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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Women Want: A Seat in the Duma

Before a vote is cast in the State Duma election, one result is already a foregone conclusion: Women deputies will be in a tiny minority, just as they have been in all three elections since the end of Soviet rule in 1991.

And of the small number of women in parliament, only two -- Irina Khakamada, the co-leader of the Union of Right Forces party, or SPS, and Communist Deputy Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to walk in space -- have so far made the top five in their parties' lists this time around.

The number of women on party lists has slightly increased: Yabloko, SPS and the Communists each have two women in their federal top 10.

But overall, political analysts do not hold out much hope for a significant increase in women's representation in the new Duma.

"I don't think the situation is going to change," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, the head of the Panorama think tank. "You'll have the same number of women in the Duma that you have now -- no more than 10 percent."

In fact, the percentage of women deputies has been steadily falling. Fourteen percent of deputies in the 1993 Duma were women, but this figure shrank to 10 percent in 1995 and just 8 percent in 1999.

Out of 450 members of the current Duma, a mere 35 are women.

Women's representation in the Federation Council is even slimmer -- just seven out of 178 members, or 4 percent.

Apart from Valentina Matviyenko, the St. Petersburg gubernatorial candidate and presidential envoy, the country's next most prominent woman politician is probably Khakamada.

But even Khakamada, who takes second place on the party's list this year, said that life in the Duma is not easy for women.

"The bureaucracy is the ruling class -- and traditionally this is represented by men," she said. "For women it is very difficult to overcome all the obstacles to get into politics."

She said that for women's rights to improve, the country needs to further develop its civil society and democratic structures.

A former associate professor of macroeconomics at Moscow State University, Khakamada is responsible for SPS initiatives aimed at developing small and medium businesses -- and has been a staunch supporter of small business since the early days of perestroika.

In 1993, she launched her own political party, called Common Cause, and was elected to the Duma. She later joined the SPS electoral bloc and was given third place in its 1999 Duma list after Sergei Kiriyenko and Boris Nemtsov.

For Maria Arbatova, an outspoken feminist who became famous as a regular guest on "Ya Sama," or "Myself," one of the country's first television talk shows, the reason for the low number of women in parliament is "very simple. Women did not have and do not have money," she said.

Arbatova, who failed to get elected to the Duma in 1999 when she ran on the Union of Right Forces ballot, is the co-chair of the Human Rights party. In this election her party has joined forces with the Party of Life, headed by Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the Federation Council.

"The new Russian political elite was born in a very specific way. [During perestroika], while women were waiting on line for food, men carved up the country into pieces," Arbatova said.

The low percentage of women in the Duma is a reflection of the structure of Russian society in general, she said.

In support of her claim, Arbatova cites figures from the State Statistics Committee that show that men own 92 percent of private property. "This [percentage] is very similar to what we have in the Duma," Arbatova said.

Yelena Yershova, the president of the Consortium of Women's NGOs and a member of the government's Commission on Human Rights, went further.

She said the reason so few women make it into the Duma is linked to the "patriarchal structure" of Russian society. "Our male deputies are chauvinist and do not allow women to get into the Duma," she said.

Yershova advocates introducing quotas for women deputies. The quota issue was raised by women's organizations in the mid-1990s, and in 1997 women's rights groups proposed that a minimum of 30 percent of places in parliament and in government structures be reserved for women.

But the proposal, introduced as an amendment to a bill on elections, was voted down in the second reading.

In the debate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, made his views clear on quotas for women deputies in typically blunt fashion.

"Russian women do not want [political] power, but a husband with a good salary," he said.

Yegor Ligachyov, a Communist deputy, disagreed with Zhirinovsky's viewpoint, but said a law on quotas would be useless. "We can approve a law that gives 40 or whatever percent to women, but it would be absurd," he said. "Voters would not think about the quotas, and they are the ones who decide the destiny of a candidate."

But Vitaly Lednik, a Unity faction deputy, supports quotas, which he said are necessary to get laws on women's rights passed. "The few women we have in the Duma are very active, but if they raise a problem that is strictly related to their gender they cannot do anything," he said.

The quota idea was revived from the Soviet era, when women had places reserved in the rubber-stamp Soviet legislature -- 30 percent in the Supreme Soviet and between 40 and 50 percent at lower levels.

But the real power structure -- the Communist Party -- remained overwhelmingly male-dominated. In the late 1980s, as legislative bodies began to acquire real power under perestroika, the quota system was abolished. In the Congress of People's Deputies elected in 1990, women won less than 6 percent of the seats.

Alexandra Buratayeva, a former ORT news presenter who in 1999 ran for the pro-Kremlin Unity party from her native republic of Kalmykia, is the deputy head of the Duma committee for international affairs.

Buratayeva said she swapped journalism for politics because she wanted to do something "to change the life of the country." She said a lot of women are afraid of going into politics because they think that the Duma is a rough place to work. "Journalists should write about not only when deputies fight or swear -- which is very rare -- but also about the positive side of our work there," she said.

Women activists argue that, according to statistics published by the United Nations, parliaments only consider issues regarding child care and social problems facing women when the share of women deputies is at least 20 percent.

But the Communist Party's Ligachyov said the presence of more women in parliament does not guarantee better social policies. "We [male deputies] think about women's problems as well," he said. "You don't have a men's or women's policy. We have children as well and we care about them."

According to Yershova, the only political victory Russian women achieved in the past decade was in April 2002, when a law was passed that guaranteed equal rights and opportunities for women.

The law, an initiative by the Consortium of Women's NGOs, included practical measures aimed at gender equality, but not the idea of quotas.

"This is not the solution to our problems, but it is a small step forward," said Aleftina Fedulova, the president of the Women of Russia movement.

Fedulova is a former leader of the Women of Russia party, which secured 8 percent of the vote in the 1993 elections, winning 22 Duma seats. But in 1995 and 1999 Fedulova's party failed to clear the 5 percent barrier needed to get into the Duma.

Fedulova now says the idea of having a gender-based party was flawed, and that's why the Women of Russia party doesn't exist anymore.

This time, the Women of Russia movement has decided to back the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. "United Russia has promised it will help push women to the level of decision-making structures," Fedulova said.