One of the most surprising figures to come out of last
week's World
Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos
wasn't to do with
economics. It was, in fact, the number of female delegates taking part in the
event itself: a paltry 15%.

Headlines have since asked ‘Where were the women in Davos?’.
But is this microcosm of the political and economic elite representative of
women's participation in politics more widely? Let's examine the evidence.

Mind the gap 

The WEF's Gender Gap Report on 135 countries shows that women are consistently under-represented in parliaments around the world – although Cuba
and Sweden come closest to parliamentary parity. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the report also shows that developing
countries can teach Western countries a thing or two about fairer
representation.  For example in Tanzania,
36% of parliamentary representatives are women. In Nepal, it’s 33%. In the UK?
Only 23%.


But the Gender Gap Report only looks at women's
participation in national politics. BBC
Media Action's survey data from the countries in which we work gives a unique insight
into how ordinary women participate in politics at a local level. 

In Tanzania, for example, female representation in parliament
appears to be underpinned by women’s active engagement in grassroots

Women participated consistently more than men: they are more
likely to take part in an effort to solve a problem in their communities, more
likely to attend a local council meeting and more likely to contact officials
and traditional leaders.

But in other countries where we have similar data, the
outlook is a little less positive. 

In Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma
and the Palestinian Territories, women tend to participate less than men.  But even with this disparity, in certain
countries the figures are encouraging.

In Sierra Leone, where promoting women's participation in
politics has been at the top of the agenda as part of the post-conflict
reconciliation process, our research found 60% of women had taken part in an
effort to solve a problem in their communities, compared to 68% of men. 

However, in Bangladesh and Nepal, despite relatively high
levels of female representation in parliament (20% and 33% respectively),
women's grassroots participation is quite low. 

In Nepal, 24% of women have contacted an official or
traditional leader, as opposed to 61% of men. And in Bangladesh only 6% of
women have taken part in efforts to solve a problem in their communities,
versus 33% of men.

Giving a voice

Countless barriers, from economic deprivation to violence
against women and domestic duties,
mean that it is often more difficult for women to participate in politics than
men. But in spite of these challenges,
our data shows that women are playing an active role in their communities. 

A recording of BBC Media Action's radio debate show, Tok Bot Salone (Talk About Sierra Leone).

Media Action's governance TV and radio programmes
seek to ensure these
women’s voices are more audible, give them a platform to question their leaders
and equip them with the confidence to participate in politics and in their
communities. We do this by covering issues which address the needs of women and
girls and by always ensuring women are fairly represented on the shows’ panels
and audiences.

So while the Davos delegate list shows there’s still some
way to go for parity on the global political stage, look deeper and the picture
is both more complex and more encouraging.

Related links

Media Action's work with women and girls (PDF)

Media Action's work on governance and rights

Media Action's Research and Learning team

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