This paper draws on over eight country case studies to analyse the possibilities and limitations of mainstream approaches, such as quotas, to strengthening women’s access to political power. It finds that any quota law needs to be complemented by other interventions to ensure that it has a positive social transformative impact. Further, concepts of and support for women’s political empowerment need to be based more on women’s ongoing networks of support and influence and less on pre-election moments or international ‘blueprints’.
By 2006, around 40 countries had introduced quotas for women in elections to national parliaments, either by means of constitutional amendment or changing electoral laws (legal quotas). In over 50 countries, major political parties have voluntarily set out quota provisions in their own statutes (party quotas).
Quotas are effective in redressing the numerical gender imbalance between men and women in parliament. Further, the relative ease of measuring progress with quotas has increased their popularity. However, evidence from country case studies in Ghana, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, Sudan and beyond suggests that:
- Quotas in and of themselves are not a magic bullet to women’s political empowerment.
- The effectiveness of quotas is conditional not just on the type of quota chosen and the kind of electoral system in place, but also on the configuration of power of local political actors.
- It is important to broaden debates on what political empowerment is, what political leadership looks like, and what are the possible pathways that offer in-roads to power.
A woman’s political trajectory should be seen as a process and not a moment that begins and ends with a project or election cycle. A policy shift is required from the current focus on getting women into legislatures to providing women with opportunities for political apprenticeship and ultimately women’s leadership. While an emerging interest in supporting women’s leadership in political parties is laudable, leadership opportunities in NGOs, clubs and community centres, universities and schools and the wider workforce could also be promoted. In addition:
- No technical formula can be universally applied to ensure the perfect quota. The type of electoral system and many other context-specific factors need to be considered.
- Quotas should not be used as a proxy for a country’s democratisation credentials or its commitment to gender-sensitive social justice.
- Policymakers need to be more discerning about the kind of critical mass of women they would like to see in legislatures. Strategic support is needed for the actors, alliances and coalitions who strengthen women to advocate a gender and social justice agenda, rather than a mass that favours laws and policies antithetical to women’s empowerment.
- Women’s collective action around gender equality is critical. Women’s movements need support to influence the design and implementation of the quota and to hold politicians accountable for delivering on their promises of supporting women in politics.
- Efforts to support women’s political empowerment should strive to strengthen their ability to build constituencies.