Gender Quotas and Political Representation

Gender Quotas and Political Representation

The feminist critique of democracy is therefore focused on the gap between what democracy theoretically advocates and the actual absence of all groups in the exercise of political control. In other words, feminists point to the fact that women are continuously underrepresented in decision-making positions and lack equal rights and opportunities to participate in formal politics alongside men. Their demands include reform of political systems to ensure women’s representation and end the systemic discrimination faced by women attempting to access political positions. Feminists argue that the marginalization of women in politics actually weakens democracies as the voices of at least half of the population go unheard. Through constant activism, research, documentations, and writings, feminists have succeeded in popularizing their position to a significant degree, both domestically and internationally. Today, women from various countries employ different strategies to increase women’s political representation in key positions, including campaigns and lobbying efforts directed to their local communities, their governments, the media and the international community.


The demand for gender quotas, either in political parties or as part of state electoral systems, has been one of the more prominent of these strategies, and gender quotas have been increasingly adopted, particularly following the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where governments agreed to act to increase women’s presence in political decision-making positions, setting a minimum target of 30 percent.


The history of electoral gender quotas dates back to the 1930s when India under British rule adopted quotas for local-level administrative bodies. The Government of India Act of 1935 set aside seats for women in the provincial and central legislatures, in addition to other quotas for minority groups from different castes. Early gender quota systems, led largely by Asian and African countries, generally took the form of reserved seats. Taiwan adopted reserved seats in the 1940s, Pakistan in the 1950s, and Ghana in the 1960s. The global trajectory has been as follows: between 1930 and 1980 only ten countries established quotas (including Bangladesh, Uganda, and Egypt, though Egypt later repealed its quota), followed by an additional 12 countries in the 1980s. In the 1990s gender quotas were established in more than 50 countries; since 2000 approximately 40 more countries have created quotas. Thus, out of the more than one hundred countries that have quotas, more than 75 percent adopted them during the last fifteen years. Interestingly, the majority of states that have adopted gender quotas in the past fifteen years are from developing or unindustrialized states.


While the idea of political quotas is clearly not new, their recent implementation in many nations stems from a more sophisticated approach that considers their pros and cons and adapts the practice according to the particular socio-cultural-political context. As countries adopting gender quotas have succeeded in expanding the number of female representatives in electoral politics, this approach is increasingly supported by proponents of a gender balanced political arena, including women’s movements around the world and groups concerned with human rights, development and peace processes.


What are Gender Quotas?

A gender quota is a measure to counter the discrimination, created with the intention of recruiting enough women into political positions to ensure that they are not merely token actors in the political arena. This measure seeks to overcome the obstacles which have led to the underrepresentation of women in politics, as well as to increase the currently slow speed by which the number of women in politics is rising. While there are different types of gender quota systems, the most common ones are political party quotas, legislative quotas, and reserved seats. A given quota system will be more or less successful depending on the extent to which the type of gender quota adopted matches the state’s electoral, political and social systems. Similar to other “affirmative action”1 strategies, gender quotas are generally adopted as a temporary measure, with the ultimate objective of equal representation of both sexes in political office, also referred to as proportional representation2 or 50-50 representation. As an initial step most states and institutions adopt a minimum 20 or 30 percent quota for either women candidates or politicians. Thirty percent, or roughly one-third of the total number of cabinet positions or seats of a legislative body is accepted as the “critical mass” of women needed to progress towards fair representation and to meaningfully address women’s issues and concerns.


Gender quotas are meant to correct some of the obstacles that prevent women’s equal access to politics, particularly systemic and institutional barriers, and to insure that minimum percentage of women and men are always present at the major electoral decision-making bodies. While quotas can be adopted for different institutions across the three different governmental branches, this work however mostly focuses on legislative quotas for national assemblies, as these are the arenas where policy and decision-making take place that affect all of society and impact women and women’s issues. Such quotas are either adopted by governments or political parties, and may be voluntary or legally mandated. It is important to keep in mind that whether the quota system applies to political parties, the legislature or is in the form of reserved seats – the results will vary depending on the extent to which the type of gender quota adopted matches the state’s electoral, political and social systems. Thus, the same quota system may produce completely different results in two different countries or for two different parties, hence, the mere adoption of quotas has not resulted in uniform increases in the percentage of women in parliaments worldwide; while some countries have seen dramatic increases in female representation, some have witnessed only modest changes or even setbacks. For instance, while an electoral legislative quota of 30% successfully increased women’s parliamentary representation in Argentina to an overall 40% in recent times, the same measure resulted in only 9% women’s representation in Brazil, and 16.7% in Panama. These variations suggest that although specific quota provisions seem similar, they in fact entail distinct processes of political reform.


