher elected office will not improve if political parties fail to promote them.”

Participants heard from both local and international experts about legislative initiatives to increase female participation in politics as well as best practices in OSCE member states for overcoming barriers to entry and gender stereotypes.

Four days later in Yerevan, the OSCE office held a roundtable discussion on the personal experiences of female candidates in the parliamentary elections held last month. The event follows-up on a workshop held in Yerevan in December 2011 similar to the one carried out in Baku last week.

Oliver McCoy, Democratization Officer for the OSCE Office in Yerevan, commended women leaders as playing a “vital role in the development of robust pluralistic societies.” In reference to the roundtable discussions, Mr. McCoy explained that “As we look to build on what has been achieved, it is important that we touch base with the women involved in political parties on a regular basis.”

The overall picture for women in Armenian public life, however, remains rather grim. Despite the establishment of a quota system for the proportional representation (PR) lists, only 14 women were elected to parliament in the recent election, a slight increase from the 12 that held seats in the previous parliament.

Women made up 22% of candidates on PR lists, meeting the legal requirements as confirmed by the OSCE monitoring mission. However, seats are awarded from the top of the list down, and although female candidates are required to be listed at regular intervals, seven dropped out at the last minute allowing male counterparts to take their places.

The gender quota does not apply to the remaining 41 constituency-based seats. Furthermore, of the 155 candidates running for constituency seats, there were only 12 female candidates; three of whom reported no campaign expenditures leading the OSCE to conclude these women were not in fact genuine contestants in the elections.

Analysts in Armenia cite several obstacles to women’s participation in politics, not least of which are cultural norms and values that are not conducive to advancing women in leadership positions, the dearth of official support for women’s political advancement as well as the fact that there simply are not many women in Armenia who have the financial independence that would enable them to run for office.

One female candidate, who ran as an independent in the May elections, Narine Moysisyan, head of the research centre at the Yerevan Agricultural University, explained that she was denied access to advertise on local television, blocked from campaigning by some local officials and that her family members received threats regarding her candidacy.

Despite all of this, she remained optimistic about the advances made by female candidates. “By putting myself forward, I dispelled the long-held myth that one needs support from some quarters to become a candidate. Under a total electoral blockade, with no campaign headquarters, no full-time campaigning, and no media visibility, I still managed to win 1,340 votes […] I don’t consider myself defeated.”

Nevertheless it is clear that gender equality in politics has yet to be achieved in the region and must remain a priority on the agenda in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both countries should continue to work with the international community and domestic civil society on this vital issue on the road to fair and equal democracy.

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould with additional reporting from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.