Gender Quotas in Sub-Saharan African Legislatures: Feminist Justifications and Implications

Over the past few decades, gender quotas have become an increasingly common policy around the world. Since the late 1980s, more than 70 countries have implemented laws requiring that women compose a minimum percentage of electoral candidates or seats in the national legislature, with the goal that such policies will increase the amount of women in elected legislative positions. Current scholars generally agree that gender quotas have led to an increase in the presence of women in legislatures around the world, presumably demonstrating that gender quotas achieve a feminist goal of increased representation for women and a more equal opportunity for women to contest such elections. This paper will focus on gender quotas in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with significant implementation of gender quota policies (half of the countries in the region have mandated gender quotas) and the fastest and largest rate of change in women’s political representation in recent decades.

Overall, this paper will prove that gender quotas are consistent with feminist action, and that contrary to the arguments of some critics, gender quotas are not sexist, but rather feminist in nature. In order to make this argument, it is imperative to define feminism and feminist action. Feminism is defined as “the social and political movement advocating for women’s equality,” while feminist action is defined as “associated with achieving the goals and aims of feminism.” 234 This paper will proceed as follows. First, it will explore the implementations of various types of gender quota policies, and discuss the feminist reasons and implications of their enactments. Next, this paper will verify that gender quotas are truly a form of feminist action and achieve feminist goals through three forms of representation: descriptive, substantive, and symbolic. Additionally, there will be a discussion about the sustainability of quotas to demonstrate that while they should not be a permanent solution, gender quotas play a positive and necessary role in quickly feminizing politics. Lastly, using the concepts of creating access and combating structural oppression, this paper will argue in favor of gender quota policies being inherently feminist and not sexist as some claim. To conclude, this paper will argue for the necessity of broader affirmative action policies in order to upend structural oppression and inequality, and that creating access and equal opportunity proves such policies to be the opposite of discriminatory. 

According to Drude Dahlerup, “quotas in politics may be defined as an affirmative action measure that establishes a percentage or number for the representation of a specific group, in this case women, most often in the form of a minimum requirement.” Quotas can come in different forms and generally can be classified in terms of two characteristics: the lack/existence of a legal mandate and the stage of implementation. In terms of the mandate condition, there are both voluntary party quotas and legally mandated quotas (which apply to all parties/the legislature as a whole). The stage of implementation refers to which part of the electoral process the quota addresses, either candidates or elected members/seats. This has generally led to three types of quota systems in Sub-Saharan Africa: voluntary party candidate quotas, legal/mandated candidate quotas, and reserved seats. Voluntary party quotas establish that a certain political party promises to have a specified minimum percentage of its candidates be female. However, since these quotas do not affect the entire political system, they will not be specifically addressed or investigated in this paper. Legal/mandated candidate quotas require all political parties to have a specified minimum percentage of candidates be female, with the goal of increasing the number of women on election ballots. One significant benefit of candidate quotas is that women compete with men, introducing such a concept into the public eye and setting up potential long-term success for when quotas are no longer in place. However, candidate quotas do not guarantee that a fixed percentage of women will hold elected office in the legislature. 

Under a reserved seat system, women are either elected as part of a proportional representation system in which the political parties allocate a certain percentage of their winning seats to women, or women run in their own elections against other women in majoritarian systems. While some scholars claim that a reserved seat system creates a glass ceiling for women (which will be discussed later), women are still legally permitted to run for the non-reserved/open seats against men, and some women have successfully done so. Thus, the advantage over candidate quotas is that women are guaranteed representation, but the lack of competition with men raises questions about the long-term impact on the ability of women to feasibly compete with men. Currently, reserved seats are the least commonly used type of quota worldwide, but they are the single most common quota system (out of the three) in Sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of realized numerical representation, reserved seats are the most effective as they require a minimum percentage of female legislators. This policy is also easier to enforce compliance with compared to candidate quotas. 

