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New Zealand’s Parliament becomes majority female — ‘about blimmin’ time’

New lawmakers on Oct. 25 were sworn into a historic New Zealand Parliament, where women outnumber men for the first time. (Video: AP)

New Zealand made history — or herstory — this week as female lawmakers became the majority, narrowly outnumbering their male counterparts in Parliament for the first time.

On Tuesday, Soraya Peke-Mason was sworn in as a lawmaker for the Labour Party, tipping the country’s legislative body to 60 women and 59 men.

“Whilst it’s a special day for me, I think it’s historic for New Zealand,” Peke-Mason told reporters.

Fellow lawmaker Nicola Willis echoed that joy: “I’m just really pleased that my daughters are growing up in a country where women being equally represented in public life is just normal. That’s a great thing,” she said.

Another politician, Marama Davidson of the Green Party, was more forthright: “About blimmin’ time,” she told reporters. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” she added, citing pay transparency among lawmakers as a key enduring concern.

The female majority may be short-lived, however, with a by-election due in the Hamilton West constituency in December that could shift the gender balance in Parliament once again.

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New Zealand is one of a handful of countries led by women, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in office since 2017. She surprised many after taking maternity leave a year later and became one of a few elected world leaders to give birth while in office — following Pakistan’s late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Globally, just over a quarter of lawmakers are women (26.4 percent), according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organization of national parliaments that fosters parliamentary diplomacy.

Only five countries share Wellington’s achievement, with at least half of lawmakers being women, among them Rwanda, where more than 60 percent of its lawmakers are women, Cuba (53 percent), Nicaragua (51 percent), Mexico (50 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (50 percent), according to data from the IPU. The countries that fall just short of 50 percent include Iceland, Grenada and South Africa.

Despite some gains, women remain largely “underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide,” according to U.N. Women, which cautions that “achieving gender parity in political life is far off.”

Although there are more female lawmakers in general sitting in parliaments around the world, only 21 percent of government ministers are women, and often they hold portfolios related to gender, family, children, the elderly, social affairs and the environment, the U.N. body found. “At the current rate of progress, gender parity in national legislative bodies will not be achieved before 2063.”

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Minna Cowper-Coles, a research fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, a London-based research group, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that politics often struggles to accommodate female lawmakers. Political systems tend to fall short, she said, whether in making allowances for caring responsibilities — for example, voting taking place late into the evening, and inadequate maternity leave and nursing provisions — or tackling harassment online and in person, which “is disproportionately directed at women in politics” and “on the rise.”

Such pressures often put women off entering politics or can contribute to their leaving, she added.

In Europe, Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, has faced criticism in her role. Earlier this year, she was derided after videos surfaced on social media of Marin partying with her friends at a private event. Critics called her conduct unprofessional and irresponsible amid the country’s economic crisis, but the videos also triggered a wave of solidarity from female lawmakers, including former U.S. senator Hillary Clinton, many of them issuing pictures of themselves dancing in a bid to denounce what they said was unfair and sexist treatment of Marin.

Cowper-Coles also argued that having women in positions of power does not always benefit other women, like the “increase in Europe of women leading far-right parties.”

Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, this month framed herself as an “underdog” and cited numerous other Italian women, including politicians, who opened the way to “break the heavy glass ceiling.” However, she made little mention of social issues that affect women, aside from suggesting that individual freedoms, including on abortion, would not be rolled back.

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“We also need to hold men politicians accountable” for policy issues that harm women, Sarah Liu, an associate professor in gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh, told The Post. She cited a risk of “othering” women by focusing on firsts and accepting men as the “default” occupants of high office.

Parliaments must do more to become “women-friendly environments,” particularly given the increase in women giving up their careers since the coronavirus pandemic and amid financial crises, she added.

Female lawmakers have a unique perspective and impact, she said. “Research shows that having more women in parliaments leads to more women-friendly policy,” Liu said. “If we want to ensure the representation of women and ensure that there’s gender parity in political institutions — where decisions governing people’s lives are made — then we need to mainstream gender in all aspects of politics.”

The historic female-majority parliament in New Zealand has been achieved in a country that boasts a long history of women’s suffrage. In 1893, it became the first self-governing country in the world to grant some women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The United States and European countries meanwhile, granted such rights much later, only after the end of World War I.

Julie Yoon contributed to this report.

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