Despite the fact that quotas are generally instrumental in creating a platform for marginalized voices (in this case, women) they nonetheless have been controversial. Critics include not only members of conservative male elites, but also some feminists. A major argument against the adoption of quota systems is that representation should be based on merit. Another key concern is that in certain contexts, quotas have had little or no effect. Other criticism stems from instances whereby political parties or government leaders decide which women are selected as candidates for elections, leaving elected MPs more accountable to their political parties and/or leaders and less accountable to their female constituents. In this chapter we review the different types of quotas currently in use and the major debates for and against gender quotas. Clearly the success of gender quotas has much to do with how they fit with the structure of the envisaged democracy as expressed in the constitution of a particular society, the electoral system in place, the political will to give a voice to women, and an informed and vigilant civil society. Subsequent chapters examine the various usages of gender quotas in specific country cases.


Political Party Quotas

Party quotas, the most common of the quota systems in use, were first invoked in the 1970s by a number of socialist and social democratic parties in Western Europe, followed by some green and even some conservative parties in the 1980s and 1990s across Europe and to a limited extent in other regions. Unlike other quota types, political party quotas are generally voluntarily adopted rather than legally mandated. They sometimes exist alongside other quota types, and tend to be the least controversial type of quota since they do not involve any governmental or legal oversight. Such quotas commit political parties to aim for a certain proportion of women among their candidates, and usually apply to party lists presented to the electorate. The party’s commitment to utilize a quota for female candidates often forces party elites to recognize existing biases and alter practices to enable enhanced female representation.

Such quotas are often astute strategic moves which recognize that women do indeed form a large political constituency to be courted – an awareness which in fact is generally due to decades of lobbying by women’s movements and women working within party structures. Political party quotas typically mandate that women constitute between 25 and 50 percent of the total candidates on a party list. Increasingly, women activists and political parties phrase their quota requirement as a “gender neutral” provision, in which they establish that neither sex can account for more than a stated percentage on the party list. These measures are most easily implemented in List PR electoral systems, in which voters vote for parties instead of individuals and where seats are distributed to the parties in proportion to the overall votes that they receive. In countries with majoritarian/plurality systems, whereby voters vote for individual candidates rather than party lists, and the candidate with the highest votes wins, application of quotas is more complex but not impossible. For these systems quotas can be implemented by nominating a proportion of women across all single-member districts, or to the districts that the party expects to win, such as districts where a party member is retiring. However, since competition in the majoritarian system is between individuals rather than between party lists incorporating multiple candidates, in majoritarian systems parties can be less willing to nominate women candidates if there is concern that the prevailing public ethos might hesitate to elect women politicians. Examples of a few national parties that use political party quotas are Australia’s Labor Party; Canada’s New Democratic and Liberal Parties, and Kenya’s Democratic Party.


Legislative Quotas

Legislative quotas, which also apply to the candidate selection process by parties, differ from party quotas in that they are not voluntarily adopted but rather are legally mandated quotas that apply to all parties. This is the newest form of quota system, and only appeared in the 1990s, in developing countries, particularly in Latin America, post-conflict Africa, the Middle East, and across Southeastern Europe. Adoption of these quotas spread rapidly in part due to an active transnational women’s movement, which through information-sharing enabled local organizations, activists and intellectuals to publicize and politicize women’s political underrepresentation. Such activities and an international emphasis on women’s political presence led many women’s organizations to successfully push for quota adoption in their countries. At the same time local organizations, in conjunction with the transnational women’s movement, mobilized civil society to pressure international and bilateral agencies – such as the UN, the World Bank and other development agencies promoting human development – to explicitly address women’s discrimination in politics as part of their development guidelines and aid packages.


Legislative quotas are enacted either through reform of electoral law or national constitutions. Similar to party quotas, legislative quotas also apply to the candidate selection process (often requiring women to constitute between 25 to 50 percent of all candidates), but as mentioned, have the force of the law behind them. The strength of a given legislative quota depends much on the wording and details of the specific law mandating it. If the law does not impose strong sanctions for non-compliance, many parties will not abide by its provisions (as was the case with many parties in France, detailed in chapter five, which ignored the minimum quota).


