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World: More Countries Using Quotas to Boost Number of Women in Politics

  • Kathleen Moore

All over the world, women are underrepresented in politics. One way to get more women into parliament and legislatures is to use quotas -- where women are guaranteed a set number of seats, say, or places on a party's list of candidates. Coalition authorities in Iraq are now reported to be backing the idea of quotas as they consider their own political future. It's the latest example of what is an increasing trend worldwide -- but quotas are not without their critics.

Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- This week, Iraq's U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer was quoted as saying something unusual for an American politician: he's in favor -- although reluctantly -- of political quotas for women.

A draft of Iraq's constitution says 40 percent of the representatives in the transitional assembly must be women. Last month, Afghanistan included a quota of its own in its new constitution, saying at least two women must be elected in each province. These are just the latest examples of a growing trend worldwide: "I think, very definitely, quotas are on the rise. I think we could even talk about a 'quota fever' today, especially in countries undergoing transition, where electoral or political party laws are being revised and debated."

Critics also say candidates should be elected on merit -- not according to gender. If women are any good, the reasoning goes, they will get elected anyway.
Julie Ballington has researched quota systems for Stockholm's International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA): "The point about postconflict and transitional states is that it provides a unique opportunity to rewrite the rules of the game. So in a sense everything is up for grabs, so it's easier to include quota laws in these countries than in those where the laws are already written and entrenched. They've recently been included in South Africa, Mozambique, Bosnia[-Herzegovina], Kosovo, and Rwanda. This has had a spin-off effect for other postconflict states, like for Afghanistan, where 25 percent of seats in the new parliament will be reserved for women."

IDEA says 80 countries have quota systems on women in place for local or national elections -- or are debating them. Some countries, like Afghanistan, have them anchored in the constitution. Others, like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia, have laws saying that a certain percentage of candidates must be women, or what is termed the "underrepresented sex." Many leftist parties in Europe have voluntary quotas for their own candidate lists. Tajikistan is debating still another kind -- constituencies where all the candidates would be women.

For proponents, the main argument in favor of quotas is that there are still too few women in politics. Fewer than one in six of the world's parliamentarians are women. For people like Tim Symonds, that's evidence of the barriers women face. Symonds and his partners train women all over the world for public life. He was also part of a group that campaigned to raise the number of women MPs in Britain: "Historically, women have been entirely excluded from power. They've been dominated by orders from male parliaments and male religions and male structures. Women have never, in any democracy -- even the old democracies -- made the breakthrough in numbers anywhere appropriate to their [percentage of the population] and abilities. So you need what we in the field of the advance of women in politics call a breakthrough system -- that means what you have, which look like artificial ways -- quotas -- for women to get into the parliaments and legislatures."

Symonds says it's important to ensure that women are represented in the fledgling parliaments of countries in transition. Male-dominated parliaments, he says, often overlook issues of concern to women: "If women are not elected to that first parliament in large numbers they will not break in in 20 or 30 years. The power of incumbency is so strong, the men who get in will stay there for so long, there will be no space whatsoever. The downstream effect of that is that women as a whole benefit very little from parliament. The acts of parliament seem to overlook women's needs, the men seem to push their own causes, and you find that a nation's women become very disabused and disaffected from the political process. So it's a very ugly downward spiral."

But quotas are controversial, and sometimes flawed. In some countries, successful parties are entitled to add a certain number of "extra" women deputies. But these women are often dismissed as "quota queens" and not taken seriously.

Critics also say candidates should be elected on merit -- not according to gender. If women are any good, the reasoning goes, they will get elected anyway.

Quotas are also potentially discriminatory. In Britain, the ruling Labour Party for a while had to drop women-only lists after a legal challenge.

The U.S. -- where women hold roughly 15 percent of congressional seats -- does not have political quotas. Perhaps that's why Bremer said he's "uneasy" with them for Iraq.

But Symonds says quotas needn't be aggressive or discriminatory -- he cites the Scandinavian system, where parties alternate men and women on their candidate lists.

(Farangis Najibullah of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report. For global database on quotas for women, see