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Essay: Barriers that hinder women’s active political participation

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Political quotas and their effectiveness in promoting gender equitable policies are subject to continuously ongoing discourse. This essay will attempt to answer the question of women’s political quotas and whether they help to promote more gender equitable policies. In order to fully answer the question, the paper will first provide a brief historical background to gendered representation. Following that, the essay will discuss the existing barriers that hinder women’s active political participation. Once these barriers have been identified, the study will present a balanced picture on the quota debate by demonstrating both the for and against arguments. Before wrapping with a conclusion of why political quotas are necessary to promote more gender equitable policies, the paper will present the practical case study of Argentina to reemphasis what the quota system looks like in a real setting and what its impact has been to gender equitable policies.

Women’s barriers to political participation:

Women’s political participation has become a core pillar of the international feminist agenda following women’s suffragette movements across the globe during the 20th century. Since the mid 20th century, women have thrived and made momentous progress globally not only in their education and labour market participation but also in their political engagement and involvement. As a result of women’s suffrage, the female proportion of registered voters continue to rise globally. For instance, in the USA higher female than men voter turnout has been recorded in all elections since the 1980s (CAWP,2015). Despite these crucial progresses being made in terms of women’s political participation globally, this has not interpreted into substantial boosts of female leaderships in the political sphere. Whilst it is acknowledgeable that few women (i.e. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK prime minister Theresa May) have climbed to the top of the political power, on a global scale as of today only 27.1% of parliamentary representatives are women. (IPU,2017).

In order to ascertain how effective political quotas are in bringing about positive gender equitable policies, it is crucial to examine the different barriers that either limit or undermine women’s political participation, leaving them marginalised at decision-making levels. Obstacles faced by women in enabling their political participation differs dependant on the individual’s geographic location, socio-economic status, culture as well as the type of political system she is within. Women as a collective group are not homogenous; there are significant disparities between them based on education, class, race, ethnicity as well as cultural backgrounds (Shvedova, 1994). What women have in common though is that when they wish to actively participate in politics by being part of the legislature, they often encounter the hostility and unkindness of the political, public, cultural and social environment. The common problems faced by women can be categorised under four different problem categories: political culture, socio-economic, ideological and socio-cultural. In this section, the essay will closer look at these barriers.

1. Political culture and financial circumstances as barriers to women’s political participation:

Although, most women have the right to vote and the right to stand for office in elections, women continue to be highly underrepresented in parliament all over the world. With the predominant masculinisation of the political culture and the elected legislative bodies, men tend to monopolise the arena of politics by creating and recreating the rules of politics whilst also defining the benchmarks for its evaluation. Political culture is also largely centralised around male values, lifestyles and norms. Parliamentary working schedules and patterns that often require late night work and travelling are more accustomed to male-breadwinners with little or no caring responsibilities often resulting in lacking supporting measures for working mothers, leaving them struggling to strike achievable work/life balances. Instead of standardised unity and collaboration, the political culture often revolves around competition and conflict, in particular across political parties. This often concludes in women systematically refusing to participate male-dominated politics or politics altogether or when they do they tend do it in minuscule numbers. This male created and dominated political arena results in women’s lack of leadership aspirations. Not seeing other women fulfil identical roles potentially demotivates women from attempting to fulfil leadership roles or gives them the impression that these positions are not within their reach. According to Constantini (1990) women activists in the US have significantly lower political leadership aspirations than their male counterparts. The lack of successful female role models and predecessors also pose as a potential barrier to women’s political participation as there is no demonstration that it is an area where women can become successful. The scarcity of party support also hinders women’s political participation. Despite women playing crucial roles in campaigning and rallying support for their political parties, few women are in decision-making positions within the party. Few women benefit from party resources for election campaigning, with financial support being very scarce to women. Lack of financial support have substantial negative impacts on women’s participation. Lack of education and opportunities to make a living and to gain financial control of the family restricts women from becoming active members of the political life of their country (Ansari, 2013). Campaigning and elections with family commitments such as child care for extended periods of time come with high costs, often making it very difficult for women to run in an election. Whilst in some developed countries such as the US and Canada legislation enables parties to approve childcare and other campaign related expenses, this is not the case in most developing countries. Financing campaigns demonstrate tremendous challenges to women who either have no access to such great funds or have limited networks to allow them to raise these funds. (OAS, 2003). As financial stability promotes higher female political participation, women from lower economic statuses with little or no education tend to be marginalised by the political sphere. Women from Western countries with university education and a middle-class status have a far greater chance of entering politics than their female comrades from rural villages of developing countries who have received minimal education and have no financial security. Party nominations also tend to be discriminative towards women. An ‘old boys’ club’ type of culture can prevent women from entering the political sphere by not listing them as viable candidates therefore disabling them from accessing financial resources of the party. Sushma Swaraj, an Indian MP described how difficult for a woman it is to enter politics. Even after overcoming family obstacles to enter politics, male competitors make up derogatory stories about the woman in an attempt to defame her, resulting in party leaders not advocating for them due to their apprehension in losing the seat (Swaraj, 2012).

