It will take 50 years for gender balance to be achieved in Asia-Pacific national legislatures if the increase in women's participation in parliaments remains at the current pace, says a UN Development Programme (UNDP) study released this week.

Economic progress will be limited without equal opportunity for men and women to influence political and economic decision-making, according to the report, which offers a six-step action plan to fast-track women into politics.

Globally, women hold slightly less than 20 percent of seats in parliament. In Asia-Pacific, just over 18 percent of all members of national parliaments are women. Women's representation in the Pacific, excluding Australia and New Zealand, is the lowest in the world, lagging behind the Arab region. On average, women are less than 10 percent of ministers in Asia-Pacific, according to the UNDP study.

The recommendations in Gender Equality in Elected Office in Asia-Pacific: Six Actions to Expand Women's Empowerment offer multiple policies to speed up gender equality. As every country has its own specific social, political, economic and historical circumstances no single approach will work, but the approaches outlined in the study have the advantage of being able to be individually tailored for each specific national context. The study was launched today as part of a two-day UNDP meeting on its governance and gender programmes in Asia.

"A political system where half the population does not fully participate limits the opportunity for men and women to influence and benefit from political and economic decisions," says Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Director of UNDP's Democratic Governance Group.

There are glimmers of change in Asia-Pacific. At the recently concluded Pacific Islands Forum, Australia's first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently pledged considerable funds to raise the status of women in the Pacific Islands. Thailand's first female Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is also committed to developing the role of women in her country. The government recently set up Thai Women Empowerment Funds to create jobs and activities for local women to assist them to participate in politics and administration.

The leading countries in the region for women's membership into parliament are New Zealand and Nepal, where women are one-third of all members of parliament. Women are more than one-quarter of parliamentarians in Afghanistan, Australia, Laos, Timor-Leste and Vietnam, according to the report.

The report examines a range of institutional reforms which can contribute towards gender equality in elected office. Such topics as gender quotas or increased financing to assist women running for office are addressed, but as the lead author of the report, Pippa Norris, says, "It is not just a simple formula of add women and stir. There are many other windows of opportunities for countries to improve the situation of women in politics."

The six-step action plan suggests a range of options to increase women's political participation, including:

-Constitutional reform includes expanding rights to vote and to hold public office, removing any residual forms of sex discrimination. Constitutions can also incorporate positive action provisions, including specifying reserved seats or the requirement for legal quotas.

-Electoral, campaign finance, and party laws regulate the nomination, campaigning, and election process for entering parliaments. The study demonstrates that countries using proportional representation party lists and mixed electoral systems included on average more women in their lower house of parliament.

-Reserved seats and legal gender quotas are a related strategy which has been carried out during the last decade in almost a dozen Asia-Pacific nations. Overall the study demonstrates that the proportion of women elected to parliament during the last decade rose at a faster pace in Asia-Pacific countries which had implemented legal gender quotas compared with those which had not used these measures.

-Party selection rules and nomination procedures are also vital for achieving gender balance in elected office. The design and implementation of party quotas varies across and within countries, for example in their target levels, how far there is rank ordering on party lists, and how far formal rules are respected in practice.

-Capacity development policies and programmes, especially by civil society organizations working outside of parties, involving equal opportunity initiatives, have been widely used. These can include candidate training, induction and mentoring programmes, recruitment initiatives, and awareness campaigns to counter stereotyping of candidates according to their gender.

-Gender-sensitive rules and procedures in elected bodies will help women candidates to do their jobs once in office. Gender issues should be integrated into all parliamentary committees, debates, action plans, commissions, report and legislation to make sure that there are equal opportunities for women and men members.

Source: Press Release, United Nations Development Programme