Quick facts

Qualitative facts

1.  Electoral system and party system and their impact on women

2.  History of Women's suffrage

3.  Legal framework for the promotion of a balance between men and women in political decision-making
   a.  Infrastructure responsible for EO
   b.  Women's participation in politics as a governmental objective and strategy
   c.  Actions initiated to promote women's participation in politics

Marie Popelin (1846-1913)

Europäische Datenbank: Frauen in Führungspositionen

Report from Belgium by our transnational partner Petra Meier

Quick facts
Women in Politics:
Women's suffrage active: 1919 with restrictions, 1948 restrictions lifted
Women's suffrage passive: 1921 with restrictions, 1948 restrictions lifted
1st Women in parliament: 1921 Marie-Anne Spaak-Janson
1st Women in government: 1965-1969 Maguriete de Reimacker-Ligot,
Ministry of Family and Housing
1st Ministry on women's issues: 1985/86 Ministry of Employment and Equal Opportunities
% women in national Parliament: 24,0% Lower House, 28,8% Upper House (2000)
% women in national Government: 16,7% (2000)
Electoral System:
Proportional: Chamber of People's Representatives:
proportional representation (system D'Hondt)
Quota Law: 1994 1/4, since 1999 max. 2/3 of the places on the electoral lists can be occupied by the same sex: the places stay vacant if min. 1/3 of the places are not occupied by candidates of the underrepresented sex.
Party Quota: SP (Socialists, Flemish) 25%-quota - party bureau, administrative commission.
PS (Socialists, French) In none of the party bodies may be a majority of 80% of either sex.
% women with secondary degree: 55,7 % (1996/1997)
% women with degree in higher education: 53,1% (1995/1996)
% women in senior management: 7,6% (1999)
Women's employment rates:
Full time: 39,3% (1998)
Part-time: 31,3% (1998)
Activity rate: 54,1% (1998)
Unemployment: 11,9% (1998)
*sources: Employment in Europe 1999 and Schlüsselzahlen zum Bildungswesen in der Europäischen Union, Amt für amtliche Veröffentlichungen der Europäischen Gemeinschaft 1997, Luxemburg; European Database - Women in Decision-Making and data by transnational experts.

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Qualitative facts

1. Electoral system and party system and their impact on women

Belgium has a system of proportional representation with multi-member constituencies that vary in size depending on the level at which elections take place. For the federal Upper House and the European Parliament the country is divided into two constituencies comprising each one of the major linguistic communities. For all the other elections the constituencies are more numerous and based on geographical entities. The method D'Hondt is used to distribute the seats among the various political parties. It is therefore the position on the list that mainly influences whether a candidate gets elected. Belgium has a multiparty-system, the main actors being the Flemish and Francophone Christian-Democrats (CVP, PSC), Socialists (SP, PS), Liberals (VLD, PRL), Greens (Agalev, Ecolo) and Regionalists (VU, FDF). At the Flemish side there is also the VB, ventilating an extreme right range of thoughts.

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2. History of Women's suffrage

At the establishment of the Belgian State in 1830 the question of women's suffrage was not an issue and also the women's organisations, becoming active by the end of that century, considered women's suffrage to be of a secondary order as compared to fighting economic and social inequality. It was the predecessor of the actual socialist parties that, at the end of last century, included women's suffrage in the fight for universal (plural) voting. But the Socialists had to drop women's suffrage in order to obtain the Liberal support to break the Catholic's majority. It was the Catholics who picked up the issue of women's suffrage, their conservative wing hoping for what the Liberals feared, that women would vote catholic. The outbreak of WWI stopped the discussion but in 1919 the Catholics supported universal suffrage in exchange for women's - with the exception of prostitutes - passive suffrage at all levels and local active suffrage. (The universal suffrage was attributed to women having contributed to defending the Belgian interests in WWI: widows, single mothers having lost their sons, etc.) So, although women were not entitled to vote at the national and provincial level, they could - and did - get elected and coopted. After WWII the issue came back on the agenda, amongst others inspired by a new belief in democratic values and the French women's suffrage of 1944. Contrary to WWI the point of dispute was no longer the principle as such but its moment of coming into force and in 1948 women obtained the same active and passive suffrage as men.

