Gender quotas and women’s representation in African parliaments

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In this blog, Dr Gretchen Bauer focuses in on gender quotas in Africa, and asks what the impact of increasing women in parliament has been. Gretchen is the Professor and Chair of Political Science and IR at the University of Delaware. Her blog is based on her recent article on women in African parliaments.

Across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) the use of electoral gender quotas has dramatically transformed national legislatures in the space of just two decades. Since 2003, the tiny East African country of Rwanda has led the world in women’s representation in a single or lower house of parliament and, following the 2013 election, has 64 per cent women in its Chamber of Deputies. Nearly a dozen other SSA countries top the world list, with more than 30 per cent women in their parliaments. The first SSA countries to adopt some kind of electoral gender quota in the 1990s and early 2000s were post-transition or, more likely, post-conflict countries in East and Southern Africa such as Burundi, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and, a bit later, Angola. In these countries, a similar set of factors led to the adoption of quotas including: the political opportunity structure offered by a political transition (often post-conflict), entailing the adoption of new constitutions and electoral laws; pressure from mobilized national women’s movements with support from an international women’s movement; cadres of capable women, many of whom had participated, even as combatants, in conflicts or benefited from training while in exile; diffusion effects from one country/movement to another; and a liberation movement/dominant party with a stated commitment to women’s emancipation (Bauer and Britton 2006).

More recently, a second wave of SSA countries is following suit. Countries such as Kenya, Lesotho, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe and, for the first time, a wave of Francophone/West African countries such as Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Senegal and Togo have adopted some kind of electoral gender quota, or are considering doing so (Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone). In these countries too, mobilized national women’s movements have called for the adoption of new constitutions or prompted the adoption of new electoral laws, often in close collaboration with regional, continental or international organizations like the African Union or UN Women. Those SSA countries that have not yet adopted a legislated quota or meaningful voluntary party quota are mostly Anglophone countries with plurality majority (first-past-the-post) electoral systems such as Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, and Zambia.

Two features of the use of electoral gender quotas in sub-Saharan Africa stand out. Firstly, across the continent a range of creative and innovative designs has been used in adopting and implementing electoral gender quotas for parliaments. Of 48 SSA countries, 12 use reserved seats (almost always with a first-past-the-post electoral system); these are usually additional geographically-based seats for which women-only elections are held by universal franchise, though there are variations. Another 12 countries use legislated candidate or voluntary party quotas with proportional representation electoral systems. In the former set of countries women candidates may, and do, stand for ‘non-quota’ seats and so quota targets may be exceeded; in the latter countries there are usually formal or informal placement mandates so that women’s names are every second or third name on party lists. Seven more SSA countries use legislated candidate or voluntary party quotas with first-past-the-post electoral systems; these are potentially meaningless quotas because the outcome is highly uncertain.

Secondly, electoral gender quotas in sub-Saharan Africa usually ‘work’ in ways that they do not always in other places. Whereas in France, political parties may choose to pay a fine rather than implement a gender quota, in Senegal a new parity law resulted in 44 per cent women elected to the National Assembly at its first use in 2012. And women’s organizations in Senegal, seeking to do even better, are pushing to make sure that women occupy the ‘odd’ rather than ‘even’ numbers of party lists for the next election. By and large, there has also been no turning back; in those countries in which meaningful quotas have been used in successive election cycles the percentage of women has risen steadily. The target is also moving forward; Senegal has enshrined parity (rather than say 20 or 30 per cent) in law, and South Africa and Tanzania are moving in that direction.

 What Quotas and More Women Have Achieved in Parliaments Across sub-Saharan Africa:

Electoral gender quotas are just being adopted across West Africa so there has been very little opportunity to assess their impact, in contrast to a longer record of quota use in East and Southern Africa. Women’s increased presence in parliaments in SSA and elsewhere is typically evaluated in terms of descriptive, substantive and symbolic representation effects (Franceschet, Krook and Piscopo 2012).

