Women’s Political Participation in Georgia

In my orientations preparing for Georgia, gender was a major topic of discussion. I learned that while society is progressing, there are still traditional biases about women and women’s’ roles in Georgia. I prepared to be treated differently as a woman in the country.

Some of my expectations were met consistently: men, for example, do not initiate a handshake. Others were upended in my first days. I was pleasantly surprised when I started my internship to see the leadership positions at the Center for Development and Democracy (CDD) held by ambitious, smart, inspiring women who reject many traditional expectations. My first week, I attended a meeting regarding NGO platforms on potential changes to the Georgian Constitution being discussed. As the meeting was held in Georgian, I did not gain much in terms of content, but I noticed that it was led by an enthusiastic women and that most of the NGO representatives were women as well. It was heartening to see that there exist engaged, passionate women in the Georgian political sphere. As a woman, as a woman studying political science, as a woman interested in participating in politics, and as a woman wanting to advocate for other women, this is a personally important topic.

I was able to go beyond mere observation of this topic to learning from experts at the Money in Politics Regional Conference, which I was able to attend. The last session on the first day of the conference covered “Financial incentives to increase women’s political representation”. Four female speakers addressed the topic in the context of Georgia, Croatia, and Ireland. I noticed that the room had cleared out quite a bit by this session; I hoped that it had more to do with it being the end of the day than disinterest in the topic.

The same week, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference on the Challenges and Opportunities of Women Political Participation in Georgia hosted by the Partnership for Good Governance and the Central Election Commission of Georgia. There a speaker mentioned what I had not noticed: that there were equal men and women in attendance at the women’s political representation session of the Money in Politics conference, in contrast to the mostly female attendance that day. While women’s voices are necessary in these discussions, it is also necessary to break the stereotype that female participation is only a women’s issue. Thus the speaker was encouraged by the men in attendance. The political participation of women is an opportunity for the improvement of democracy and progress of the entire country. Women can bring new, diverse ideas to government and are generally understood to be the most natural and capable defenders of women’s interests.

The main event of the conference was a presentation of the Council of Europe’s 2016 study of “Women’s Political Representation in the Eastern Partnership Countries” in the context of Georgia.

Women currently represent just 16% of the Georgian Parliament and fewer than 20% in almost all Eastern Partnership countries. It is encouraging that these female representatives often hold leadership positions within Parliament, and that their numbers are growing in Georgia, however, growth is slower than in other Partnership countries. At the current rate, it will take 70 years to achieve equal representation of men and women in Parliament. Additionally, there is low participation of women in local politics.

The Regional Study analyzes women’s participation in politics, as well as the barriers women face, and provides recommendations for improvement. Three specific areas are considered: women’s place in society in terms of economics, society, and culture; the political context, or parties’ role as both a barrier and supporter; and the legal framework.

The legal framework is largely in place . Georgia is party to international treaties and has its own laws guaranteeing the political rights of women. Yet laws do not translate to participation. While bias against women still does exist, public attitudes are changing favorably, but this growth is not reflected in politics. In Georgia, 28% of candidates are women- the second highest in the region, but women face a low success rate- 2% compared to men at 7%, leading to their overall low numbers.

There is an absence of women candidates, women issues as political priorities, and media visibility. In Georgia, 56% of women participate in the labor market, similar to other European countries. This is less than 75% of men, but the disparity in politics is much more severe. Lack of political participation can be linked with women’s economic disadvantage. In Georgia, there is a gender income disparity of 50%. Women are paid less than men doing the same type of work, and often also work in lower paying industries.  Women are slightly more likely to have higher education than men, but obtain education in specialized areas and do not achieve high leadership positions.

This bolsters the idea that there is no shortage of women qualified for political positions. They just need financial and party support. Most parties have subgroups for women, but women rarely are granted much power and influence. The power of parties is centralized in men to decide which candidates are recruited and promoted. This gives men an advantage as they are perceived to have more skills and function better in conflict situations, even when this is not true.

The study identifies the major barriers to women’s participation in politics as societal stereotypes, lack of finance, action by political parties, and insignificant impact of voluntary measures. A financial incentive has been in place in Georgia for 7 years for political parties that reach 30% women on their candidate lists. Some parties have reached this level, but overall the incentive has not proven effective. The most successful system has been identified as one of proportional representation and mandatory quotas on party lists. There are proposals to reformulate or change the current financial incentive. Currently, around 64% Georgians support adopting mandatory quotas to increase women’s participation.

Ireland was referenced as a success case in this regard- a story I first heard at the Money in Politics conference from Dr. Fiona Buckley (a lecturer at the University of College Cork and co-founder of 50-50 group). She explained that there have been more Sean’s and John’s in the Irish Parliament than women and that the country had long suffered from a lack of political representation of women- a concern for both the country and the EU. After the financial crisis, the call for more diversity in politics strengthened and became a grassroots movement, forcing it to the top of party agenda’s in the 2011 election. In 2012, an act was passed that would reduce political party payments by 50% unless the party had 30% women candidates (a number that will increase to 40% in 2023). The act was a success with all parties meeting the quota, an increase in the number of women elected, the highest number of non-incumbents elected, and the highest rate of increase. This shows that improvement is possible.

Recommendations of other opportunities for improvements include transparent candidate selection, financial support, training programs for women, programs awareness and education of both the public and government members, and lobbying by organizations with women’s participation as a priority. I hope that my work at CDD this summer will play a small part in this process.

By: Abigail Sharkey

Program: Overseas Professional and Intercultural Training Program

Term: Summer 2017

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