Quota: A Tool to Engender Politics?
For centuries, men have claimed their ascendancy over women in all spheres of public life. Politics, being an influential and powerful social institution, has not been spared. To this day and age, politics is often automatically funneled into a “male category”. Obstacles to women’s political participation exist throughout the world in prevailing social and economic regimes as well as in existing political structures. Women’s representation in parliaments worldwide is not very encouraging. They represented 15% of the total members in 2003, and in 2008, they occupy only 18% of those seats. Given the slow rate at which representation of women is increasing, various methods such as electoral quotas have been proposed or implemented to address the present gender imbalance in decision making. South Asia is no exception to the trend.
The implementation of gender quotas is increasingly viewed as an important policy measure for increasing women’s access to decision making bodies. The quota system aims at ensuring that women constitute at least a “critical minority” of 20, 30, or 40% or even to ensure true gender of 50-50 per cent. While reserved seats have guaranteed women’s access to local as well as national government, albeit in relatively low numbers, it is debatable whether quotas have really addressed the issue on women’s empowerment in the countries concerned. So far, quotas have simply facilitated women’s participation in politics. Whether this system actually enables women to attain any form of independent decision-making authority is questionable. Many women candidates are elected or chosen just to fulfill the given quota. In addition, since quotas in themselves do not remove all other barriers to the full citizenship of women; the crucial question is whether quotas can achieve the goal of equality in politics.
Quotas, have, however, been recommended by UN, IPU, EU, and the organization for security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and in international instruments like the CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action. Such international recommendations have surely given legitimacy on the use of quotas. Arguably, one of the indicators of the success of the reserved seats is that women’s presence has increased within the local government and is resulting in their greater participation in the local bodies. Rwanda is an example of the new trend to use electoral gender quotas as a fast track to gender balance in politics. It has superseded other parliaments in terms of women’s representation of 48.8%. Similarly, with regard to South Asian region, Nepal’s example shows that the introduction and implementation of quotas can have a great impact in terms of ensuring women’s access to political institutions and decision making bodies.
In India, women’s representation in state assemblies remains low while the representation in local bodies remains relatively high. This can be attributed to the fact that, while quotas at the local level have been implemented successfully, quotas at the national level have not been adopted and the issue has remained on the parliamentary agenda for many years.
The present parliament in Bangladesh does not have any kind of reserved seats for women. This can be one reason why the number of women directly elected to the legislature is yet to exceed 2.5 percent of the total 300 seats. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, in the absence of quotas, women occupy only 11 of 225 seats in the Parliament, a mere 4.9%, and constitute only 1.2% in the Provincial Council. This is despite the fact that Sri Lanka boasts the world’s first women Prime Minister and a literacy rate of 90% of Sri Lankan women.
While quotas do provide legality to women’s inclusion, quotas cannot guarantee active political participation and decision making authority. And they certainly have not created provisions for eliminating violence against women in politics. For instance, Chapter 5 Article 83 of the Afghanistan Constitution states that The Wolesi Jirga or the Lower House should have 27% of the assembly members as women while the House of Elders or the Meshrano Jirga should have 17% of the members as women. Owing to this requirement, the 2005 elections nominated 27.3% seats for women in its lower house and 22.5% in its upper house. These numbers are higher than in most South Asian countries. In fact, the reserved quota is higher than that of its powerful neighbor India. While it may give a pretty rosy impression, reality is far from perfect. For a primarily Muslim state with deeply entrenched traditional beliefs and set codes of conduct for women, it is an ordeal for female politicians to voice their opinions. Despite high representation of women, many female candidates and their families were threatened for contesting the then upcoming election in the year 2005. Similarly, female candidates were stigmatized and some were compelled to resign their candidacy. Some groups reportedly went as far as circulating letters with an offer of $4,000 reward for killing female candidates. Nurturing one’s political interests in such a scenario is not only difficult but also extremely discouraging.
Such instances prove that quota, in isolation, cannot bring equality. Equality requires an amalgamation of different factors. Certain steps should be taken to transform the social views so that female politicians can participate and contribute actively. Women should be able to participate in open, transparent, accountable decision-making processes of policy-making institutions and mechanisms, not as beneficiaries/objects of development programs but as agents/subjects of developmental change. The crucial thing is that women’s political participation is not only about increasing their numbers but about effectiveness and impact.
(This article was written by me and Ms Unika Shrestha for the newsletter for the Second South Asian Conference on Violence Against Women in Politics which was called Combating Violence Against Women In Politics: Revisiting policies, politics and participation
To view the quarterly as well as conference special edition of the newsletter, please visit http://www.sapi.org.np/newsletter/