Descriptive Representation

Descriptive representation refers to the numbers and kinds of women elected. No studies to date have aggregated the characteristics of African women MPs though we do have some country studies that have explored the characteristics of ‘quota women’ and even compared them to other women and men members of parliament (MPs). By and large across SSA, women have not gained access to political office because of family ties to husbands, fathers or sons as has often been the case in Asia or Latin America (Adams 2008). Indeed, it could be argued that quotas can diversify or broaden access to elected office, away from political or elite families. Still, various charges have been levelled against women MPs elected on quotas in SSA. For example, that they are unqualified tokens or that they are unrepresentative elites. In the late 1990s Tamale (1999) found women MPs in Uganda to be seasoned politicians and educated professionals though often with origins among the rural peasantry. A decade later, O Brien (2012) found that ‘quota women’ in Uganda were no less qualified, and may even be better qualified, than non-quota women MPs, and in other ways did not differ much from other MPs. In South Africa, Britton (2005) found a striking professionalization of women MPs from the first parliament to the second, but also that women MPs then became less representative of the overall all population of South African women. In Rwanda ‘quota women’ were not perceived very differently in the mid-2000s from other men and women deputies though they were more likely to be regarded as grassroots politicians. In terms of concern for women’s interests, the more significant difference among Rwandan MPs was simply whether an MP was a man or a woman (Schwartz 2004). In Tanzania special seats for women have served as ‘stepping stones’ for women to stand in constituency-based seats (Yoon 2008).  

Substantive Representation

Substantive representation represents the form and content of policy making. A significant literature, mostly based on qualitative case studies, has sought to identify some impacts of more women in parliament in SSA. One study of Tanzania (Yoon 2011) found improvements to parliamentary culture following women’s greater presence, including the establishment of a women’s parliamentary caucus and training for women members, better articulation of women’s interests in parliament, notable increases in women’s contributions to parliamentary debates and modest increases in women’s appointments to cabinet positions; Devlin and Elgie (2008) and Britton (2005) identified some of the same impacts of women’s greater presence in parliament in Rwanda and South Africa, respectively. In Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, scholars have attributed the advocacy and adoption of some new laws, in particular in the areas of gender-based violence, family law and land rights, to women’s increased presence (Burnet 2008, Meena 2004, Makinda 2011, Powley and Pearson 2007, Tripp 2010, Waylen 2007). In these same countries, scholars report the introduction of a ‘gendered perspective’ to the legislative process and use of a ‘gendered lens’ to analyse and monitor national budgets. In SSA, as elsewhere in the world, parliamentary women’s caucuses and pressure from women’s movements contribute to the successful representation of women’s interests.

Symbolic Representation

Symbolic representation refers to public attitudes toward women in politics and trends in the political engagement of female constituents. These impacts may be even more important given that they generally take place outside of national legislatures which, as a rule, are weak across SSA. Tamale (2001) and Tripp (2001) suggest that, in Uganda, the increased presence of women in parliament was slowly changing people’s attitudes towards women in politics and creating a new political culture regarding the acceptability of women as political leaders. Yoon (2011) reports a similar finding in Tanzania. In Rwanda, Burnet (2011) argues that through women’s increased presence in parliament, women ‘may have found respect’ including respect from family and community members, enhanced capacity to speak and be heard in public forums, greater autonomy in decision making in the family and increased access to education. Barnes and Burchard (2013) argue that as women’s presence increases in parliaments in SSA, the political engagement gender gap (in terms of voting) decreases, not because men’s engagement falls, but because women’s rises.

Potential Limits of Gender Quotas

This is not to say that there are not many challenges. Electoral gender quotas in SSA face many potential limits despite their remarkable successes; some of these have received a little attention in the scholarly literature, and some have not. So, for example, legislatures are weak across SSA and not well resourced; how much does the composition of weak legislatures even matter vis-à-vis powerful executives? Women may have gained significant access to parliaments but what is their role on parliamentary committees and their access to leadership positions? Perhaps, therefore, executives are just as important a focus as legislatures.