Before evaluating the feminist qualities and implications of gender quotas, it is important to demonstrate the feminist need for gender quotas in the first place. Such a need stems from sexually stratified, patriarchal societies that contain a disproportionately low number of women in political office. Currently, women make up 24.1% of single house or lower house national legislatures, which this paper is focusing on. At the most basic level, gender quotas exist as a means of increasing women’s political representation in these legislative bodies. According to numerous scholars, gender quotas have achieved this aim in Sub-Saharan Africa, arguing that the increase in women’s political representation in Sub-Saharan Africa is largely attributed to the introduction of gender quotas. From a feminist perspective, this numerical increase is important because women have the right to equal representation, or at least the equal opportunity to representation. However, numerical representation is only the first step, as “the incorporation of women into political and public life by extension promotes feminist aims to improve women’s overall social, economic, and political status,” a concept that will be explored when discussing the impact of gender quotas on various types of representation. Further, “the inclusion of women is crucial to achieving justice, promoting women’s interests, and making use of women’s resources for the good of society,” demonstrating that the reasoning behind the introduction of gender quotas is in fact feminist in nature. 

While there is an obvious feminist justification as to the need for gender quota policies, the direct impetuses for their implementations have not always aligned with these feminist mindsets. Overall, the introduction of gender quota policies in Sub-Saharan Africa has been the result of a combination of both normative (feminist) and pragmatic motivations of various involved groups. While principled stands (often by civil society or the international community) for the feminist belief that women should be better represented and have an equal opportunity to hold political office are instrumental in pushing for the introduction of gender quotas, the governments implementing such policies are often pressured and have non-feminist motivations that justify their decisions. For example, governments may implement gender quotas to gain international legitimacy (even if they do not care for women’s rights), or as a way for the ruling party to gain more votes from women, even if it has few intentions to enact a pro-women agenda. As a result, some scholars argue that because the involved motivations and actors are partially non-feminist, there is some question as to the extent to which quotas can be considered “feminist” reforms. And, while “it is crucial to acknowledge that the adoption of gender quotas does not always stem from principled concerns to empower women in politics,” the feminist effects and implications of gender quotas should be weighed more heavily, as those are what ultimately constitute feminist action, even if unintended. 

Although it is important to acknowledge that the effectiveness of gender quotas is influenced by a wide variety of factors (e.g. regime type), this paper will use aggregated, demonstrated effects of gender quota policies in Sub-Saharan Africa on the three types of representation. The first type of representation, descriptive representation, has already been alluded to so far in this paper, just without the attached terminology. Descriptive representation consists of the number of women elected, as well as the diversity of their social backgrounds. The correlation between gender quotas and descriptive representation has been argued above, and can be further illustrated in the following graph. 

Therefore, it is evident that gender quotas are an effective mechanism to increase women’s descriptive representation in a numerical sense. In addition, the diversity of the backgrounds of women elected to national legislatures is also increasing, with scholars arguing that “family ties have not characterized women’s access to political office.” Further, while it is clear that gender quotas achieve the feminist aim of increased descriptive representation, the demonstrated effects on the substantive and symbolic representation of women as a result of increased descriptive representation are far more impactful and important for acheiving true feminist goals in a wider societal context, proving that gender quotas serve as the impetus for a domino effect of feminist action.

Substantive representation involves the effectiveness of female politicians in commanding influence in the legislature, promoting the discussion of women’s-related issues, and realizing tangible pro-women policy outcomes. In order to preface the discussion regarding policy outcomes, it is important to note that the national legislatures in many Sub-Saharan African countries are weak, meaning that the male-dominated executive branches have considerable control over which policies are actually implemented as laws. However, there is still evidence that women’s descriptive representation increases women’s substantive representation. Female legislators are more likely to promote legislation that serves women’s interests, meaning that increasing the amount of female legislators increases the likelihood that such interests will be considered and codified into legislation. Scholars have identified legislative gains in areas such as family law, gender-based violence, and gender-related land rights in several Sub-Saharan African countries. Therefore, gender quotas, by way of increasing women’s descriptive representation, have a significantly positive impact on the increased awareness of women’s issues in politics and also the passing of pro-women legislation. Such legislation seeks to improve codified gender equality and protect the rights of women, providing more evidence as to how gender quota policies are in line with feminist action. 