2. Ideological barriers to female political participation:

Diverse cultural and religious values also greatly impact women’s political empowerment. Patriarchal societies such as Pakistan maintain a system where the male sex dominates over the female one. This immensely influences women’s status and rights within their society. Based on Rich’s (1997) definition of the patriarchal ideologies, women are in charge of household chores and are the primary care takers within the family whilst men are responsible for working within the public sphere. This covers decision making, financial earnings and benefiting from political rights and obligations (Bari, 2005). This results in women being confined to purely domestic and family obligations within the private sphere whilst their male family members practice their entrenched social and political rights within the public sphere. Politics in patriarchal societies is regarded as a primary part of men’s life only which results in low female political participation in the country’s political life (National Commision for the status of Women, 2010).

3. Socio-cultural impacts on women’s political empowerment:

Whilst most countries today have legislation in place to allow their adult citizens to cast their votes regardless of their individual circumstances; there are multiply socio-cultural norms and practices in place that restrict members of society from becoming politically active voters. For instance, women in rural Pakistan and India mainly allocate their votes to candidates supported by their male family members (husbands, fathers, uncles) or male community leaders (i.e. religious leader). Due to their familial and financial dependence women are unable to fully exercise their right to vote (Dean et al, 2005). According to Naz and Khan (2011) social logistical issues are also prevent women from casting their votes. Some of these issues are: lack of Identity Cards, absence of women’s name in the voter registry lists and absence of photos on ID cards. Bari (2005) and Ansari (2013) also demonstrate how religion is used as a means to justify and promote the isolation and partition of women from the public sphere. Ansari (2013) highlights that in Pakistan women wearing burqas are pressured to show their faces to male staff members at polling stations which lead to women deterring their right vote. Additionally, women’s domestic responsibilities place heavy burdens on their shoulders which impacts on their political activism. As women are primary child bearers and also fulfil caring responsibilities to their children and older relatives whilst also perform all domestic duties, little time is left for them to be provided with an opportunity to part-take in political processes (Naz et al, 2012).

The quota system and its introduction:

To address the historical underrepresentation of women in government and to increase women’s political participation, around half of the countries in the world today introduced some type of quota system for their legislature in the past 20 years (IDEA, 2009). These quota systems resulted in an unprecedented increase in female leadership globally. This section of the essay will briefly look at the history and different types of quotas.

As a response to the feminist and civil society movements to raise awareness on women’s political rights, in 1990 the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council set the target for female representation in parliament at 30%, reachable by 1995. At the 1995 UN’s Beijing Conference on Women, governments were instructed to “ensure equal representation of women at all decision-making levels in national and international institutions” (Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995). As a result, political quotas started to globally emerge as a feasible and suitable policy option with the central objectives being to engage women in political positions whilst ensuring that women are not only tokens within the political sphere.

There are three main types of political quotas: voluntary party quotas, candidate quotas and reserved seats quotas. In the instance of voluntary party quotas, political parties commit themselves to ensuring that a certain percentage of their electoral candidates are women. Candidate quotas are constitutional and impose that a minimum number of positions must be held for female candidates. Reserved seats support the regulation of the number of seats women are elected to as these are positions for which only female candidates can contest.

Due to the differences in political systems and political histories across geographic regions there is substantial diversities in the types of quotas used based geographic locations and regions and significant regional differences in the number of elected female representatives.

Nordic countries were the first countries to initiate political quotas. In 1975, the Socialist Left Party of Norway introduced a 40% minimum target for women’s representation on the electoral lists and their initiative was soon followed by other Norwegian parties as well as by Denmark and Sweden. Historically, women’s representation has been relatively high in these countries even prior to the introduction of quotas in the 90s. Quotas in these countries were an additional tool to further reinforce women’s representation (Ballington et al, 2005). Most Western countries have introduced voluntary party quotas apart from the US who does not apply any political quotas (Somani, 2013). Whilst female representation is continually on the rise in most Western countries (UK 32%, France 39%, Germany 31%), the US lags behind in female representation with only 19.5% of elected officials being women (IPU, 2018). Following the 1990s, political quotas have been on the rise in Latin America (starting with Argentina), mostly in the form of legislated candidate quotas. Quota adaption was promoted in these countries by the adaption of democracy during the 1980s which enabled the emergence of feminist and civil rights activist groups (Ballington, 2003). Currently 40% of elected representative are women in Argentina and 53% in Bolivia. In Africa, various quotas have been introduced over the past decades. Rwanda leads the way with 61.3% of political representatives being women (IPU, 2018). Countries in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) also widely implemented political quotas with the main one being the reserved seats approach. South Asia is also the predominant implementer of quotas at the local levels. In the Middle East where cultural and religious aspects continue to hinder women’s participation in the public sphere, quotas have been met with little encouragement. Notable exception is Israel who implemented voluntary quotas and currently 27.5% of elected representatives are women (IPU,2018).

