UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Opportunities from the Arab Spring to boost the low number of women in parliaments are being missed, while globally the average number of female politicians inched up half a point last year to 19.5 percent, an organization of parliaments said on Friday.
Despite pro-democracy protests toppling leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Arab region was the only area in the world without a parliament of at least 30 percent women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union's "Women in Parliament 2011" study.
"Countries in transition can very effectively take advantage of reforms to guarantee strong participation of women in politics," Abdelwahad Radi, president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, told a news conference in New York.
But he said those opportunities were not being seized in the Arab regions, where women made up 10.7 percent of parliamentarians in 2011, unchanged from 2010.
"On the contrary, we can even see setbacks have occurred, particularly in Egypt where the percentage of women parliamentarians has fallen from 12 to 2 percent," Radi said.
The report found that more than a third of parliaments with about 30 percent female parliamentarians are in countries in transition or emerging from conflict. Radi cited Africa's youngest nation, South Sudan, where the implementation of quotas had led to a parliament with 26.5 percent women.
Parliamentary elections were held in Egypt over the past four months, the first since the overthrow of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, and voters headed to the polls in Tunisia - the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings - in October. No date has yet been set for elections in Libya.
While the study noted a "strong affirmative measure" by Tunisia that required parties to list women alternately with men on ballots, in practice because most of the more than 80 parties were competing for one seat in any one constituency it went to the man topping the list.
"As a result, two fewer women were elected in 2011 than in the previous election in 2009," the report found.
"(The election of women) doesn't happen by accident," said Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and executive director of U.N. Women, which focuses on gender equality.
"Temporary or transitional measures, such as quotas ... it's necessary to include those kinds of measures if we want to accelerate women's participation in politics," Bachelet said.
She said some progress was being made with the number of female heads of state and heads of government around the world doubling since 2005 to 17, while the number of women ministers edged up by 2.5 points to 16.7 percent.
Women won 21.8 percent of seats up for renewal last year in 69 legislative chambers across 59 countries, a similar proportion to previous years, the study said.
In many countries, it said, too few women were running for parliament to have an impact.
"Challenges for women candidates include insufficient funds to run a campaign, high expectations from the electorate and the antagonistic nature of competitive political parties," the report found.
"In addition, women tend to have fewer resources at their disposal, less experience in running for office and in public speaking, and a lack of support from spouses and family," it said. "Women also have multiple roles, and balancing them all can very difficult."
Of 188 countries, the report found 20 had parliaments where women made up at least a third of the representation. Rwanda and Andorra were the only countries with more than 50 percent.
At the other end of the scale were seven countries with no female representation: Belize, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Solomon Islands.
Editing by Peter Cooney and Vicki Allen