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Women push case for political quota system

The introduction of a quota setting the minimum representation of women in parliament at 30% was the main topic of discussion at the April 24 Equal Opportunities Conference in Bratislava, organised by the Professional Women non-governmental organisation.
"Slovak women are underrepresented in politics," said Dagmar Šimúnková, head of Professional Women. "[Therefore], we will work hard to achieve the introduction of this quota in order to secure the placement of more female members of parliament (MPs)."
Arguing in favour of the quota, conference participants used Slovak and European statistics to illustrate their point.

The introduction of a quota setting the minimum representation of women in parliament at 30% was the main topic of discussion at the April 24 Equal Opportunities Conference in Bratislava, organised by the Professional Women non-governmental organisation.

"Slovak women are underrepresented in politics," said Dagmar Šimúnková, head of Professional Women. "[Therefore], we will work hard to achieve the introduction of this quota in order to secure the placement of more female members of parliament (MPs)."

Arguing in favour of the quota, conference participants used Slovak and European statistics to illustrate their point.

While Slovak women (who account for 51.4% of the country's population) are nearly as well educated as men, they are represented on a far lower scale in parliament and government. According to 1996 statistics from the Slovak Statistics Office, 11.5% of Slovak men have university diplomas, compared to 11% of women.

Yet only 19 of 150 Slovak MPs (12.7%) are currently women, while just two of 20 cabinet members (Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová and Privatisation Minister Mária Machová) are female.

In the Czech Republic, 15% of the lower chamber of parliament are female, compared to 20.5% in Croatia and 33.6% in Germany (for both chambers of parliament). On the other hand, Slovakia was ahead of Hungary (8.3%) and Slovenia (7.8%).

Conference participant Magdaléna Piscová, a sociologist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, argued that sexism in Slovak society was so deeply rooted that a quota would still leave women facing "deeply rooted sexism for at least a few more years", adding that male Slovak politicians commonly made discriminatory statements.

In 1996, for example, Ján Cuper, an MP for the then-ruling Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) proposed a law "banning women from driving in the fast lane [on highways]" because, he said, women drivers slowed down highway traffic.

More recently, Víťazoslav Moric, an MP for the far right Slovak National Party (SNS) said in October that he would hire a female MP assistant (see chart, page 5) because "she'll have to do some secretarial work, and that's more suitable for women".

Moric said he was opposed to a quota, telling The Slovak Spectator April 24 that the idea was based on "stupidity".

"It [women entering politics] should be a natural process," he said. "For me, politics is a hobby. Women are more needed to raise children, meaning that\ in raising a child, they're only losing five to nine years from a hobby. So what?"

The women at the conference were not amused by the MP's comments. "The best thing we can do is to ignore such comments and the people who make them," said Klára Sárkozy, an MP with the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK).

Making a difference

Ingunn Yssen, head of the Norwegian Equal Opportunities Centre, said introducing a quota in her country had made a big difference. When the measure was introduced in 1963, only 8% of the Norwegian parliament were women; in 1994 the number had grown to 32%, rising to 42% in 1999.

"Women face a lot of barriers in political life," Yssen said. "Although the same strategy won't necessarily yield the same results in every country, the political representation of women is a proof of true democracy in every country."

Privatisation Minister Mária Machová said that without a quota, women who wanted to enter Slovak politics were left with two paths: the painfully long process of climbing the career ladder, or pure luck.

"I was one of the lucky ones," she said, explaining that she had been given a chance by the Party of Civic Reconciliation (SOP), which was founded shortly before the 1998 general elections and had been in need of business experts like herself.

"I was in the right place at the right time. The standard way of slowly climbing the party ladder takes a long time. If you're not lucky, you have to go this way and hope that one day, maybe, maybe, maybe ... you'll get to the top."

According to a report prepared for the conference by Iveta Radičová, a sociologist and the head of the Social Policy Analysis Centre (SPACE), in changing the situation women need help from the start of their political careers. In her report, Radičová said that it was due to "the lack of any positive anti-discrimination measures, such as a quota, that women see little change in their public representation".

But barriers remain. Sociologist Piscová said that getting a quota passed would be a tall order, as such measures remind many Slovaks of Communist practices they still reject.

"Quotas existed under Communism," she said. "People still remember communist times when women went to parliament under the quota. They used to say, 'they just go there to play'. We'll need a lot of public discussion to break down the stereotypes and forget old experiences."

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