Parliaments are the most important representative institutions in governments and yet they remain misunderstood, unpopular, unsupported and in many cases, underused.
In Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the status of gender equality is an example where parliaments can play a stronger role in fulfilling some of their key functions related to lawmaking, oversight and representation.
If the executive branch dominates the government apparatus without maintaining the delicate balance of executive-legislative relations, parliaments seem to have unfocused or unrelated debates, a low level of legislative activity, and little influence and effectiveness in representing citizens.
According to a recent assessment (pdf) (prepared by International IDEA for the European Commission’s support to Parliamentary Development), it is difficult for parliaments to be effective when their members are subordinate to the will of the senior leadership of the executive and may suffer career-ending reversals if they act independently.
This is why parliaments in the region need technical improvement on several fronts including:
- Use of committee system in oversight work
- Legislative drafting
- Resource management
- Communication and priority setting in legislative affairs
- Constituency outreach
- Research and advocacy related to constitutional obligations
The committee system has become the main vehicle for legislative scrutiny and oversight over the last few decades, and the plenary session (full parliamentary assembly) provides the opportunity for generalized debate and a forum for major announcements.
This is why it is so important that women lawmakers take prominent and active roles in committee work.
But while the creation of gender committees in at least fifteen countries of the region certainly helps promote gender equality, it doesn’t always resolve the bigger challenge of parliaments fulfilling their key functions.
So far, in support to parliaments, international donors have concentrated their efforts in technical capacity-building, but this approach de-emphasizes the underlying issue of how power is exercised.
Where there is little demand for democracy or where the boundaries of acceptable conduct in governance do not exist or are unenforceable, capacity development approaches are unlikely to result in more efficient institutions.
Therefore, a deeper analysis is needed so we can have more realistic expectations of what can be achieved and by when, but most importantly to improve donor strategies.
The Busan Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (pdf) urged governments to improve support to parliamentary oversight, including by supporting capacity development – backed by adequate resources and clear action plans.
Clearly, international actors need to get their act together, and a fragmented approach will not work.
Such an analysis before carrying out capacity development support or technical assistance should include the challenges that women face within the political process and in the parliamentary arena. Perhaps it would reveal that targeted support to gender committees promotes gender equality.
There are, however, a growing number of parliaments operating in one-party dominant political landscapes that are starting to see democratic improvements.
New opposition parties and groups, increasing political space for debate and legislative activities, use of social media, a growing influence on the government and interest and effectiveness in representing citizens are all examples of gradual democratization in the region.
Only in such an environment can gender committees have greater influence on gender equality. A recent e-discussion on the i-knowpolitics network revealed some encouraging examples of quota systems and gender committees in the region.
I recently returned from Kyrgyzstan where I had the privilege of interacting with a dynamic group of MPs who are interested in promoting human rights, gender equality, judicial reforms and the rights of people with disabilities. They forged an alliance to promote judicial reforms and widen access to justice – critical for advancing gender equality in Kyrgyzstan.
We need more women in parliament, and we need more men MPs to share the responsibility of promoting gender equality legislation. It is in everyone’s interest.