In less-than-democratic political systems are ‘quota women’ serving to subvert democracy and/or support a dominant political party? In any electoral system political parties remain the gatekeepers; have women gained access to positions of leadership within parties beyond women’s wings? To what extent do women remain beholden to political parties that have included them as candidates on party lists or for reserved seats? Electoral gender quotas are generally meant to be temporary measures though there is little evidence of quotas yet being abandoned because they have accomplished their goals; Zimbabwe may represent a new trend having recently adopted quotas for the 2013 and 2018 elections only. Will there be reversals if quotas are only temporary? Indeed, for how long are quotas needed? Do women elected on quotas – of any type, but especially reserved seats – become second class members of parliament? Are concerns about elitism or tokenism valid? Are quota women any different from other women and men members? Are reserved seats serving as stepping stones to constituency-based seats or does the existence of reserved seats mean that women are discouraged from standing in openly contested seats? Is the number of women elected to those seats increasing enough? Is there need to consider backlash? In Senegal parity has reportedly become a ‘negative word’ in Wolof meaning ‘I no longer accept my husband’s authority.’ And yet the challenges of gender quotas for parliaments have not dissuaded women activists from promoting them, as was evident during the recent election in Cameroon. Nor has it stopped political parties and governments from adopting them, as demonstrated recently in Kenya, Senegal and Zimbabwe, among others. In Rwanda, with the highest percentage of women MPs of any country in the world, women deputies consider that their greater presence has guaranteed a gender agenda and they are now eager to see their accomplishments replicated in other countries around the world.


18 thoughts on “Gender quotas and women’s representation in African parliaments

  1. The quota system in Kenya has not only increased numbers of women in parliament but also disproved the notion that more women means approaching legislation through gendered lens. If anything, the women lawmakers seem as hawkish as their male counterparts in the sense that their approach to law making is merely to reinforce what the male leaders of the parties want. Their politics is as patriarchal as it can get. How to we make the numbers of women count in parties/parliaments where most members (both male and female) interpret their roles to be chorusing the party-leader’s tune or where women are nominated or given the party tickets because they are (a) related to party leaders either by family or romance (b) loyalists and (c) proxies for party donors?

    I feel the political parties are using the so-called gender slots to pull wool over our eyes, leaving us contended that we have fair representation in parliament when in real sense we have harems protecting the patriarchs’ legislative interests.

    Abolishing the seats will not be the solution as the party leaders here are wont to front their “girls” to contest parliamentary seats at the expense of other qualified candidates. Apart from Karua, Ngilu and Wangari Maatha and Christine Mango I find it almost impossible to name women who won elections between 1997 and 2013 on the strength of their values, vision and focus. Most of them are proxies of the big boys. This is not to say our esteemed women are poor at politics or incompetent, but rather the political system is so skewed that it locks out competent women from contesting for seats reserved for them. It’s the women the big boys are coy with that get supported, not the independent woman with agenda for the country and masses. I could be wrong, but I am convinced the special seats have only diversified options for party leaders to reward their “girls” in the name of diversity.

    Just like the competent independent man who runs afoul or doesn’t bribe the tribal lords has no chance of making it, the independent woman not allied to big boys is doomed. The voters won’t give them a chance, unless like Karua and Ngilu between 1992 and 2008 they are centres of power in their own right.

    Perhaps the focus should be on dismantling the grip a handful of men have on the election cycle and dividend to level the playing ground. Now the quotas just boost their political capital to reward cronies and damsels.

  2. Am just curious under what circumstances gender quotas may result in one kind of representation rather than the others. Why is Botswana fluctuating between symbolic and descriptive rep when in fact in non-election based arenas such as the civil service, representation tends to be more substantive.

    1. Sethunya, so descriptive representation refers to (in this case) the numbers of women in parliament and the kinds of women. So Botswana has not come very far at all in terms of ‘achieving’ descriptive representation given its very low number of women MPs. That said, and seeing some of the BDP primary results so far, it looks like that could change. It is not surprising that Botswana does not have many women in parliament for reasons that I have written about and that you have contributed to my thinking on and are very aware of. I think that one could identify some substantive representation effects even though there have been so few women in parliament. Some of them, like Gladys Kokorwe and Margaret Nasha, have identified specific pieces of legislation that they have pushed, maybe even reintroduced. Some have suggested that when there is not a ‘critical mass’ that it may still be the case that ‘critical actors’ can accomplish something. This has been referred to in Botswana’s case as having substantive representation without descriptive representation. Symbolic representation would be when having more women in parliament influenced women and men to think differently about women as politicians or as leaders and may even inspire women to become more engaged in politics themselves. I have argued that one might see this in Botswana with the rise of women chiefs, or maybe even now with the many more women who have decided to stand for parliament. All very interesting!

