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Uganda now has a high percentage of women representatives in Parliament. Several laws considered important to women's rights have also recently been enacted. (Photo: Lise Rakner)

Women's representation in African Parliaments: Empowering women?

Among the 30 countries with the highest percentage of women in parliament, you find Rwanda, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania.

-On a trip to Tanzania, I was told that women are now able to raise their voice, says Gretchen Bauer, professor at the University of Delaware. Her research shows that female parliamentarians have served as role models for women outside the parliament.

Beyond numbers?
Electoral gender quotas are actively used to increase the number of women in African politics and beyond. Quotas have undoubtedly been effective. The number of female representatives has risen dramatically, although there are still countries where women struggle to be elected. In Ghana and Nigeria for example, political parties undermine female candidates and attempt to suffocate powerful women’s associations.

Gretchen Bauer, Drude Dahlerup from Stockholm University and Mona Lena Krook from Rutgers University who recently visited Chr. Michelsen Institute for a two day workshop, have done extensive research on electoral gender quotas and confirm that there have been positive effects. Yet, tricky questions have to be asked.

-Electoral gender quotas are a simple solution to a complex problem. We could be asking too much of them, but at the same time too little. The crucial question is; do they have an effect beyond numbers? asks Krook.

Promoting democracy – one way or the other
Not only are quotas supposed to empower women to assume political leadership and advocate women friendly laws, but also to create more democracy.

Both quota opponents and quota advocates employ democracy as their main argument. Advocates claim that women represent half the population and thus have the right to half the seats. Since women and men have conflicting interests, men cannot represent women. Also, quotas increase diversity, promote women’s issues in policy making and form important role models.  Opponents argue that quotas are intrinsically undemocratic, arguing that they often lead to the election of unqualified and/or elite women, and that quotas reinforce essentialist views of womanhood.

-It is important to critically examine to what extent the predictions of both quota opponents and quota advocates come true, says Krook.

Upholding patriarchal structures
Dahlerup emphasizes that there is no direct correlation between increased female representation in parliaments and women-friendly policies on the political agenda. According to Dahlerup, policymakers and the literature on electoral gender quotas have a feminist bias; female parliamentarians are expected to advocate gender equality. Yet, in some African countries – and for that matter in the U.S.- many women parliamentarians advocate conservative family values which uphold rather than subvert patriarchal structures.

Still, there has been positive changes. Uganda is a good example in this respect. In the recent parliamentary period from 2006-2011, several laws considered important to women have been enacted. Laws have been passed on issues like female genital mutilation and domestic violence. An equal opportunities commission has also been established. This is a clear indication of improvement.

Published June 29, 2012

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