Legislative quotas are implemented in different ways depending on the electoral system, sometimes applying to party lists (the simpler way), or to a broader group of single-member districts. For instance as in the case of Argentina, a legislative quota can simply be applied to all party lists, requiring all parties to nominate at least 30 percent female candidates. Conversely, a more challenging way is to apply the quota to single-member districts whereby each party must nominate female candidates in a certain percentage of electoral districts, as is done in France. Examples of countries that use legislative quotas are Brazil, Indonesia, and France.


Reserved Seats

Reserved seats quotas differ from the other two types of quotas in that they mandate a minimum number or percentage of female legislators. Since this type of quota applies to the final result of an election, it tends to be the most controversial, and this has meant that reserved seats quotas have only mandated low levels of female representation, usually between 1 to 10 percent of total legislators, although since 2000 a number of countries have legislated as much as 30 percent female elected representatives, as is the case for Rwanda. Reserved seats quotas are often established through reforms to national constitutions or electoral laws. The quota provision of these legal mandates mostly work in one of three ways: parties receive the reserved seats in proportion to the votes that they receive in the election (as in

Bangladesh and Pakistan), or separate electoral lists are created for women (as in Rwanda),

or women who receive the highest votes in the general direct elections per district are elected to the parliament to fill the reserved seats (as in Afghanistan and Jordan). Reserved seats are the oldest types of quotas, first used in the 1930s in India at the time of British rule (John 2000), and remained the main quota type adopted through the 1970s. Since 2000 this quota type has re-gained popularity in a number of countries – primarily in Africa – which otherwise have very low levels of female representation.


The guarantee of advancing women’s representation under this quota system has made it an ideal remedy for developing world countries aiming to rapidly address the dearth of women in politics. Reserved seats quotas are in use chiefly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, in part because political parties in these regions are less established.


Arguments For and Against Quotas

There are a number of arguments made both in support of and against gender quotas. The most controversial aspect of gender quotas relates to notions of democracy and meritocracy; feminist groups and women’s rights activists generally view quotas as a measure to counter discrimination and enhance democracy by expanding representation of formerly marginalized groups, while opposing groups believes that politicians should be elected based solely on merit (qualifications), without taking into consideration gender or marginalized constituencies. Ironically, the latter group also invokes democracy in defense of its views, arguing that quotas are undemocratic as they diminish choice for the electorate. This debate has a long history and it is important to note that feminists and proponents of women’s rights are found in both camps, although their arguments may differ from those who work to uphold the status quo. Below is an outline of the most popular arguments used to support or oppose quota measures, drawn from scholars and activists from both camps.


Arguments in Support of Quotas:

  • Quotas will ensure that both women and men will be part of political decision-

making and will advance democracy by ending the exclusion of women.

Such measures are necessary to counter the historical exclusion of women from the political system across major democracies. Even in the oldest democracies, such as the USA and France, it took a century of activism and mobilization to obtain formal rights for women and minorities. However, these rights did not eradicate systematic exclusionary practices by the prevailing male political structure from restricting women’s access to formal politics, as even a cursory cross-national examination of national elections during the twentieth century makes clear.


  • Quotas will force political parties to recruit and include more women

in their leadership structure.

Cross national research has documented the tendency of political parties – almost all of which are run by male political elites – to favor men based on the assumption that women are not electable (due to cultural or religious practices). This perpetuates stereotypes of women as apolitical and as unacceptable national representatives. Party gender quotas will help to correct the patriarchal bias of most parties, and to pave the way for a more flourishing democracy.


  • Women constitute half of the population – thus it is a democratic right for them to hold 50% of parliamentary seats to ensure women’s voices are present in the decision-making processes.

This argument has been advanced against the claim that if we make quotas for women, then we have to make quotas for other “social groups”. However, women are not a separate social group; 50% of all natural social groups are made of women and thus quotas for women can represent all existing social categories. The abstract citizen in the prevailing patriarchal model of democracy was male; the model posited women as being more than adequately represented by their fathers and husbands. However, the interest of husbands and fathers do not always coincide with those of wives and daughters, as exemplified by discriminatory family laws across the globe. This is similar to the commonly accepted argument that employers in the capitalist system cannot represent the interests of the workers. This argument is gaining strength as feminists emphasize the need for gender balance in politics.


  • Quotas, in larger percentage, enable women to enter into political structures as a group, ensuring a critical mass and not just a few token representatives.