  3. Hi Denis, I really don’t know Kenyan politics very well, but what you describe sounds appalling. I guess the short answer is that if the election system for the national legislature in Kenya is flawed or corrupt adding reserved seats for women certainly is not going to fix it and may even harm things as you suggest. In any electoral system the political parties are the gatekeepers and there is no getting past that. Everything depends are their procedures for selecting/electing candidates for the general election. The rules for electing women into the reserved seats matter too and they are not the same everywhere. I think in Kenya women are elected in women only contests in counties or some geographic area. In Tanzania the method has been quite different and there has been conscious effort to think about trying to get women out of reserved seats and into constituency seats – so, for example, they made a rule saying only two terms in a reserved seat. I understand they are contemplating something even more radically different now. It has certainly been convincingly argued that Rwanda and Uganda have used their many women to try to gender wash undemocratic practices and so on. Let’s see if a few election cycles can make any difference in Kenya. Another question is where autonomous women’s organizations/movements are in Kenya and what pressure they are exerting on parties or women MPs.

  4. Why do you believe that Ghana has not established a gender quota system? They had one in the early 1960s but it fell through and today they have no quota system. It seems that Ghana is an outlier as it has had repeated democratic elections and yet, the percentage of women in parliament has not grown exponentially. What would you say is the ongoing cause(s) preventing the further growth of women in parliament, and why have they not adopted a quota system?

    1. Hi, I am actually on my way to Ghana for six months in about one month and will be looking at this question among others. Ghana is like several other Anglophone African countries with first past the post electoral systems and no quota and a very low representation of women in parliament. I have a couple of articles on Botswana (Botswana Notes and Records 2010, African Studies Review 2011) that address the issue for Botswana. In both cases one of the issues is that women are not candidates. When they run, they win. So in the last election 10 percent of candidates were women and 10 percent of MPs are now women. So why are they not becoming candidates? Many reasons. Political parties are the ‘gatekeepers’ and so one has to look at parties and candidate selection processes among other things. Same in USA where we not doing much better. Very hard to add a quota with this particular electoral system unless it is a reserved seat which many do not like. Though Tanzania has now proposed a great quota: just simply elect one man and one woman from each constituency. : )

  5. WOW GRETCHEN THIS IS AMAZING AM Doing my LLB dissertation on Kenyan politics titled ” POLITICAL REPRESENTATION IN KENYA; IS THE TWO THIRD GENDER RULE A REALITY ? I will add you material.

    1. Hi Naomi, would love to hear more about your dissertation. I was in Kenya in June and gave a talk on these matters at U Nairobi with the Department of Politics. I think the deadline was supposed to be August for figuring out how to implement the two thirds or one third rule. What has happened? I am happy to assist in any way. My email is

  6. @ Gretchen Bauer I am curious, based on your articles about SSA Rwanda’s quotas can take all parts – descriptive, substantive and symbolic rep. but on what basis many academic lit criticize Rwanda’s gender quotas policies for being more than public relations despite women’s representations’ achievements in terms of advocacy and adoption of ‘ land law, law against GBV etc?

    1. Dear Seraphine Habimana, thank you for your comment. I have never been to Rwanda and I have never done research in Rwanda, though I would like to. I am not sure if I am understanding your question well. Though I have not done research in Rwanda myself I have reviewed the research on Rwanda and presented some of it here. You might want to look more at the work of scholars like Jennie Burnett or Timothy Longman and some of the others cited above. It seems that on the one hand Rwanda has many accomplishments in terms of bringing more women into office, into all three branches of government, and indeed that one can identify some substantive and symbolic representation effects. I have read that women deputies in Rwanda feel a ‘gender agenda’ is guaranteed by their significant presence in the Chamber of Deputies. On the other hand there are some scholars who have charged that the large numbers of women in government are meant as some kind of ‘smoke screen’ for an increasingly authoritarian government/executive. There are many limits on or challenges of having more women in parliament or government, as stated above.

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