Sunday, August 05, 2007


More than one quarter of the 249 seats in Afghanistan’s National Assembly are reserved for women, placing it among the world’s top 20 most gender-balanced legislatures. According to a new report from the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, however, this creation of political space for women has not resulted in the substantive representation of their collective gender interests.

The report, titled “A Matter of Interests: Gender and the Politics of Presence in the Wolesi Jirga”, argues that the representation of women’s gender interests in the National Assembly remains minimal. The system of reserving seats for women in Afghanistan’s 2005 legislative elections was widely considered progressive.

Proponents of reserved seats and other quota systems contend that these means of affirmative action are steps to compensate for previously institutionalised inequality and under-representation of certain social groups. Indeed, for Afghanistan’s women, the reserved seat system marked a considerable milestone in the struggle for equal opportunities.
Women parliamentarians, however, have voiced concerns about their status as democratically elected legislators. As a result of the reserved seat system, their presence in parliament is considered by some to be unmerited. As the report’s author Anna Wordsworth observes, “the practice of fast-tracking women into the legislature through affirmative action has affected their perceived legitimacy in office”. General seats, she argues, which are supposedly open to any candidate to contest, have become men’s seats in public perception.
The report identifies the risk that the 68 reserved seats may in fact become a glass ceiling — preventing women from attaining seats above and beyond those reserved for them. Beyond these negative perceptions of reserved seats for women, Wordsworth argues, other factors have contributed significantly to the lack of representation of women’s gender interests in parliament to date. These include the lack of issues-based blocks in the Wolesi Jirga, executive indifference to women’s gender interests, and the nature of international assistance to parliamentarians. “A Matter of Interests” is critical of the current legislative environment and its inability to provide space for women’s gender interests to be raised.
According to Wordsworth, “the substantive representation of women’s gender interests will require the institutional frameworks of solid issues-based groups or parties whose commitment to the representation of these interests is a key element of their policy platforms”.
There are also other measures that can be taken to encourage such representation in the short term. These include the public clarification of the reserved seats system, the harmonisation of legislation on women’s rights, the mainstreaming of gender issues into international training programmes and an increased executive commitment to women’s participation in government.

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