Research has shown that when women are not present in parliaments in sufficient number, individual female MPs are more hesitant to raise women’s issues. This is in part because the culture of most parliamentary institutions belittles women’s concerns – such as reforms to make family law more democratic or to enhance female employment opportunities – as such demands are often perceived to conflict with male interests. And when female MPs do raise these items, with only small minorities of women MPs, even the support of more liberal male counterparts will not be adequate to pass bills. Thus token women MPs feel discouraged from putting forward women’s concerns. Clearly a critical mass is necessary in the legislature to effectively address issues of concern to at least half of any given constituency.


  • Women’s qualifications are always undervalued relative to their male counterparts.

Systemic gender discrimination in political structures and institutions favor men over equally qualified women. It is a fallacy that there are not enough qualified women; rather women’s qualifications are systematically downgraded. Furthermore, since male political elites have historically defined what constitutes “appropriate qualifications” the valuation of male experiences and qualifications over those of women has prevailed, thus emphasizing the key roles of citizens as defenders of the country (soldiering) and as “productive” labor within the formal economy. These conceptions ignore the crucial role of women in reproducing society and their critical contributions in the daily management of households and communities, on which the survival of a society depends even more than on national defense and perhaps even economic markets. Distorted assumptions that disadvantage women have not profoundly changed in many cases. Thus women’s years of care-giving and family-raising, community activism or dealing with government institutions and bureaucracies are worse than undervalued – such long-term experience is often considered to handicap women wanting to enter into formal politics. Yet it is precisely these everyday grassroots activities and the concerns of ordinary women which must be represented in parliament if the majority of citizens are to feel that politics is relevant to their lives and that they are truly part of a democratic society. Further, given that 50% of any nation’s population is women, gender in itself must count as a major qualification for political representation, since the parliament of a democratic society should reflect its population. In these regards, quotas can be, and are, an important measure for making the political landscape more democratic.


  • Quotas do not discriminate against men, but rather are an answer to the centuries of systemic discrimination against women.

In rejection of the argument that quotas in practice constitute discrimination against men and undemocratically restrict the electorate’s freedom to choose, proponents argue that quotas simply stipulate that neither sex should make up more than x percentage (often 40 percent) of a given political configuration (party, candidate list, percentage of seats in parliament, etc.) Quota proponents also argue that it is truly undemocratic to systematically marginalize women from the political sphere, first through disenfranchisement and now through limiting women’s access to formal politics. From this perspective quotas are seen as a means to address deep-seated and anti-democratic discrimination. Many supporters of this argument do not see quotas as temporary measures but rather as a means to ensure that a minimum percentage of each gender constitutes the parliament of a given democratic society.


  • It is good for the image of the party.

Some studies have illustrated that female candidates can be appealing to the public. Parties that nominate women may thus be favored by the electorate, who see such parties as more egalitarian and more justly oriented. Such trends have encouraged many parties, particularly in European states where party politics has a long history, to adopt quotas and nominate women, often as a strategic measure to gain votes. Thus, in some contexts the adoption of quotas can up the ante for all political parties, including conservative parties who are compelled to follow the lead of their more liberal counterparts in order to compete for votes.


Arguments Opposing Gender Quotas:

  • Unqualified women may displace qualified men since quotas violate the merit principle.

One of most common criticisms of gender quotas is that they deprive citizens of the ability to choose from among the most qualified candidates. They argue that candidacy and election in a liberal democracy should be based solely on merit. Quota advocates however, point out that what constitutes merit is a matter of debate. While political parties may consider factors such as high levels of relevant education and formal political experience, citizens may support the notion of MPs who are familiar with the daily struggles of common people. Research from around the world also shows that men in politics do not necessarily have conventional political qualifications and that the ideal of meritocracy is invoked selectively to argue against gender quotas and to undermine female candidates.

In other words, the ideal of a meritocracy has been used as a cover to continue the marginalization of and discrimination against women.


  • Quotas emphasize the sex of politicians over their qualifications and political beliefs.

This is a variation on the previous argument and the refutations are similar as well. We might well ask proponents of this view, if politicians should be elected regardless of sex, why were women deprived from the right to vote and to run for office at the conception of democracy? According to this “sex-neutral”, merit-based argument, the right to vote that women struggled about 100 years to gain should have been theirs to start with; however, that was not the case. Sex has been a criterion for involvement in political life and in many contexts still continues to be. We must now use that same criterion to redress a grave distortion, and parliaments must reflect the society by incorporating gender balance.


Quotas are undemocratic.

