1211 GENEVA 19

Extracts from the publication of the Inter-Parliamentary Union entitled

A World Statistical Survey"


Table I (...) provides several key items of information at a glance. For virtually all the 189 countries mentioned in the study, it gives the foundation date of the parliamentary institution and, in the case of the 123 countries having attained sovereignty after 1945, the date of such accession, whether resulting from a decolonization process or from dissolution of the federation of which they were part. These dates can be set against those at which the rights of women to vote and to stand for election were established in national legislation, and the date at which women first entered Parliament, through election or appointment, together with information regarding any instance of a woman presiding over the Assembly. As a complement to this information, Table II (...) gives the world and regional calendar of recognition of the rights of women to vote and to stand for election between 1788 and 1995.

Table I may be consulted both horizontally, to examine the trend in any individual country, and vertically for the sake of inter-country comparisons. Table II, for its part, may be consulted with dates and regions alike as the reference. A somewhat original reading should thus be possible of how the movement in favour of women's suffrage developed and of the electoral and parliamentary trajectory of women, of which the following notes constitute but a far from exhaustive overview.

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Freely expressing one's personal political options by means of the ballot paper or seeking elective office are two acts which, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, feature among the most symbolic expressions of democratic freedom. Since 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has had them as two fundamental rights of the human person without distinction as to sex, race or status. Yet this has not always been the reality of the matter.

1. A long obstacle race as yet unfinished

Historically speaking, access to suffrage has undoubtedly tied in with an elitist view of society. The surest evidence of this is that, for the great majority of the inhabitants of the planet, men or women, the achievement of voting rights has been the outcome of a bitter struggle signifying victory over social or racial prejudice and, in many cases, a victory over colonial oppression. As to women, while undergoing the same vicissitudes as men, they have had to overcome the additional obstacle of men's sexual prejudice. Hence in many countries they were granted the rights to vote and to stand for election much later than men - who also happened to be the sole arbiters in the matter - and often in stages.

It is by no means rare that, initially, voting rights were granted only to women able to demonstrate a certain level of income and/or education, or even women enjoying a particular marital and social status (wife, widow or daughter of a member of the military, for example), or women of white descent. Women have sometimes been accorded electoral rights locally but not at national level. From the country data, it will be seen that preliminary requirements were laid down in at least the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Greece, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Panama, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, South Africa, Sweden, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Turkey, United Kingdom and Zimbabwe.

In some countries women are still unable to take part in elections, either as mere electors or as candidates. The Constitutions of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, two countries with a legislative institution at the time of this study, provide for the equality of all citizens but allow only men to become members of the institution. Similarly, when in December 1973 Bahrain instituted a legislative body (suspended by decision of the Emir since 26 August 1975), only men were permitted to exercise the rights to vote and to stand for election despite the fact that the December 1973 Constitution stipulates equal rights for all citizens.

Other States having never possessed an institution with powers of legislation and executive oversight, but which have moved encouragingly along that path by setting up an appointed consultative body, unfortunately give far less promising signals since it would seem that no such consultative body includes women.

2. The twentieth century, that of women's suffrage

As we have just seen, at this close of the twentieth century, the legislation of virtually all countries of the world establishes the unrestricted rights of women to vote and to stand for election, and Table II shows that, with very few exceptions, the history of women's suffrage merges with the twentieth century. It also clearly indicates that, for countries having been colonized, access to suffrage for the indigenous populations is often contemporaneous with decolonization; where it predated the process, the reason was not uncommonly some passing political consideration of the colonial power.

The first two countries to grant women the rights to vote and to stand for election were New Zealand in 1893 and Australia in 1902, but those concerned were a specific minority category of women: those of European descent. On the other side of the world, in Sweden, a movement to grant women local voting rights had already started up in 1862 but only in 1918 did it come to anything, with recognition of the right of women to take part in all ballots, local and national alike, and it was finally in 1921 that this was embodied in the Constitution.

It can be stated that long before that, in 1788, the Constitution of the United States of America had recognized the right of women to stand for election to Congress, but such recognition was in fact more implicit than explicit since the instrument established the right of "all persons" to seek election. While it may be conceded that in the legislator's mind the word "person" covered women as well as men, who would venture to assert that, in the United States of America of 1788, the word "all" designated (not just de jure but also de facto) persons of all races? It was in any case only much later, on 26 August 1920, that women were explicitly granted by law the rights to vote and to stand for election to Congress .

All the Nordic countries had meanwhile discarded sexual prejudice and acknowledged in women the political maturity not credited to them anywhere else in the world.

