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Cherie Blair calls for positive action to ensure equal representation for women

The Guardian, 5 December 2011

Cherie Blair contrasts 'slow progress' in UK with 'tremendous strides' taken by emerging democracies such as Tunisia.

Positive action should be taken to ensure equal representation of women in the UK Parliament and in boardrooms, Cherie Blair has said.

Speaking at Chatham House under her professional name Cherie Booth, she said evidence showed that 30% female representation is the minimum necessary to create a critical mass of women - a target recognised by the United Nations.

Booth compared what she called the slow progress of women's rights in the UK to the "tremendous strides" taken by emerging democracies such as Tunisia and Egypt, saying Tunisia had in fact leapfrogged the UK. The old democracies needed to listen and learn from what is happening in emerging democracies, she said.

She pointed out that currently only 22% of UK MPs were women, up from 10% in 1992. At this rate of progress it might take another 200 years to reach equal representation, she said. By the same token, gender parity in local government was still over a century away.

She said "there was a compelling evidence that the involvement of women in all levels of decision-making leads to better decisions".

"Our experience shows, and survey after survey reveals institutions are run better, communities are healthier when women are involved in solving the challenges of our society.

"Equal representation does not just lead to good democracy, it is democracy," she said.

She added that too often change might seem frightening, but once achieved will be seen as inevitable. Women's equality is the great moral imperative of our society, she said.

She spoke of an act in France in 1982 that mandated at least 25% of each gender on the electoral ballots of municipal elections, which was declared unconstitutional and contrary to equality legislation.

"This of course is the argument," she said. "This, and the concern that I understand, which is that such measures ensure tokenism, breed resentment and undermine women's progress.

"I grant that quotas are imperfect, but I am convinced that the continuation of existing inequality is even worse."

In 28 countries that have reached 30% women's representation, at least 23 of them have used some form of quota, Booth said. "And 30% is of course the critical mass of women in parliament which was endorsed as a target by the UN conference on women in Beijing back in 1995."

It was a failure in our politics that the UK remained outside this target 16 years later. "Our democracy is changing, with a reduction in the number of MPs. If we can change the number of parliamentarians, why do we baulk at taking positive action to ensure we actually do finally get to that 30% target, and then reach full equality?"

Booth said mature democracies such as the UK seemed to have settled for an "incremental equality".

She compared this to emerging democracies in Africa, Central America and more recently in the Arab world, where "women and men alike are demanding a democracy that doesn't just promote full equality in rhetoric but achieves it in reality".

She said their creativity and urgency "should be a lesson to us all".

Drawing on Tunisia as an example, Booth said the fact that men and women had to feature equally as candidates to be elected to the new assembly means women now make up 24% of the assembly that will draw up Tunisia's new constitution.

She said: "In one free and fair election they have leapfrogged what it's taken us decades in the UK and the US to achieve."

In Rwanda 56% of the parliamentarians are now women, and 30% of the seats are guaranteed to women.

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