Although this is a common argument against quotas, in fact quotas limit electoral choice to a very minor degree, since they apply to a limited percentage of candidates or seats and the degree to which choice is reduced is insignificant relative to the freedom to choose from otherwise marginalized representatives. For instance, in 30% quotas, voters still have complete choice for the remaining 70% of candidates, who are almost always men. Furthermore, few citizens or even party members are actually involved in how parties decide who becomes a candidate in any case, since candidate nomination is the prerogative of party leaders. Though this criticism is raised by quota opponents in the name of citizen’s choice, it is really about the limits quotas place on party leaderships’ prerogative to run candidates who will support them. Citizens’ lack of choice is in fact truly compromised by the huge amounts of money special interests donate to boost the campaigns of certain candidates. Massive advertising buys votes and severely handicaps candidates not funded by powerful special interests. However, those who argue that quotas are undemocratic do not object to these other practices which truly undercut democracy in significant ways.


  • Quotas discriminate against men.

This is another common argument against quotas, which is related to the meritocracy reasoning. However, the language of quotas is increasingly gender neutral, with many feminists framing their support for quotas in terms of a minimum level of parliamentary representation of each sex (as in no less than 40%). Furthermore, how do quota opponents suggest that 100 years of explicit exclusion of women from formal political life be addressed? Since a reformulation of conceptions of citizenship or a reconstruction of electoral systems to reflect the realities of both men and women are not viable, well thought-out gender quota systems can be effective, strategies to counter women’s political underrepresentation in an essentially male-created system.


  • Women do not constitute a single interest group.

This argument tries to counter the position of gender quota advocates arguing that women constitute an interest group with common needs and interests which differ from those of men. The counter argument posits that women in fact are highly diverse, with differing opinions, thus they do not constitute a group and therefore a quota is inappropriate. In fact, having a gender quota by no means limits representation of the diversity of women across classes, religious backgrounds, etc.; it simply acknowledges their common handicap in accessing formal politics. Indeed, political parties also represent various constituencies, and run candidates who represent them. Additionally, there has been a shift away from emphasis on women’s unique interests (for instance as mothers) by gender quota advocates, who focus on the fact that women make up half the population and are impacted by policy and legislation differently from the male half. This can be due to discriminatory laws which preclude their participation in the political structure, to family laws in their respective societies that restrict them from moving freely outside the home, from continuing their educations without their husbands’ permission, or from participating in the labor market or traveling. Quota proponents also point out that while women may not be a “special interest group” in most democratic societies they are still the ones responsible for childrearing and running the household, and in this regard do have a shared perspective that is different from the male one.


Quotas may actually act as a maximum threshold for female representation, instead of a temporary measure to permanently empower women, since states may nominate or elect only enough women to meet the quota. Some liberal democrats and feminists have expressed concern that quotas may ultimately act to limit the numbers of women in parliament. There is simply no data to support this concern; failures of gender quotas to increase the number of women MPs have been due to weak quota provisions rather than the quota itself. There have been more cases of successful quota implementation than not, whereby the number of female MPs rose steadily from the time the quota was adopted, as in most Nordic countries, Argentina, and Rwanda; as opposed to cases in which quotas acted as thresholds, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Jordan. Reserved seats quotas, which are usually lower than other quota types, are more likely to act as thresholds, particularly if they are to be filled by women appointed by male political elites. In these cases, male leaders are very unlikely to appoint more women than the quota has mandated (which causes the quota to act as a threshold rather than an empowering tool), and the few token women are often used as a means for the state to seem modern. This is the case for instance in Jordan and Bangladesh in which male elites still have much control over quota implementation.


  • Quota implementation is too unreliable, depending too heavily on political electoral and social factors.

While quotas can be difficult to apply, and thus require careful design with reference to the specific electoral system and political character of a given state their successful application outnumbers unsuccessful cases. Fortunately case studies from around the world provide us with increasing understanding of factors that lead to a successful quota mandate. We thus know that a carefully drafted quota provision that is a good fit with the existing political and electoral structures and has strong, clear wording are key for its success. We also know that gender quotas must be implemented concurrently with efforts of the women’s movements and other advocates to mobilize the society, including male political elites, and that the quota implementation process must be closely monitored and corrected when flaws emerge. If these elements are present, a gender quota is almost guaranteed to succeed.


The debates around gender quotas have been fierce but constructive, and have ultimately brought the opposing sides, particularly those who argue from feminist perspectives, closer together. The increasingly gender neutral language of discussions around gender quotas, emphasizing measures to address the underrepresentation of half a nation, has helped diffuse some of the tension.


