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Part 5: Women: Half the population, a fifth the seats in Parliament Add to ...

Think of a country where the majority of citizens are relegated to just a fifth of the seats in the government. Think of Canada.

Nearly 90 years after Agnes MacPhail became the country's first female MP, women have failed to gain more than a secondary role in the halls of power.

Canada lags behind Angola, Ecuador, Mozambique, Guyana and even Afghanistan when it comes to the representation of women in its parliament.

In Rwanda, 56 per cent of the federal seats are held by women. By those standards, Canada's performance has been dismal.

Just 22 per cent of this country's federal politicians are women - a proportion that has remained all but unchanged through five elections.

And the numbers are not much different at the provincial and municipal levels.

So what's wrong with that? Can't men adequately represent the interests of women? Well, no, say those who have studied the issue.

The taxpayers of Canada, including women, help political parties pay the bill for elections through tax breaks for donors, campaign-expense refunds, and per-vote subsidies.

So "how can we allow parties to present us with a group of so-called representatives who are not at all mirroring the representation of the country as a whole?" asks Sylvia Bashevkin, the principal of University College at the university of Toronto whose recent book Women, Power, Politics explores the political gender gap.

Young girls need to see female politicians to know that they can become the prime minister of Canada, said Dr. Bashevkin. Young boys, she said, need to see that women can be effective leaders.

And an increase in the number of women in Parliament would lead to different policy decisions, said Dr. Bashevkin. "Because, on average, across political systems in the democratic world, women politicians are the ones who move forward on issues that relate to their experiences, whether it's childcare, whether it's violence against women, whether it's equal pay, or whether it's government funding on research against breast cancer."

Anne McLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister, embarked on a process of party renewal in 2006. She travelled the country looking at, among other things, ways to draw good women into federal politics.

It won't be easy, Ms. McLellan said in summing up her findings.

The women she spoke to expressed concerns about finding a balance between work and family life. They said they were discouraged by the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Ottawa and the "men playing silly games." And they were turned off by the media's sexist depiction of female politicians. "They say 'why would I put myself through that,'" said Ms. McLellan.

Political parties need to solve those problems before Canada's Parliament and legislatures become a true reflection of Canadian society.

But just getting women to run is only half the battle. The other half is getting them elected. And carrots or sticks may be required to push the parties to act.

Some countries have adopted quotas - and they have been effective. But quotas present a whole new set of problems, including the fact that they cast doubts about qualifications of women who are elected.

Some countries have introduced subsidies for parties that nominate women. Subsidies can be - and often are - ignored.

In the end, Canada can opt for the status quo. Or it can have a conversation.

But Kim Campbell, the only woman to hold the office of prime minister, said getting women into Parliament matters.

"Because, if they are not there, then people do not learn that they belong," said Ms. Campbell, "and they do not keep the doors open for all the generations of young women yet to come."

 

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