Why gender quotas will not end inequality

By Natalie Domaas
Sub-Saharan Africa analyst

When discussions about women’s political representation arise, countries with high levels of female parliamentarians are often cited as shining examples for what gender quotas can do to help achieve gender equality. Gender quotas are laws that state that a certain number of candidates or elected officials who are running for Parliamentary seats must be women.[1] This is typically done through either candidate quotas- where political parties must have a minimum percent of female candidates up for election- or through reserved seats- where a certain number of seats in the legislature are reserved for women.[2] African countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), have a historical track record of having gender quotas in place. Ghana was the first country to institute gender quotas in 1960, and since 2003 Rwanda has consistently ranked as one of the top countries for women’s political representation due to a law that states that 30% of all parliamentary seats must be held by women.[3] However, having a certain number of female parliamentarians does not guarantee that a country will become more equal regarding rights and opportunities for women. Why then do countries with a high percentage of female parliamentarians often also have high levels of gender inequality?

In SSA, five countries (Rwanda, South Africa, Namibia, Senegal, Mozambique) have women parliamentarians that hold more than 40% of electoral seats, with Rwanda having more than 60%, which is the highest in the world.[4] These five countries have a higher rate of female representation in their lower houses of parliament than countries such as Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Belgium, and Denmark.[5] While this is a successful feat that should be replicated in other countries, unfortunately these high levels of political representation do not translate to wider implementations of gender equality and equal opportunity. Even though the five countries listed above all have over 40% of their parliamentary seats be held by women, they all rank within the bottom 90 countries out of 189 on the Gender Inequality Index (GII).[6] The following table shows how each of the five countries compares between its percent of parliamentary seats held by women and its ranking on the GII: 

CountryPercent of Parliament Seats Held by WomenGender Inequality Index Global Rank
South Africa45.8%93

Source: IPU Parline, “Monthly Ranking of Women in National Parliaments as of January 2021” and UNDP “Gender Inequality Index 2019/2020”.

A reason for this discrepancy between a high number of women in parliament and a high level of gender inequality has to do with how candidate quotas are often not complementary to more authoritarian systems of government. Of the five SSA countries mentioned, most of them operate under a “dictatorship of the majority” where a select few elites rotate between positions of power, such as the presidency, but through unfair and inequal democratic processes.[7] While this election system can create the appearance of a democracy, especially one in which women can win parliamentary seats, a majority of decision-making power is still controlled by a small mostly male elite minority. Many times, candidate quotas are put in place during constitutional review processes in countries after conflict or a reorganisation of government has taken place. However, many times these quotas are performative, and are used as a way for governments to show that their country is on track for “progress”, especially if that country continues to have a pseudo-democratic style of governance. It is often thought that the election of female parliamentarians will help usher in more opportunities for equality, and while this sometimes happens and can help change societal thinking around what positions can be held by women, it is often performative in order to show that a country is on track to becoming more gender equal. Meanwhile, in many cases the reality on the ground for most women is that they still suffer from uneven wages, low education rates, and high levels of sexual assault.[8]

The real issue is not with the existence of candidate quotas themselves, but rather in how they can be applied to less democratic systems of governance and used as a way for these countries to show that they are committed towards progress on a surface level, all while distracting from more systemic anti-democratic issues. This begs the question: how can it be ensured that equal representation is actually beneficial on a multi-scalar level in non-democratic countries that install candidate quotas?

One key solution to this problem could be to ensure that the platforms on which female candidates and their parties campaign on are based in advancing gender sensitive legislation once in office. Gender sensitive legislation can take many forms, such as legal quotas to further advance women’s political participation, equal parental authority and rights after divorce, as well as laws offering legal protection to women after domestic violence, rape, and/or sexual harassment.[9] However, if elected, candidates and parties must be dedicated to following through on such campaign promises which can often be difficult to achieve due to elite hierarchies that could already be in place within the parliamentary structure and a lack of knowledge from female candidates on how to manoeuvre those hierarchies. This is where education and training from women’s organisations can prove to be invaluable. In many countries, especially those with emerging democratic movements, women’s organisations are bottom-up initiatives that invest time and resources for female candidates, who can campaign on pushing forward a gender sensitive agenda while simultaneously acting as representatives towards the wider community to show what women are capable of achieving outside of the confines of traditional gender stereotypes.[10] It is these community initiatives that are led by women advocates which can help shift the tides in countries that have a “dictatorship of the majority”, and begin to shift the parliamentary representation to not only be more gender equal, but to have female parliamentarians in power who will continue to work and advocate for legislation that aims to create a more equal society through gender sensitive legislation. 

Candidate quotas as a standalone concept should not be abandoned. In fact, countries should continue to pursue adopting such laws into their electoral systems, regardless of how democratic the countries are. This is because while candidate quotas interact with existing forms of government in different ways and yield various outcomes regarding their effectiveness in bridging the gap between men and women, they are a crucial first step in allowing female led community organisations to step into the public sphere and begin enacting change in slow incremental steps from a bottom-up perspective that can manifest itself into sustainable, long-term change.


[1] Asiedu et al., “The Effect of Women’s Representation in Parliament and the Passing of Gender Sensitive

Policies,” University of Kansas, page 5, accessed 13 April 2021.

[2] Ibid., 8

[3] Ibid., 5 and UN Women “Revisiting Rwanda Five Years After Record-Breaking Parliamentary Elections,” 13 August 2018.

[4] IPU Parline, “Monthly Ranking of Women in National Parliaments as of January 2021,” accessed 13 April 2021.

[5] Ibid. 

[6] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Gender Inequality Index 2019/2020,” access 13 April 2021. 

[7] Mebeelo Kafungwa, “Is Democracy in Africa a ‘Dictatorship of the Majority’?”, Peace & Progress UNU Graduate Student Journal, accessed 15 April 2021.  

[8] UNDP “Gender Inequality Index 2019/2020”

[9] Asiedu et al., 25.

[10] Ibid, 25-26.

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