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PNG parliament votes to allow reserved seats for women

In a historic vote, the Parliament of Papua New Guinea has passed a bill allowing 22 parliamentary seats to be reserved for women MPs. On 23 November 2011, the Equality and Participation Bill (or ‘Women’s Bill’) received 72 votes to two, with several members abstaining and some absent. PNG has had four women Members of Parliament since the country’s independence in 1975, and currently has only one woman MP—Dame Carol Kidu—who sponsored the Bill. In a recent ABC radio interview, the Queensland-born MP described the vote as ‘a real paradigm shift’ on the floor of the parliament, and noted that the years of campaigning for change had helped to raise public consciousness of women’s under-representation in the country’s parliament. In a nation where violence against women is endemic, Dame Carol cites international evidence to show that social issues gain priority when more women are involved in making laws. The PNG parliament must now pass enabling legislation that will determine the boundaries of the 22 electorates. The enabling legislation, still to be introduced, will require 73 votes or two-thirds of the parliament.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s data, women comprised 19.3 per cent or less than one-fifth of all parliamentarians in the 188 national parliaments surveyed at the end of September 2011. The figure for Pacific countries was even lower at 14.8 per cent. Given the slow progress internationally, many countries have adopted some form of gender quota to increase women’s representation in politics. The Quota Project, a global database of quotas for women in politics, reports that about half of the countries of the world today use some type of electoral quota system for women, including candidate quotas, reserved seats and voluntary quotas for political parties. Different systems are preferred in different regions. Reserved seats tend to be used in the Arab region, in South Asia and partly in Africa.  Indigenous Maori people have had dedicated seats in the New Zealand Parliament for more than 100 years. Indigenous Australians have unsuccessfully sought dedicated seats since 1938 when the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation presented a petition to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons demanding representation in the national Parliament.

Reserved seats are an example of a quota system mandated by the constitution and/or law to guarantee that a certain number or percentage of seats in parliament is set aside for women. The Quota Project has identified the following national parliaments with reserved seats for women:

Parliament Total seats Number of
seats for women
% women Election year
Lower house 249 69 28 2010
Upper house 102 28 27 2011
Bangladesh 345 64 19 2008
Lower house 106 34 32 2010
Upper house 41 19 46 2010
China 2,987 637 21 2008
Djibouti 65 9 14 2008
Egypt 512 65 13 2010
Eritrea 150 33 22 1994
Jordan 120 13 11 2010
Kenya 224 22 10 2007
Kyrgyzstan 120 28 23 2010
Morocco 325 34 10 2007
Niger 113 15 13 2011
Lower house 342 76 22 2008
Upper house 100 17 17 2009
Lower house 80 45 56 2008
Upper house 26 10 38 2011
Lower house 150 34 23 2007
Upper house 100 40 40 2007
Somalia 546 37 7 2004
Sudan 346 87 25 2010
Tanzania, United Republic of 350 126 36 2010
Uganda 375 131 35 2011
Source: Quota Project: Global database of quotas for women.

Australia currently ranks 38th in the world in terms of the number of women in national parliaments. In the Commonwealth Parliament, women currently comprise 24.7 per cent or less than one-quarter of Members in the House of Representatives, and 38.2 per cent of Senators in the upper house. Whilst quotas have proved to be an efficient means of improving the gender balance in parliaments, they are not without controversy. Some critics regard quotas as being inconsistent with the principles of liberal democracy, whilst others question whether they serve to empower women politically. The Quota Project summarises the various pros and cons on its website.