And as more research and case studies have become available, the dialogue has shifted from the highly ideological to the more empirical. More nuanced and sophisticated arguments are possible thanks to case studies from around the world that highlight very diverse political and historical contexts. The fact is that the adoption and implementation of quotas is a complex endeavor and its success depends on understanding how a quota may interact with the existing political and party systems. The research clearly shows there is no universal or simple recipe that applies to all countries. Thus, the most important aim of this book is to examine where, how, why and under what circumstances the quota system has been successful. This includes examining the conditions and political contexts of successful gender quota application, and the significant variables political activists should keep in mind when lobbying for national or local quotas for their electoral systems.


Global Gender Quota Trends

Gender quotas are rapidly spreading across the globe, because women refuse to be silenced and societies are looking for ways to address and end exclusionary practices that work against at least half of their populations. Developing countries are at the forefront of recent quota adoptions, and are considered by scholars such as Dahlerup (2006) to be taking the fast-track towards gender balance in the parliaments, as further elaborated on below. In fact, out of the 26 countries in the world that have reached critical mass, or 30% or more women parliamentarians in their national legislatures, nine are ranked by the United Nations Development Program as having a “low” or “medium” Human Development Index (HDI). Most of these states have adopted either legal electoral or constitutional types of quotas; only two have voluntary party quotas, the type of quota prevalent in Western contexts.


The recent dramatic increase in the adoption of gender quotas in non-industrialized regions has garnered much scholarly interest. In part this is because of a long-held assumption that gender equality and women’s empowerment are characteristics of Western and industrialized states, while the developing world was characterized as culturally, politically, and even socially incapable of advancing women’s rights. Cultural standards and economic advancement were particularly emphasized as key factors in women’s rights development by scholars who posited the Western societies as the role model for other regions. However, recent data shows little or no correlation between a state’s level of economic development and women’s political representation. Some of the world’s most industrialized democracies, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Russia, Italy and France, all of whom are members of economically and politically powerful Group of Eight countries (G8), have an average of 18.5% women in parliaments, while some of the most economically under-developed states, such as Rwanda, Mozambique, Uganda, Afghanistan, Tanzania, and Burundi, have an average of 31.4% of women representatives. In fact most of the countries that adopted gender quotas recently continuously struggle with economic and political disasters, ranging from famine to war and foreign occupation.


It appears that achieving a critical mass of women in national legislatures is the result of a more complex constellation of factors than previously assumed. Previous studies on women and politics concluded with simplistic explanations for increasing the number of women in parliaments, emphasizing correlations with industrialization, proportional representation electoral systems, high levels of female education and labor force participation, Protestantism, and a presence of new left political parties, among other variables. However, such relatively consistent findings might have been the result of limited research that “was largely centered on the study of advanced Western democracies in the period after 1970. More recent studies examining larger samples of countries over longer periods of time have exposed limitations in the methods and assumptions informing earlier research.” These studies point to a vast array of other factors that influence women’s political participation, such as the diversity of political actors, their strategies and the political, historical and social contexts of each state.


It is arguable that some of the developing states (most of which are also recent democracies) implementing gender quotas are seeking a faster route to address women’s underrepresentation. According to Dahlerup (2006), it took Norway, Denmark and Sweden (often considered model countries in terms of women’s representation) 60 to 70 years from the time of women’s enfranchisement to achieve critical mass. The implicit discourse in early writings on women’s political involvement posited a linear progression whereby discrimination against women would gradually diminish as society developed; developing countries were expected to take the same path. However, there has been a growing impatience among contemporary feminists who are unwilling to wait and who do not subscribe to the linear model of development. There has been increasing pressure from national and international groups for “fast track” measures pushing for gender parity and more women-friendly political cultures and practices. A number of recent democracies are now adopting the fast track discourse, applying gender quotas to reach critical mass of women in legislatures. The “incremental discourse” is intertwined primarily with the voluntary party quotas (or absence of quotas) of developed states; the fast track discourse requires constitutional or legally sanctioned gender quotas – the type of quota more commonly adopted in developing states.


The above data as well as the rate of quota adoption in the developing world, leads us to ask why these states are at the forefront of quota adoption. What are the forces, actors, and reasons that lead to the adoption of gender quotas for national parliaments in countries that have not even consolidated their democracies, or are suffering from basic problems such as poverty or lack of security? While there are a number of factors, clearly a significant cause of this development stems from the relentless work of women’s movements that demand recognition of women’s political rights as part of inherent democratization process. Thus electoral gender quotas have emerged as one of the prominent mechanisms for achieving this.