The most important type of representation in terms of sustainability and future implications of feminist action is symbolic representation. Symbolic representation is defined as “the ways in which women’s increased presence in parliaments affects public attitudes towards women in politics as well as women’s own engagement in politics.” Overall, while substantive representation affects codified gender equality, symbolic representation of women has the ability to influence the other two types of representation, and is a means of changing attitudes about gender equality. For example, increased perception of women as equal in society can naturally lead to more women in politics and the promotion of pro-women laws by both men and women, thus encompassing the true transformation of society through feminist action to a point where policies such as gender quotas are no longer necessary.

Studies have revealed that the increase in the number of women in legislatures has increased women’s engagement with the political sphere and changed many citizens’ attitudes toward women’s leadership and women’s participation in politics, both as elected officials and activists. Gender quotas are directly responsible for these shifting perceptions, as “the increased visibility of women in leadership positions in politics” is the main impetus. Gretchen Bauer explicitly argues that “one of the main benefits of introducing electoral quotas has been the way an influx of women has helped influence popular perceptions of the acceptability of women being active in politics.” Further, such shifting perceptions facilitated increased political engagement of female constituents. Thus, gender quotas not only create opportunity and access for women to enter the political sphere in leadership positions, but they also increase the engagement of non-politician women, leading to increased civil society promotion of pro-women policies in line with feminist action. That being said, the pro-feminist changes in societal perception are the most important impact of gender quotas. Increasing the amount of citizens who believe in gender equality is the most important long-term goal of feminist action because it incorporates the correct motives (principled stands), increases the capacity for pro-women reform, and is sustainable. 

Gender quota policies are meant to be temporary, and therefore the sustainability of their impacts is of paramount importance. The objective of gender quotas is to fast track descriptive representation, with the assumption that such increased descriptive representation has the aforementioned impacts on substantive and symbolic representation. Sustainable representation is defined as “viable and substantial political representation secured for the long run,” which in this case would relate to that of women. A true achievement of feminist action would be a society that does not need gender quotas in order to provide true equal opportunity for women. True equal opportunity does not just mean the codified, textual opportunity that already exists in these countries. Such laws that allow women to run for the same positions as men have little impact if the structural factors that oppress women create the current reality that sees a lack of women’s representation, a lack of pro-women laws, and a lack of societal agreement that women deserve to be treated and valued equally to men. As of now, it is difficult to measure whether such structural oppression, especially in the political sphere, is being overcome since no countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have repealed their gender quotas. The best way to measure the impact is to assess to what extent women participate beyond the quota requirements, and if female politicians have been successful in switching from reserved seats to open seats, which men contest. As of now, the percentage of women in Sub-Saharan African legislatures rarely exceeds the quota requirement. While some may view this as a glass ceiling stemming from reserved seats, and a failure of gender quotas in promoting women’s symbolic representation, one can also argue that this demonstrates the need for the continuation of gender quota policies as there is still more work to do done in terms of increasing symbolic representation. 

The aforementioned successes and goals of feminist action can only be achieved  as rapidly as they should be through a fast-track policy such as gender quotas, with scholars writing that without the intervention of gender quotas, it would have taken decades to “bring about the changes in cultural attitudes and the socioeconomic developments necessary to organically produce such large numbers of women in African legislatures.” In fact, this demonstrates that numerical representation and broader feminist goals are reciprocally affected. This means that increasing numerical representation now through gender quotas can improve perceptions of women and their realized status in society, and then as a result of these new perceptions and heightened status, women’s organic political representation (i.e. without quotas) in the future will naturally increase. Gender quotas simply serve to expedite the process of women’s equality and empowerment, but they should only serve as a temporary solution to ensuring equality of opportunity.

