In a first round of local elections held on September 9, only nine women were elected to a total of 397 posts as mayor or local government chief. All nine already held the post and were simply re-elected. If women ended up winning only two per cent of the posts, it would have been hard for them to do much better since only five per cent of those who stood for these municipal posts were female. More than a third of female candidates pulled out before election day.
“In terms of [female] candidate participation, the numbers are almost the same [as the last polls]; the change is insignificant change, a difference of only ten,” Tigran Mukuchyan, head of Armenia’s Central Election Commission, said.
The election commission has yet to announce results for the 535 local assembly elections held at the same time, as recounts are taking place at some polling stations, so the scale of female representation there remains unknown.
Another round of local elections will take place on September 23, but all the signs are that women will not enjoy much success. No Armenian city has ever had a female mayor, and only 24 out of 866 villages are headed by a woman.
This consistently poor showing has prompted experts like Tamara Hovnatanyan of the ProMedia-Gender group to call for a quota system.
“The government’s obligations under its Millenium Goals programme require that by 2015, ten per cent of leadership positions in local government must be filled by women. At the moment, it’s only two per cent,” she said. “It’s already obvious this cannot be achieved in the time assigned for it.”
A quota would not an entirely radical step, since such a system is already in use in parliamentary elections, where parties must ensure that women account for 20 per cent of the candidate names on the lists they submit for use in proportional representation. In practice, however, the method has fallen a long way short of ensuring fair representation for women.
In Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, there were just seven women among the 71 candidates standing for 21 seats on the municipal assembly. Not one got in. No woman ever has.
Local businesswoman Karine Mkrthchyan got just 140 votes, and attributes her lack of success to the largesse distributed by some other candidates.
“Economic necessity stops people making their own choices,” she said. “In one part of the city, they slaughtered animals and handed out a kilogram of meat to every voter. At the other end of the city, they gave people 1,000 drams [2.50 US dollars] or offered to top up their phone balance.”
In the town of Goris, Ruzanna Torosyan was the only woman standing but won a seat on the local council.
She doubts a gender quota would change much, and thinks it is up to women to improve their own chances in politics.
“It isn’t men stopping us. It’s very important look at how prepared a woman is, how presentable she is, whether she writes her own speeches and gets her ideas across to people,” she said. “An artificial requirement won’t give us anything.”
Since women with a higher education outnumber men six to four, there must be reasons why they are shut out of politics.
Money is one. Mrkrtchyan pointed out that access to funding was often a practical barrier to women hoping to enter politics. Women often do not control money or assets, and may need their husband’s permission to spend money on election campaigning.
“The most important thing is for women to break down the stereotypes in their own families before they can enter civic or political life,” she said.
Lilit Zakaryan, a member of the Association of Women with a University Education and an expert on gender issues, said female candidates tended to come from the healthcare or education sectors, but were held back by the perception they would not cope with the big decisions of government.
“Why should an uneducated man be able to do this, but not an educated woman?” she asked. “Women are responsible and should be able to do a lot in local government. If men raise global issues, women are involved in the small social issues that are part of life, as well.”