Gender Quota Adoption

Adoption of a gender quota refers to legislation or state directive, or the voluntary action by a political party. We have noted various contemporary circumstances which can lead to quota adoption, and the complexities entailed. Distilling the multiple factors at play, scholars have arrived at a framework for analyzing quota adoption across many studies, while acknowledging that there is no single definitive model.


Quotas are most often adopted when certain actors push for them or various forces help create an environment that enables their adoption. The dominant actors generally fall in to one of three categories: civil society actors, state actors, and international and transnational actors.


Civil society actors refer primarily to national women’s movements, which research shows are the most common source for gender quota proposals. Many scholars argue that gender quotas are rarely adopted without the prior mobilization of women’s movements, which generate public discourse and lobby relevant political actors and institutions. This is so even when male elites are ultimately responsible for formally introducing and legalizing gender quotas. However, when state actors are the key force behind a gender quota, in some cases this means that political elites, namely political party leaders, adopt gender quotas for political expediency, in order to create an image of equality and social justice relative to competing parties. In such cases, if the women’s movement has not been involved to any meaningful degree, or contributed to the substance of the quota details, the quota is often an empty gesture, illustrating a commitment to women’s rights to the electorate without necessarily actually altering the pattern of political representation.


The third group of actors that can play a key role in quota adoption are from the international community, including transnational women’s and human rights activists, international and bilateral organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and funding agencies supporting women’s rights and democracy. Over the past decades, various international documents, namely the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, passed in 1979) and the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA, approved in 1995), have emphasized women’s equal representation in political decision-making positions. Transnational networks, international and non-governmental organizations, continue to campaign on these documents and publicize the tactics and strategies for successful reform.


However, quota adoption generally involves the participation of all or a mix of groups of actors, in combination with other forces. For instance, the gender quotas adopted in post-Taliban Afghanistan were due to the efforts of various actors, in conjunction with circumstantial factors. The main actor in this case was the Afghan women’s movement, constituted by many individuals and organizations already involved in civil society and service delivery in the absence of state infrastructure and services through the long years of war. Their initial demand was for a 50% women’s quota, arguing that women in post war Afghanistan comprise more than 50% of the population. They further argued that the particularly bitter experiences suffered by women over 30 years of war made them more viable nation-builders than the Afghan men, who waged war for decades, particularly the horrible divisive civil war which brought more destruction to Afghanistan than did the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. The Afghan women’s movement enlisted the active support of UNIFEM and of transnational feminists to push for the quota. The process of constitution writing in Afghanistan was under intense global scrutiny following the dramatic international mobilization for the war against the Taliban; notwithstanding the powerful conservative and patriarchal forces among Afghan society, great deliberation and discussion among political elites resulted in a reserve of approximately 27 percent of parliamentary seats for women under the new national constitution of January 2004.


Other forces are also instrumental in quota adoption. Central among them, especially in the recent wave of quota adoption in the developing world, is the democratization process itself. Recent political theorists and philosophers have noted a trend towards the rhetoric of gender as an important feature in the definition of inclusive citizenship and the expansion of democracy. The vernacularization of these debates by national women’s movements has also helped bring attention to women’s exclusion from political decision-making in the democratic world.  The international community advocates quotas as a way to help establish the legitimacy of a new political system during democratic transition or the creation of new democratic institutions and contexts, where politicians tend to be relatively responsive to public opinion concerning equality, social justice, and the importance of the female constituency.


Within the international community, donor agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and USAID have also influenced the adoption of gender quotas, thanks in part to lobbying by the transnational women’s movement for conditional funding tied to such political reforms. However, in contexts where the particular national women’s movement is weak or refuses to work with the state, such conditions can lead to quotas that only increase the number of women parliamentarians in token amounts, and fail to alter the political structure or to truly expand democracy. Tokenism generally amounts to reserving a few parliamentary seats (usually not exceeding 10 percent) for females nominated by political elites. This also ensures that the women in office are accountable primarily to the ruling elites rather than the public. However, as international pressure increases, the percentage or significance of women’s quotas may also increase.13 For example, in Bangladesh, national level gender quotas were originally introduced in 1972, with 15 reserved seats from a total of 315, but the quota lapsed several times as a result of political instability. Various civil society groups, in collaboration with grassroots women’s movements, mobilized, lobbying directly and through transnational civil society groups to convince development agencies to make the re-adoption of gender quotas a precondition for development aid upon which the government of Bangladesh was dependent. In 2000, a United Nations Development Program provided Bangladesh with funding for a $4 million governance.


