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Quotas are helping women in politics in the EU and Mediterranean region  

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​​​​Quotas, mentoring, political-party funding and the broader objective of equity need to be considered in efforts to increase the representation of women in politics in the Mediterranean region and in the EU, according to an all-women panel of mayors and politicians from Tunisia, Morocco, Germany, Italy and Ireland that met in Brussels on 18 October.

The debate was the centrepiece of a meeting of the sustainable territorial development commission of the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly (ARLEM) and it reflects the centrality of gender equality and social inclusion in the agendas of the European Union and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

Formal and informal quotas are becoming more common, the speakers indicated, with positive but patchy results. This is true both in North Africa and the EU. Aïcha Ayari, a Belgian-Tunisian political activist, attributed the relatively high percentage of women involved in municipal politics in Tunisia – 48% – to a law on quotas. In Morocco, said Mina Bouhdoud, Mayor of Lagfifat, the impact of quotas had been reinforced by changes to family law and the constitution, solidifying the role of women in society. Isabella Tovaglieri (IT/ Identity and Democracy), a member of the European Parliament, said that quotas had increased the number of women in the Italian parliament, but progress remains slow at the regional level, while Manuela Bora (IT/PES), the Marche region's minister for Europe, said that local councils in Italy are dominated by men. Christiane Overmans (DE/EPP) of Bonn City Council, said that most political parties in Germany now have informal quotas, but the number of women put forward is particularly low in local politics.

Progress through quotas can, however, be superficial with women nominated in order to meet the quota but given only lowly positions, several speakers said. "When you have to get down to the hard work" in Tunisian political campaigns, Ms Ayari said, "the women are there and the men aren't", but "when it comes to talking in meetings, women are lagging behind men".

Efforts to promote women can trigger sharp reactions. In Tunisia, Ms Ayari said, women are challenged about their "competence", while "men are never asked if they are competent". In Germany, Ms Overmans said, forums that pursue representation or balance based on geographical, professional and religious criteria sometimes bridle at the suggestion of considering gender as a criterion.

The impact of quotas were highlighted by male politicians in the audience. Christophe Rouillon (FR/PES), President of the PES group in the CoR and Vice-President of the Association of French Mayors, said that quotas had been instrumental to advances towards gender parity in his municipal council – Coulaines – and in the regional council. Lahcen Amrouch, Mayor of Argana in Morocco, said that "we had a hard time finding women to put themselves forward" when quotas were introduced and women who put themselves forward "were not respected in the same away". However, by 2015 "we were spoiled for choice". He continued: "Sometimes we need laws to change things."

ARLEM's rapporteur on women's empowerment, Mary Freehill (IE/PES), said that the discussion reminded of her career, which began when she became one of just four women on Dublin's 52-member council. "Slowness can be on the left as well as on the right," she noted. What had helped accelerate change in Ireland – both on the right and left – was a change in political funding that encouraged parties to put more women on their lists. Support networks had been "extremely important" for women to continue and progress in politics. When supporting female politicians in other countries, a precondition to effectiveness, she argued, will be "to understand we are very often dealing with very, very different cultures and political structures".

The European Committee of the Regions created ARLEM in 2010 to provide a forum for local and regional politicians from countries that belong to the Union for the Mediterranean.

The debate was moderated by Simone Susskind, founder of Actions in the Mediterranean (AIM) and a former Belgian senator.