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3. Legal framework for the promotion of a balance between men and women in political decision-making

So far the most important existing legal framework in this context is the law Smet-Tobback of 24/05/1994. It stipulates that electoral lists may contain a maximum of 2/3 of candidates of the same sex. If a party does not manage to fill up at least 1/3 of the places with candidates of the under-represented sex, these places have to be left open. The initial bill was more far-reaching. It not only specified a maximum of 2/3 of candidates of the same sex for the entire list. It also defined such a quota for the sum of the safe and combative seats, as well as of the first successor's place. A working group consisting of the governing parties' chairmen dropped the stipulation of how to spread candidates of both sexes over the lists because this would interfere too much in the parties' privilege to compose the lists. During the parliamentary debates on the law various amendments were introduced in order to define the ranking of both sexes on the lists but none of these amendments made it. The flaw was first applied during the European, federal and regional elections of June 1999.The law actually became effective at the beginning of 1996, with the exception of the 1994 local and provincial elections. During those elections, as well as all other elections eventually to be held until 1999, electoral lists should comprise a maximum of 3/4 of candidates of the same sex.
The law is very controversial, given the fact that it guarantees no result at all. There have been several attempts in the federal Upper House and to a lesser extent in the federal Lower House, to strengthen this quota. One option is to raise the quota, another one consists in determining how candidates of both sexes have to be spread over the electoral list. The liberals prefer to diminish the impact of the list order, arguing that women are not elected in spite of their high number of preferential votes because they are badly ranked on the list. The new coalition that is in power since 1999 placed the item of reviewing mechanisms in order to increase the participation of women in political decision-making on the agenda, but with no concrete result so far.
Another idea circulating is the question of whether to insert the concept of parity democracy into the constitution. Up until now there has been no constitutional reform in that sense.

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a. Infrastructure responsible for EO

The Belgian women's policy machinery was set up in 1985, in the wake of the UN world conference on women in Nairobi. There had been earlier efforts to promote equal opportunities, in 1974 a first Commission on women and work was set up, but it is only since 1985 that EO were considered to be a separate policy area and competence. The women's movement and the political women's organisations had claimed a Minister for EO for quite a while. Miet Smet, a former president of the Flemish Christian-Democrats' political women's organisation, became Secretary of State for Environmental Affairs in 1985 and negotiated for also obtaining a competence for EO. The State Secretary for Social Emancipation became a fact. In 1991 she became Minister of Labour and Employment and took the competence of EO with her, since then formally called EO. The competence of EO has since then been linked to the Minister of Labour and Employment, though it was in a first instance 'forgotten' by the new coalition after the June 1999 elections and only added in a last instance to Laurette Onkelinx's, a Francophone socialist, competence of Labour and Employment.
The Royal Decree of 1985 setting up the State Secretary for Social Emancipation defined two objectives and tasks. On the one hand there was the promotion of activities focusing on EO between men and women. On the other hand the Secretary of State had the competence to point out the impact and consequences of the other government's members' policy on EO and to interpellate them. In that respect the Belgian national - and later federal - women's policy machinery contained a mainstreaming element right from the beginning.
Miet Smet mainly focussed on three policy areas during her 14 years as State Secretary and later Minister: i) the improvement of women's participation in and position on the labour market, ii) fighting violence against women, and iii) improving women's participation in decision-making. The first area dealt with the following issues: improving girls' and women's education in order to increase their chances on the labour market, positive actions in both the private and the public sector, combining work and family, equal pay for equal work, night work, the protection of motherhood, independent and collaborating spouses. The second area concentrated on overcoming the taboo on sexual violence itself, on improving the legal position of and developing emergency measures for victims, on sexual harassment at work and on the trafficking in women. (cf. infra on the third area) The second task and objective of the women's policy machinery has been less developed, partly due to resistance from the colleague Ministers (cf. the difficulty to collect the yearly progress reports on EO that each Minister has to hand in since Peking), though the influence of the 1995 UN world conference on women in Peking and of EU initiatives can be felt.

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b.Women's participation in politics as a governmental objective and strategy

Women's participation in politics became a governmental objective in 1991, when it was taken up as an issue of concern in the coalition agreement of Dehaene I (1991-1995). The objective was to increase the participation of women in decision-making, a rather vague definition that has not become much more precise over the various years and coalition agreements. The main result up until now of this objective is the law Smet-Tobback of 24/05/1994 (cf. supra) which was initially introduced as a bill by the Minister of EO (Miet Smet) and by the Minister of Internal Affairs (Louis Tobback) as a direct consequence of the coalition agreement. Today the issue of increasing women's participation in decision-making is still a governmental objective, but as mentioned before, it has not become more precise. The actually most important outflow of this objective is the discussion on whether and how to improve the quota law and/or on whether to insert the concept of parity democracy in the Constitution.

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c. Actions initiated to promote women's participation in politics

As mentioned supra the issue of promoting women's participation in political decision-making has been one of the three main policy areas of the women's policy machinery since its establishment in 1985. The most important measures taken in this area are the development of a form of positive action, based on the belief that democratic structures can only be democratic if they integrate and include women, partly because women have their own interests and needs. A first measure taken was the law of 20/07/1990 in order to promote a balanced participation of both women and men in advising councils. For every position available both a male and a female candidate have to be presented. However, there is no sanction in case of non-respect. The law Smet-Tobback mentioned supra was the next legislative measure taken. In 1994 followed a Royal Decree in order to promote female candidates during social elections. The representative employees' organisations have to make sure that the proportion of male and female candidates on the lists reflects the sexual composition of the employees. The women's policy machinery further supported awareness raising campaigns to both stimulate the presence of female candidates as well as the election of female candidates. However, the impact of these campaigns is rather controversial.
An action supported that is generally accepted as being important is the collection of statistics and the support of scientific research. Many statistics available on the position of women in decision-making have been collected by the women's policy machinery, if they were not already made available by EU projects. Furthermore there has been research on the history and evolution of women in politics and in the various political parties, on the profile and chances of female candidates, on the impact of EO policy as such. Recently there is a tendency to support research concentrating on the mechanisms to evaluate EO policies and on the basic concepts of an EO policy as such.
On the whole there have been more initiatives in the other two policy areas on which the women's policy machinery focused.

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Portrait: Marie Popelin (1846-1913)

Marie Popelin was the first Belgian female lawyer. However, her importance lies not only in the fact that she found - due to the refusal to appoint her as a lawyer - the first Belgian feminist movement, which several years later set up the first women's party. She was active in the promotion of equality between men and women long before, following her time's perception of the prerequisite for equality between men and women: education.

Marie Popelin was born in Brussels on December 16th 1846. As a daughter of a bourgeois family she had access to teaching and gained a teacher-training diploma, the highest diploma a woman could achieve at that time. For several years she worked in teaching, concentrating on the education of girls. Stimulated by Isabelle Gatti de Gamond, a Belgian forerunner on equal education for girls, she assisted in setting up and running a pioneering school for the education of girls in Brussels. After that she administered girls' schools in Mons and Laken.

At the age of 37, Marie Popelin started law studies at the Free University of Brussels, the first Belgian university to accept female students. In 1888 she gained a doctorate in law. But, even if female students were accepted at the university, practising the profession of a lawyer was another issue. The Court of Appeal did not allow her to take the oath, for the simple reason that she was a woman. The Court of Cassation confirmed this refusal, and also rejected her request. (Marie Popelin herself did not experience women gaining access to the bar, because this right was granted to women but in 1922).

The Court's refusal to have Marie Popelin gain access to the bar led to a lot of reaction in both the national and the foreign press. And what was to become known as the 'Popelin affair' gave the impetus to launch the Belgian women's movement, 50 years after the foundation of the Belgian State. With the help of several others, amongst whom Isala Van Diest, the first Belgian female physician, Marie Popelin found the Belgian League of Women's Rights. This was in 1892 and Marie Popelin spent the rest of her life fighting for the emancipation of women.

The major concern of the Belgian League of Women's Rights, generally known as the League, was the economic and social equality of women. Like most other movements set up in the following years, and like most political parties, political rights and the women's suffrage were but a secondary concern. The League even considered that the women's suffrage was premature and would only book but a marginal result as long as women would not participate in economic and social life. However, from 1895 onwards the League started to defend the issue of women's suffrage, on the grounds that local communities are composed of families and that it is women who fulfil a crucial function within the family.

Both in 1897 and in 1912, the League organised, under the auspices of Marie Popelin, two major international feminist conferences in Brussels. These conferences dealt with issues such as freedom of employment, making all professions accessible to women and paternity. The issue of women's suffrage was of less concern.

Notwithstanding the hesitant position on women's suffrage, it was the League, which in co-operation with two other movements found the General Party of Women on January, 25th 1921. This was the first Belgian women's party ever. It was set up after the attribution of local women's suffrage and in the run up to the 1921 local elections. The idea behind a women's party was to counter all the traditional parties' efforts to tie women to their specific ideological programme. The women's party aimed at uniting all women across party lines or cleavages and ran for election with a neutral programme. The main issues were pacifism, fighting ignorance, vice and alcoholism, defending the protection of mother and child. This programme reflected what Belgian feminism stood for so far. But the electoral lists, solely composed of women were refused for procedural reasons.

Marie Popelin herself died in 1913.
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