As early as 20 July 1906, in Finland (then part of the Russian empire), women of all conditions were granted the unrestricted rights to vote and to stand for election. Between 1907 and 1915 the women of Norway, Denmark and Iceland followed in their footsteps. This was no doubt what set off throughout Europe (interpreted in this 1995 study as being made up of the OSCE member countries) a basic movement leading to electoral rights for women. As pointed out earlier, despite the thankless struggle taken into the street by the suffragettes, electoral rights were sometimes granted only partially, subject to conditions and with restrictions, but a first step had at least been taken, leading sooner or later to full recognition of the capacity of women of all stations and origins to vote and to seek elective office.

Liechtenstein was, in 1984, the last European country to permit women to take part in national elections both as electors and as candidates. In all, it took some 80 years for European legislation as a whole to grant women full electoral rights. It then remained for women to overcome the cultural prejudice and political practices so deeply entrenched in people's minds and sometimes stubbornly averse to letting them into the political arena.

In the Americas the process whereby women won access to electoral rights more or less parallelled that engaged in Europe, even though it picked up and slowed at different times and concluded earlier. In Canada, for instance, the enfranchisement process for women started in 1917. Initially, the only women allowed to exercise such rights were those belonging to the Canadian Armed Forces or having a close relative in their ranks, but as early as 1920 the vote was extended to women of all conditions, but not of all races; the indigenous Indian population had to wait until 1950 for removal of the restriction on its participation in national elections. Meanwhile, Saint Lucia saw the start, in 1924, of the movement to grant women electoral rights in the Caribbean. It soon spread to the south of the continent and by the 1960s (some 35 years on and nearly a quarter of a century before Europe) the legislation of all Latin American and Caribbean countries could be said to recognize for women of all ethnic origins and all conditions the rights to vote and to stand for election. As in Europe, the process was not always easy and the country data show that several stages were sometimes needed before all women gained full statutory electoral rights. It also remained, as in Europe, to provide all women with full information on the existence of such rights and how they could be exercised, and to overcome cultural misgivings and political practices long established without their having had any say in the matter.

In the other regions of the world, the process of women's access to electoral rights generally got under way later than in Europe and the Americas, but it sometimes concluded more rapidly.

In sub-Saharan Africa the enfranchisement process for women usually accompanied that of decolonization and was one of its expressions, but in some cases it coincided with a similar move in the home country. It was with Senegal and Togo in 1945, then Liberia and Cameroon in 1946 and Niger and the Seychelles in 1948, that the history of electoral rights for African women began. Between 1952 and 1989 (the year of Namibia's accession to sovereignty) the other 40 or so present States of the continent followed suit. South Africa stands out as a country apart since three dates, symbolizing its social and racial development, mark the access of women to electoral rights: 21 May 1930 for White women, 30 March 1984 for Coloured and Indian women, and 14 January 1994 for Black women (but also men). In all, it took nearly half a century both to complete the decolonization process and to attain legal recognition of women's electoral rights throughout the continent. From law to practice, and from law to electoral consciousness, there may nevertheless be something of a gap. It goes without saying that still today, in Africa and indeed in most other parts of the world, women living in towns or cities are generally more familiar with their rights than rural women, especially if they have had some schooling, and that, information aside, they are often more emancipated than peasant women from the cultural prejudice and tribal taboos that hamper free exercise of the rights to vote and to stand for election to Parliament.

In Asia it is Mongolia which, by recognizing the electoral rights of women as early as 1 November 1924, stands out as a pioneer in the matter. It was not before the 1930s that things changed in Sri Lanka (1931), in Thailand and the Maldives (1932), in Burma (now Myanmar - 1935) and in the Philippines (1937). Only after the Second World War did women in most other Asian countries gain the rights to vote and to stand for election. For instance, the giant of the region, China, granted those rights to women on 1 October 1949, followed a few months later by India. Bangladesh, the last-born of the independent States of the region, concluded the process on 4 November 1972, or nearly 50 years later and 12 years before Europe.

In the Pacific, apart from the two world pioneers already mentioned, New Zealand and Australia, it was only in the 1960s that the various States of the region began not only to accede to independence but also to recognize, sometimes in several stages, the rights of women to vote and to stand for election. The process concluded in 1990 with recognition of the electoral rights of women in Samoa, nearly 30 years after the archipelago's accession to sovereignty. Meanwhile, the last-born of the sovereign States of the region, Palau, had already recognized women's electoral rights in 1979.

