More Women, but at What Cost? The Pitfalls of Reserved Seats to Increase Women’s Representation in Parliaments

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On 9 August, Kenyans went to the polls for landmark general elections that featured the highest ever number of women candidates, resulting in a record 26 women elected as members of parliament. This was an increase from 23 women elected to parliament in 2017.

But assessing advancements for women’s political participation in Kenya is more complicated than just counting women. Kenya’s electoral and political processes include several temporary special measures, including a two-thirds gender rule for all political positions and reserved legislative seats for women, termed Woman Representative positions, which make up 47 out of the 337 seats in parliament.  On the surface, this provision seems like a guaranteed way to increase women’s political representation and ensure women have a voice in and influence over the politics of their country – although women make up over 50 percent of the Kenyan population, they held only 23 percent of seats in the last parliament, including the 47 Woman Representative seats. However, the creation of additional reserved seats for women in legislative bodies can produce further unintended consequences for women by playing into and replicating rather than challenging patriarchal norms, leading to harmful long-term effects for women’s political participation. Instead, governments across the continent should focus on initiatives that make existing structures more inclusive and representative of the diversity of citizens.

Reserved seats for women in parliament are not a new initiative (Kenya’s system dates to 2010), though they have recently gained prominence through several successful or failed attempts at legislation on the continent. Benin’s January 2023 legislative elections will see the election of 24 women to new seats in the National Assembly stemming from a 2019 constitutional amendment. Tanzania and Uganda, among others, have also implemented some form of reserved seats for women in their parliaments. Other countries have not been as successful. In March, Nigerian lawmakers voted down a suite of five women-focused amendments to the constitution, including one that would have created additional seats reserved for women for each state in Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives. In February, a bill that would have created sixteen additional seats reserved for women in the Gambia’s National Assembly did not pass due to a lack of quorum.

Women represent more than half of the population across the continent but only occupy an average of 26 percent of parliamentary seats, so the implementation of reserved seats can drastically and quickly help women’s representation reach a more proportional level. Women competing for and occupying these seats gain important skills and experiences that they can leverage to run for other political positions. And, in contexts where few women are visibly active in politics, women parliamentarians can act as role models to inspire new women aspirants and, in the long term, change perceptions about women’s involvement in politics.

But this could come at the cost of long-term consequences for women’s political participation. Instead of setting a minimum for women’s representation, in practice reserved seats can operate as a ceiling. Some women interested in running for “normal” legislative positions are channeled to the reserved seats and isolated from the electoral process for regular, or constituency, seats. Thus, the number of women legislators is rarely that much higher than the number of reserved seats, which is has never been set at 50 percent of parliamentary seats.

Furthermore, reserved seats for women falls victim to the “add women and stir” fallacy by not acknowledging that women who enter patriarchal structures are still subject to patriarchal oppression. Because women political aspirants are relegated to the reserved seats, this essentially set up parallel political systems for men and women. Researchers found that the quota system in Uganda “creates a gendered perception that constituency seats are for males and quota seats are for females – as if each sex has a distinct category of parliamentary seats.” Kenyan women running in any election, even non-legislative, are often pressured to vie for the Woman Representative positions.

This process may be further compounded as women lack the political capital associated with a constituency base and are perceived as being accountable to party leaders or elites rather than voters. Women lawmakers holding reserved seats may get access to less or none of the development funds accorded to those in constituency seats. These outcomes can contribute to further repercussions for women’s political influence whereby women occupying reserved seats are treated as second-rate legislators within the parliament and policymaking processes.

When implemented in other ways, quotas can be effective at increasing women’s political representation without necessarily producing these unintended consequences for women. For instance, legislated candidate quotas require candidate lists to be made up of a certain percentage of women. Senegal, which mandates parties to put forward candidate lists with equal numbers of men and women, enjoys a National Assembly composed of 43 percent women. For proportional representation systems with closed party lists, imposing vertical rank-order rules prevents political parties from placing women candidates at the bottom of lists where they are least likely to be elected, like in Kenya and Zimbabwe, where men and women must be alternating throughout candidate lists.

There are also other mechanisms through which to increase women’s representation in parliaments and politics writ large, such as through promoting gender mainstreaming within political parties, supporting women candidates to meet the legal and administrative requirements to run for office, and, perhaps most crucially, tackling the oppressive patriarchal norms that limit women’s political participation. These mechanisms promote sustainable improvements for women by increasing the women’s opportunities and capacity to participate in existing political structures and processes, rather than creating parallel yet inferior structures in which their ability to influence decisions and wield power can be stunted.

Research shows that parliaments with higher percentages of women members pass more gender-sensitive legislation, illustrating further crucial benefits of improving women’s political representation. But it must be done in a way that does not further ultimately limit the goal of gender equality. Reserved seats for women in state legislatures may be motivated by good intentions, but it is important to remember that the context in which they are introduced are often feature entrenched norms that mean women continue to face discrimination both inside and outside parliament.

Temporary Special Measures like reserved seats are noble efforts, but to successfully bolster women’s political participation, they must be accompanied by a long-term change in harmful sociocultural norms. Legislators in Nigeria, the Gambia, and across the continent have the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure their efforts to promote gender equality in politics can produce meaningful, sustainable results for women. This will take more than just adding women to parliaments – it will mean disrupting the patriarchal oppression that underlies sociopolitical systems.

Miriam Frost is a Program Officer at the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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