Do Gender Quotas Influence Women’s Political Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa?

by Stefanos Oikonomou

It is difficult to spin differently or sugarcoat the fact that despite strides in recent years, women remain severely underrepresented in politics around the world – women comprise half the world’s population; however, they occupy less than one-fourth of the seats in national legislatures. This imbalance raises issues of legitimacy of institutions that do not reflect the demographic make-up of the population and broader questions about the quality of political representation since “when 50 percent of the population is missing from the public discourse, this is a symptom of a larger problem.”

The importance of women’s political participation and representation has been linked, time and again, to multiple positive effects that transcend abstract conceptions of democracy. Women do make a difference in terms of favouring policies that benefit other women and minority groups, increasing spending in provision of public goods, and positively influencing the aspirations of young girls and their parents’ commitment to invest in the human capitals of their daughters. Furthermore, women are more likely to exhibit a more democratic and consensus-oriented leadership style in public office, deviating from masculinist and confrontational norms of office-holding.  

Women in African legislatures

The regional average of women in unicameral or the lower house of bicameral legislatures stands at 22.1%, just 0.1 lower than the global average. However, what this first glance hides is the fact that several African countries are at the vanguard of the fight for gender parity in politics. According to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, out of the 25 best performing countries with regards to the number of women MPs, 7 of them are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rwanda occupies the top spot, having achieved what no other country in the world has with women comprising 63.8% of the lower house of parliament, and the African countries that follow suit include Seychelles (43.8%), Senegal (43.3%), South Africa (41.5%), Angola (36.8%), Tanzania (36%), and Uganda (35%).

It is difficult to single out a variable as the most conducive to progress. Women’s advancement in the political milieu seems to rely on a set of institutional, structural, and cultural factors in conjunction with the presence of a vibrant women’s movement, the singularity of the campaign and the challenges of the objective historical moment. Trickle-down approaches focusing on economic development do not seem to deliver progress on every social front. For example, Nigeria, the richest country in Africa, has not delivered tangible gains for women in politics, and has one of the worst records in the world with only 6.7% women in the national legislature. Public awareness campaigns and honest, yet non-binding, commitments do not seem to move the political needle towards parity. Ahead of the 2014 polls in Malawi, the 50-50 campaign gained traction offering incentives and capacity-building for women candidates; however, not only it fell short of its goal but in the aftermath of the election the number of women in the national legislature dropped from 43 (22.4%) to 32 (16.7%).

Gender Quotas

Given the elusive nature of progress, can there be a reliable way to equitable representation? Introducing gender quotas seems to be one of the most promising interventions. According to the Quota Project the main types of quotas include 1) reserved seats 2) legal quotas mandated by the Constitution or electoral law 3) voluntary party quotas. The nature of the electoral system is a relevant variable with reserved seats better suited for first-past-the-post (FPTP) constituencies while legislated quotas more salient in a proportional representation (PR) context.The enforcement and placement of women candidates are as important as the introduction of quotas in the first place since including women in party lists but in un-electable positions on the bottom of closed lists seems to be an exercise in futility. Though the 50% of the population should settle for nothing less than 50% of political representation, 30% is viewed as the threshold providing that critical mass needed to effect systemic change.

 While it is universally accepted that gender encompasses both women and men, gender quotas seem to be construed as quotas for women. A corollary of that conception is that it might reinforce normative ideas and contribute to the “Othering” of women as political outsiders or “tokens” that are not there based on merit. The idea of quotas for men that stipulates a ceiling for male representation has the potential to turn the debate about gender quotas on its head, though seems like an important theoretical contribution rather than something the political gatekeepers might be willing to consider and abdicate the privileges afforded by patriarchy.

Substantive Representation

Women in African parliaments appear to have managed to move beyond descriptive to substantive representation. Women in Rwanda have led the efforts for the country’s reconciliation and reconstruction following the 1994 genocide, have crossed ethnic and partisan lines to form a women’s caucus and secure inheritance and land rights, and expand access to abortion. Gretchen Bauer reviews the literature on women’s pro-women legislative agenda and finds evidence to support the case: In Uganda, “in 2009 alone, a Domestic Violence Bill, an Anti-Female Genital Mutilation and Marriage and Divorce Bill, all with pro-women provisions, were advanced through parliament,” in Tanzania “women MPs in the early 2000s advocated laws that addressed women’s concerns in several areas, including maternity leave, access to universal education, sexual and gender-based violence and land reform.” Similarly, in Namibia, South Africa, and Mozambique the parliamentary records of women MPs include legislation for family law reform, abortion rights, combatting rape and gender-based violence, and gender-sensitive land reform.

Final Thoughts and Intersectional Considerations

Some broader feminist questions should also be considered when assessing women’s parliamentary presence. In the words of Georgia Duerst-Lahti, “if men have played an overwhelming role in an institution’s creation and evolution, it is only ‘natural’ that masculinist preferences become embedded in its ideal in its ideal nature,” access to gendered spaces and the possibility of a genuine, transformative redistribution of power and shift in gender dynamics might be mutually exclusive. Audre Lorde proclaims the impossibility of genuine change under the current socio-political coordinates, immortalized in her thesis, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and inserts the intersectional perspective into the conversation. Ignoring the overlapping of factors of social differentiation appears like a serious omission since it is worth remembering that construing women as a monolithic bloc can be particularly detrimental to the experiences and needs of poor women, queer women, women from ethnic minorities, women with disabilities and on the basis of other marginalized identities. Though the dialectic tension between radical and liberal perspectives, incremental and fast track approaches can enrich and deepen the feminist conversation, is more constructive when serving as a catalyst for action rather than paralysis. Silver bullets might not exist in real life but tools like gender quotas, with all their limitations and imperfections, do exist and have the potential to move societies forward, toward more equitable arrangements.

Stefanos Oikonomou is passionate about human rights and gender equality. He interns with Make Every Woman Count among many other things. Check out his profile on our contributor’s page or connect with him on Twitter @stefanosoik.











One response to “Do Gender Quotas Influence Women’s Political Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa?”

  1. Gregory says:

    I couldn’t refraіn from commеnting. Well written!