In the same period a process got under way in the Arab countries. As early as 1946, women were given the vote in Djibouti. In 1953, Syria granted them the rights to vote and to stand for election; then, in 1956, Egypt enshrined these rights in the law, followed in 1959 by Tunisia, in 1961 by Mauritania and, as of its independence, Algeria (1962). Morocco followed in 1963, Libya in 1964, South Yemen in 1967 and North Yemen in 1970, Jordan in 1974 and Iraq in 1980. Then, in 1986, Djibouti women obtained the right to stand for election. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates continue to deny women the capacity to participate, directly or through representatives of their choosing, in the running of public affairs.

3. The underlying factors

Table I and the preceding information show how difficult it is to dissociate the dates of women's suffrage from the historical and political events affecting the lives of nations and marking their development.

Furthermore, an examination of the granting of women's electoral rights would no doubt be more complete and qualified if it were possible to take into account a series of factors not quantifiable in dates and figures but nevertheless decisive, such as the mores corresponding to the various cultures and their practices and traditions as to sexual hierarchy and division of labour between men and women. The societies of the South Pacific islands have, as we know, very different traditions from those of the countries of the Middle East, and the tradition of the latter is hardly comparable to that of the Nordic countries, which in turn has nothing to do with that of China or Latin America. There can be no doubt that these factors counted at the time of legislation in favour of the rights of women to vote and to stand for election, and that they remain very much to the fore when it comes to polling.


While there has been much resistance to letting women vote, it pales beside what they encountered when seeking access to the parliamentary institution and then exercising responsibilities in it.

From Table I it will be seen that it is not rare for several years or decades, even running into centuries, to elapse between the date of the founding of the national Parliament and that at which a woman first became a member of that institution.

It is in countries with a long parliamentary tradition in Europe and in the Americas (disregarding here the vicissitudes of the parliamentary institution in some of them, as will be apparent from the country data ) that the time lapse is the most striking, as a few examples will illustrate.

Electoral and parliamentary records show that it took 486 years for a woman to become a member of the Swedish Parliament, founded according to the historians in 1435. In Poland, a country possessing a Parliament since 1593, the voice of a woman was not heard in the Diet until 326 years later. Iceland has had a representative institution since the Middle Ages and a Parliament in the modern sense of the term since 1845, but only in 1922 did the people return a woman to it. It even took 156 years for a woman to become a member of the French Parliament, founded though it was in 1789 to revolutionary cries of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". In Nicaragua, 146 years were necessary. In Bolivia and Chile 140 years elapsed between the founding of Parliament and the election of a woman, six years more than in Peru; and in the United States of America, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Switzerland and Spain the range was 130 to 120 years. In Venezuela the interval was 118 years, in Portugal and Uruguay 112 years, and in Greece 108 years. Hungary has since the thirteenth century had an institution representing the people, which became a Parliament in the modern sense of the term in 1845 but, as in Argentina, Italy, the Netherlands and Liechtenstein, all of which have also had a representative institution since the last century, took nearly 100 years to return a woman to it. In Belgium the corresponding time lapse was 73 years; it was 69 years in Denmark, 66 in Bulgaria, 54 in Canada, 48 in Germany and 37 in Norway.

The presence of women in those Parliaments then had to be consolidated and extended, and it will be seen from Chapter II that the process did not always go entirely smoothly.

On the other hand, in most countries of more recent parliamentary tradition, the access of women to Parliament has often coincided with or in any case been close in time not only to the confirmation in national legislation of their right to stand for election, but also to the founding of the parliamentary institution.

In Afghanistan, for instance, four women entered the Council of Representatives elected in July 1965, the year in which electoral rights were granted them. In the very first legislature established three months after women were given the vote, in 1963, the Parliament of Monaco included a woman. The Assembly of Singapore likewise included a woman at the outset, in 1963. In all those countries, the future was unfortunately to show how difficult it remained for women to win election.

As mentioned earlier, in most of the former colonial countries it was in the period immediately preceding independence or at the actual time of accession to independence that adult citizens and in any case women acquired full electoral rights. Furthermore, the attainment of sovereignty was often marked by the institution of a Parliament to represent the newly sovereign people. In this respect, there are three classic cases: (i) a Parliament had been elected shortly before independence and, either as composed prior to independence or modified, the institution became the Legislature of the new independent State; (ii) a Parliament was instituted at the actual time of independence, and (iii) a Parliament was established in the first few years after accession to sovereignty.