The Strengths and Limitation of the Quota System:

Before discussing the impact quotas have on creating gender equitable policies, the essay will turn to evaluating the strengths and limitations of the quota system, exploring what quotas are able to and not able to accomplish. As the political quota system is a highly disputed method, there are a number of diverse arguments both for and against the establishment of quotas to enhance the political participation of women (IDEA, 2009).

Some of the arguments against the use of political quotas:

Whilst quotas continue to be implemented by more countries, there are opposing views who argue against the introduction of quotas for female representation. These are some but not all of the arguments used by critiques against the implementation of political quotas:

Critiques argue that quotas tend to bolster cultural ideas of essentialism whereby women representing women result in women being unable to represent men and other minority groups or that women are unable to speak for all categories of women (Mansbridge, 2005). The dangers of essentialism have been outlined in Argentina where although the gender quota has resulted in increased female members of parliament, this was mainly due to the sex of candidates and the constitutional requirements. Their commonalities were not only based on their gender but also their educational and familial backgrounds. This seems to indicate that in terms of policy implications representatives with middle and upper-class backgrounds cannot adequately represent the needs of working class women (Piscopo, 2012). Therefore, anti-quota believers suggest that the introduction of quotas based on gender can result in the marginalisation of other ethnic and socioeconomics classes. The reservation of particular political positions for women mean that there will be less places available for representatives of other classes and groups that are also marginalised therefore their voices and views being further limited in the political sphere.

Critiques also claim that a political quota system is biased in favour of female representatives and quotes go directly against the principle of equal opportunity for all. They argue that it is a form of discrimination against men who would have succeeded winning particular seats if it were not for the existing quota requirements as women who are not present in the political life of their country choose to be absent from the political sphere. In this political context quotas are regarded as an undemocratic means of representation as they impose an individual instead of being democratically elected. They also highlight that by allocating positions based on a quota system undermine the value of female representatives as they are merely appointed due to their sex and not based on their qualification or experience (Jones, 2005).

Some of the arguments for the use of political quotas are the following:

Quotas are regarded as the most efficient way of achieving a more gender sensitive and gender balanced representative system in national parliaments. Women as citizens have the right to equal representation as they make up approximately 50% of a nation’s population. The biggest progresses made towards this equal political representation of the sexes in most countries have happened since the introduction of political quotas (Dahlerup and Freidenvall, 2005). Rwanda’s case highlights these gender balance improvements well. Following the introduction of quotas in 2003, 48.75% of parliamentary seats were held by women in contrast to the pre-quota era in 1994 where only 11.4% of seats were occupied by women (Devlin and Elgie, 2008). Miller (2008) argues that women are ought to have equal rights to equal representation and research suggests that with increased female political participation, policy outcomes shift towards previously not represented groups. Miller (2008) demonstrates that in the US a boost in female political participation directly resulted in rising budget allocations in healthcare and education. Boards and committees with female leaders tend to allocate budgets differently to boards with male leaders. This does not translate into better distribution of budgets, it simply shows that women and men allocate budgets on differently based on their policy preferences. Pande’s example of India highlights this very same development whereby political groups with mandated representatives from various caste groups saw increased budget allocations to their communities (Pande, 2003). Thus, a parallel can be drawn that a lack of female representation result in the marginalisation of women’s interests. By the introduction of quotas, raising the ratios of female leaders can be promoted therefore enhancing the policy interest representation of women.

The quota system also enables women to defy structural discriminations. Some critiques such as McDonagh (2002) and Rosenbluth et al (2006) argue that there are strong correlations between women’s representation and their comprehensive proportion of participation in labour and education. By enabling women to participate in the public sphere in positions different than their customarily anticipated domestic roles, represented women in the legislator can assist in the removal or restructuring of structural obstacles that prevent women from being appointed and elected. This can enable more women to not only actively participate in the labour market but also in the political life of their country (Bacchi, 2006). Whilst some consider the quota systems to be discriminative, others regard the introduction of the quota system as a mode of compensation for already existing prejudices limiting women’s access to political participation. Krook (2011) argues that the main reason for the low female representation is the structural discrimination they face therefore the implementation of quotas are not discriminating against the opposite sex but is an effort to neutralise the pre-established privileges of the male sex.

Women can be just as qualified as men but women’s qualifications are often degraded and underestimated in a male-dominated political system. According to Krook (2011) by introducing quotas already qualified women within parties who previously have been overlooked due to the traditional patriarchal criteria can become enabled to be shortlisted and chosen as elected candidates of their political party. By incorporating a more diverse pool of individuals in politics, the electorate gets a chance to vote from a wider variety of groups which would therefore also have implications for politics as quotas could potentially improve the competence of available candidates thus resulting in the rejuvenation of politics. The quota system has now been successfully implemented in many countries and no inexperienced or unqualified female leader has been delegated; however mandated female representatives have the chance to act as role models to other aspiring women. By seeing other women in leadership positions, other women may decide to follow their paths and choose to invest more in their education and career to increase their own human capital therefore potentially enhancing their aspirations beyond their traditional socially produced roles.


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