Gender quotas should be temporary for a few reasons. First, a true feminist goal would be a society in which women do not need a legal abetment to securing equal opportunity. Additionally, gender quota policies are “textually sexist” meaning that the written policies themselves (sans context) discriminate against men in favor of women. While critics of gender quota policies cite this as a reason as to why the policies are discriminatory and inconsistent with feminism, it is paramount to consider the structural sexism and oppression that prevents women from having equal access and opportunity to political office and in society more generally. Having a codified law that allows women the same legal opportunity to run for office as men is just the start, whereas critics see it as the finish, an illustration of postfeminism. These critics are misguided because the codified law does not serve as the reality of the situation for women; structural sexism and oppression continue to limit their opportunity. Because of this, policies such as gender quotas must be put in place in order to guarantee the right to equal opportunity. In this context, gender quotas “do not discriminate, but compensate for actual barriers that prevent women from their fair share of the political seats” and in fact serve as “compensation for direct and structural discrimination against women.”  

When determining whether a specific policy or social reality is sexist, one should distinguish whether the policy or reality creates access or creates/maintains barriers. Therefore, while gender quota critics may technically be correct in arguing that gender quota policies “textually discriminate” against men, they neglect to realize that gender quotas create access for women in a society that maintains barriers to equal opportunity. Using this perspective, the lack of gender quotas is the sexist option because allowing the structural oppression and sexism to continue leads to a more impactful and realized discrimination against women than a temporary, “textually discriminatory” law that promotes creating opportunity for the socially subjugated sex at the “expense” of the socially dominant sex, which is really not an expense at all given the heightened status of men. Because the “textual discrimination” against men has little impact, allowing for the continued social subjugation of the female sex is a far worse alternative than implementing gender quota policies. It is more in line with feminist action to have “textually sexist” laws against the socially dominant sex than to have textually non-sexist laws in which structural oppression against the subjugated sex continues to limit the access and opportunity of women. Gender equality cannot wait for society to catch up by neglecting a policy stimulus, further demonstrating how not implementing “textually sexist” gender quotas is actually more sexist than implementing them since waiting for the gradual improvement of attitudes and realities of gender equality means that women continue to suffer under a sexually oppressive system in the meantime. 

Contrary to what is commonly believed, gender quotas are more about providing equality of opportunity than equality of result, and thus do not contradict the liberal and democratic principle of merit. Gender quotas are a necessary step in correcting a system that provides an unfair opportunistic advantage for men to dominate socially and politically. Debating whether feminism should entail a mandated equality of result is an entirely separate argument, but what is clear is that women are currently structurally oppressed and that any positive outcomes for women can only begin to manifest themselves by empowering women through providing them the same opportunity as men to be heard and to enact meaningful change.  

This investigation of the feminist justifications and implications of gender quota policies, namely the argument that they serve as a useful mechanism to combat discrimination, contributes to the broader argument regarding the justified and important use of affirmative action policies in order to upend structural oppression by creating access and opportunity. In her study of gender quotas, Isobel Coleman writes, “women are just as qualified as men, but women’s qualifications are downgraded and minimized in a male-dominated political system.” This same concept can be applied to race relations in the United States, in which case the sentence would read: black people are just as qualified as white people, but black people’s qualifications are downgraded and minimized in a white-dominated political system. In fact, this concept can be extended beyond the political system: the education system, the economic system, etc. Paul Kuttner discusses this idea in his blog post regarding the equity vs. equality graphic, explaining that the reason that people cannot see over the fence is not because of something inherent to them (e.g. height or unqualification) but rather as a result of structural oppression and discrimination (e.g. lower ground or sexist/racist societies). Kuttner’s argument provides a further justification for gender quota policies and affirmative action more broadly, arguing that the “achievement gap” cannot be closed unless policies are put in place to close the “opportunity gap” first. Therefore, postfeminist and postracist thought that is grounded in the idea that equality and justice simply means equality under codified law must be rebuked; structural oppression continues to plague societies around the world, and affirmative action policies are the best mechanism for reifying this reality, while still placing an emphasis on the equality of opportunity. 

Affirmative action does not guarantee that a woman or a black person (in the U.S. context) will succeed without trying; it simply gives them the same chance that a white man like myself has to achieve their hopes and dreams with the necessary hard work and dedication. In other words, affirmative action does not ensure that an oppressed individual will automatically beat a privileged individual in a race, but rather it provides them the opportunity to start the race at the same position as a privileged person, and not 50 meters behind. 


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