Even though some of those assemblies ran into trouble later, particularly following military coups, it is noteworthy that they have nearly always included a number of women. Sometimes, with succeeding legislative elections, the presence of women has diminished or not been confirmed, but in most cases the proportion of female representatives has kept up or increased.

Thus when Algeria, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Congo, Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Fiji, Gabon, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sao Tome and Principe, Singapore, Suriname, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Zambia and Zimbabwe acceded to sovereignty, they gave themselves a representative institution in which a number of women were returned from the outset. In Algeria, Cape Verde, Congo, Namibia and Sao Tome and Principe, such election took place in the actual year in which women had been granted electoral rights, and in the other countries election coincided with the first opportunity for women to exercise those rights or to exercise them for a sovereign national assembly.

In Belize and Mali a Parliament was established three years after accession to sovereignty and a woman was returned to it straight away. Angola and Guinea instituted their Parliament some five years after their accession to independence and five years after the enfranchisement of women. As of the first election women entered the National Assembly, which has included women ever since. Jamaica likewise acquired a Parliament five years after its accession to sovereignty, returning two women right away. In Mauritius and the Maldives a Parliament was established only ten and fifteen years, respectively, after independence, but the Assembly included women from the outset.

In Barbados, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, the Seychelles, Sudan and Tunisia it was in the second national legislative elections, between two and five years after the establishment of Parliament, that women won seats in the Assembly.

On the other hand, in Antigua and Barbuda, Botswana, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, it was seven to ten years before women were returned to the Assembly. In the Solomon Islands, 13 years elapsed between establishment of the independent Legislature and the time a woman was first returned to it. In Tonga a woman was not elected to Parliament until 15 years after its inception and some 30 years after women were granted electoral rights. In Nauru it was only in the eighth legislative elections, nearly 20 years after the country's accession to sovereignty and the granting of voting rights to women, that a woman eventually won a seat.

To permit the access of women to Parliament despite a context not very conducive to their election, some countries adopted the idea from the start of setting aside a number of seats for them. This was done notably in Bangladesh and Eritrea (in this connection, see also page 37). In Bangladesh it was not until the fourth legislature, after some 15 years, that the women occupying reserved seats, allocated by co-optation, were joined by four women having directly faced popular suffrage.

In the great majority of countries mentioned above, it will be seen in Chapter II that subsequent elections often showed how difficult it was for women to consolidate, or merely preserve, the initial gain. In Papua New Guinea, women even ended up losing all seats in the Assembly, today consisting solely of men.


Table I shows that there are very few women indeed to occupy the office of President of Parliament or a Chamber of Parliament at present, or to have done so in the past.

Of the 186 countries surveyed, a bare 33 have elected a woman to the office of President of Parliament or one of its Chambers at some point in their parliamentary history.

Austria stands out as a pioneer in this respect, with the election of a woman to preside over the Bundesrat back in 1927, some eight years after Austrian women were given the right to stand for election. The same woman, Mrs. O. Rudel-Zeynek, was then re-elected President of that Chamber of the Austrian Parliament in 1932.

In the other 32 countries concerned, the election of a woman President of Parliament or a Chamber of Parliament came after the Second World War. The Danish Landsting was, in 1950, the fist such institution to be presided over (very briefly, it may be added) by a woman. In Austria a woman was once more elected President of the Bundesrat in 1953, but for a few months only. Elsewhere, it was not until the 1960s that a woman first directed the proceedings in Parliament.

The election of a woman President of the Assembly may on occasion have been an isolated or situational phenomenon not subsequently repeated. This applies to Argentina, Bolivia and Denmark. On the other hand, the repeated election of women Presidents of the Assembly or a Chamber of it is to be noted in Austria, Canada, Dominica, Finland, Germany, Guatemala, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden and Switzerland, together with the former SFR of Yugoslavia. For some of those countries, like Austria, Germany or Iceland, or indeed Switzerland, it would be no exaggeration to speak of a certain tradition in this respect.

After being a rare and isolated phenomenon, the election of a woman to preside over parliamentary proceedings has become commoner in this decade and, at 30 June 1995, a woman is to be found as President of Parliament or a Chamber of Parliament in the following 16 countries: Antigua and Barbuda, Croatia, Dominica, El Salvador, Finland, Germany, Grenada, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Panama, South Africa, Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom. For 11 of those countries, including six on the American continent, the holding of such office by a woman is a first and signals a notable change of parliamentary tradition: Antigua and Barbado, Croatia, El Salvador, Grenada, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Panama, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom.

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