Finally, national crises have also led to the adoption of gender quotas. For instance, “of the 12 African countries with the highest rates of female representation in parliament (all of which have also adopted quotas in recent years), eight (Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Eritrea, Burundi, and Namibia) have undergone liberation wars or civil conflict in recent years”. Many developing states are still suffering from political, economic, and social turmoil. Countries emerging from civil wars or wars of liberation have adopted quotas in part because women mobilize under such conditions to save their families and communities and to promote peace. Post-conflict states often draft new constitutions or re-establish their parliaments from scratch, which enables women’s movements to pressure for drastic changes. Also “upheavals of this kind shake up existing social and cultural norms, even if only for a short time, opening a space for women to play non-traditional roles”.


For instance, in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, women, who by then constituted about 70 percent of Rwandan society, were able to break down traditional assumptions concerning the role of women and entered the public sphere as rebuilders and reconcilers of a torn country. However, the successful adoption of quotas in Rwanda would not have been possible if the women’s movement was not prepared with specific demands for the new government, namely adoption and implementation of quotas. They were also prepared to provide input on the preferred kind of quota and electoral systems. Overall, there is no single or conclusive explanation for quota adoption. Factors from below (such as the presence of an active women’s movement), and above (the political will of elites) and the breakdown of the old social structures in post-conflict contexts, can all be cited. It is also common that post-crises situations involve the international community in national reconstruction projects, creating leverage to either directly or indirectly pressure national elites to abide by international norms.


Twists and Turns in Gender Quota Implementation

It is often argued that the adoption of gender quotas is meaningless without effective implementation, meaning enforcement such as sanctions for noncompliance. Many states have adopted gender quotas without a subsequent rise in female representation, thus defeating the purpose of quotas altogether. A poorly defined gender quota will fail because it does not adequately penalize non-compliance, which is often the case when quotas are adopted as token measures without the true intent to politically empower women. While scholars agree that it is very difficult to pinpoint why some quotas are more successful than others, since the success of quota measures are highly dependent on the broader social and political context of a given society; nonetheless, it is possible to decipher from various case studies three

primary characteristics:

1) Quotas must be clearly worded with unequivocal language concerning implementation;

2) Quotas must fit well with the state’s electoral and political structures; and

3) Quotas must be advocated and adopted by those who are truly committed to addressing women’s underrepresentation.


First, as alluded to earlier, the success of a quota is highly dependent on wording and details. For legislative quotas, sanctions for non-compliance appear to be an important variable. It is argued that the more specifically the quota measure is stated, and the stronger the sanction for non-compliance, the more likely its implementation will succeed. An example of a strong penalty for noncompliance that can be stated in quota provisions is that party lists that do not comply by nominating the required number of female candidates will not be eligible to compete in elections. Concerning voluntary party quotas, the commitment of the party should be clearly mandated to its members and the electorate.


The second factor in the success of a quota is how well it “fits” the existing political structures, particularly the state’s electoral system. Thus, when formulating quotas, advocates must thoroughly examine existing political and institutional structures. For instance, legislative quotas that apply to candidate lists might not be the best fit for a majoritarian/plurality electoral system with low district magnitude, since individuals rather than the parties compete for votes and parties are less likely to risk nominating a female candidate to run against male candidate. Similarly attention should be paid to party behavior as well as the political culture of a state, since they play important roles in the proper implementation of a quota measure.


The third factor deals with the level of commitment of the actors involved in quota implementation, since quota measures are ultimately carried out by political elites who recruit female candidates and ensure balanced representation. In this regard, party leaders may implement quotas as a symbolic gesture, nominating the minimum quota requirement of women, and thus undermining the effectiveness of quotas to politically empower women. However, actors such as women’s groups or organizations active inside political parties may play instrumental roles in effective quota implementation. Still other actors, such as courts or state institutions that monitor proper implementation are also significant; they may either overlook or penalize non-compliance. Therefore, when examining quota adoption, it is critical to analyze the key forces and actors involved, on a context-specific basis, since a model that may work for one society is not necessarily suitable for another. In short, to ensure the successful implementation of a gender quota, proponents must give careful attention to the following three features:


  1. Design & language of the quota policy
  2. The “fit” between quota and broader political structure and institutions
  3. The key actors who support or oppose quotas and the extent of their influence, such as the willingness of political elites, women’s organizations, and courts (international or national). What are the elite’s true intentions for wanting to adopt gender quotas?

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