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 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 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 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.