Gender Quotas in Africa: Does Higher Representation of Women Result in Their Empowerment?

Gender Quotas in Africa: Does Higher Representation of Women Result in Their Empowerment?

Sangwon Park, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh

It is no secret that gender equality has become a core – and fashionable – focus of development. Not only international organisations but also many national governments across the globe have begun to invest a great deal in women’s empowerment initiatives, notably electoral gender quotas.

In Africa, several countries have drastically transformed their national assemblies and parliaments over the past two decades. Rwanda, for example, has achieved the world’s largest female-majority representation in parliament with over 60 percent of its members being women. South Africa and Sénégal are also amongst the top ten countries for parliamentary gender equality, with roughly 42 percent of their members of parliament being female (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017). It is evident that electoral gender quotas are instrumental in providing more women with opportunities to hold influential positions and advance their status in society. The East African state’s high political representation of women, at least as a symbolic value, has resulted in more respect, greater voice and increased autonomy for women (Abbott and Malunda, 2015, p.562). It is crucial, therefore, that other African countries follow the footsteps of Rwanda in order to realise gender equality in all aspects of life.

However, political quotas for women alone may not be sufficient. They need to be supplemented by a broad range of legislation that guarantees strict implementation because quotas, unless codified in law and supported by other policies, can neither be effective nor sustainable. It is vital to bear in mind, furthermore, that women should be prepared to take on important responsibilities, which emphasises the significance of educating girls and women. If those benefiting from gender quotas are incompetent to perform the tasks required for decision makers, for instance, quotas could be phased out. Since it is obvious that the beneficiaries of gender quotas are most likely educated women, attention also needs to be directed towards the accessibility and affordability of education. For that reason, there should be an unequivocal answer to the question of how to ensure that all women, whether affluent or disadvantaged, receive equal educational opportunities to compete on a level playing field for quota positions. Accordingly, quotas have to be backed by other instruments, such as education and social policy, through meticulous planning. In other words, gender quotas should not be an afterthought.

In addition, what is often not discussed is the varying outcomes of gender quotas. Although increasing the number of women in government may foster equality between men and women on paper, it must not be an end goal in itself. What really matters is whether or not women’s representation in legislatures makes a substantive contribution towards rooting out patriarchal social norms and thus elevating the status of women. It is true, in some cases, that female officials fail to serve the interests of women, for they are either not in top positions of the government, or are, despite being women, not necessarily concerned about women’s rights (Burnet, 2011, p.330). For these reasons, electoral gender quotas need to require female candidates to go through a non-partisan competency assessment that evaluates their commitment to gender justice and potential contributions. Such an evaluation process is particularly necessary to make certain that those benefiting from gender quotas play a leading role in bettering women’s lives and promoting gender equality. It is imperative that female legislators, once appointed, are empowered enough to make and implement policies favouring equal rights for women. Otherwise, electoral quotas are very likely to remain formalistic and ineffective, which is nothing more than a public relations gimmick. Provided that such requirements are met, women’s representation in government can have a positive and sustained impact on society.

Whereas it is essential to make laws and policies favourable to gender equality, it is of paramount importance to incorporate feminist perspectives into all stages of law and policy-making processes. Electoral quotas should not be construed as simply having more women in government for quantitative results (Debusscher and Ansoms, 2013, p.1123), but as improving the quality of women’s lives for their own sake. I reiterate that gender equality stands for empowering women to have an equal footing with men in both the public and private spheres of life. Without having a clear understanding of what gender equality means to women themselves, quota systems may only ensure superficial gender equality on paper. As Africa’s support for gender quotas is rapidly growing, now is the time for its leaders to place emphasis not only on the mere inclusion of women, but also on the transformation of social norms that perpetuate unequal gender and power relations. It is anticipated then that quotas can serve as a stepping stone towards a gender-equal society.


Abbott, P. and Malunda, D. (2015) The Promise and the Reality: Women’s Rights in Rwanda. African Journal of International and Comparative Law, 24 (4), pp.561-581.

Burnet, J. (2011) Women Have Found Respect: Gender Quotas, Symbolic Representation and Female Empowerment in Rwanda. Politics & Gender, 7 (3), pp.303-334.

Debusscher, P. and Ansoms, A. (2013) Gender Equality Policies in Rwanda: Public Relations or Real Transformations?. Development and Change, 44 (5), pp.1111-1134.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. (2017) Women in National Parliaments. [Online] Available at: