Gender quotas have for long been used as a vehicle to ensure women’s representation in politics. In Kenya, gender quotas were introduced by the 2010 Constitution. Although there is a considerable number of women in politics as a result, the two-thirds gender rule as stipulated in the Constitution is yet to be implemented.
As Kenyan women continue to push for the full implementation of the constitutional requirement, some questions beg answers. How best can gender parity be achieved? One of the ways that has been proposed over the years and by some scholars in Kenya is gender quotas. Quota systems are usually intended at ensuring that women constitute a certain number or percentage of the members of a body, whether it is a candidate list, a parliamentary assembly, a committee, or a government.
It is largely agreed that women’s access to decision-making bodies is likely to lead to a more women-friendly agenda. To the supporters of gender quotas, the appointment of women brings special and unique qualities to the political process, which benefits society by creating more balanced and integrated decision-making bodies.
Additionally, quotas make people aware of gender imbalances in societal institutions, which in turn helps counter the illusion that all people have equal access if they are qualified, that institutions are gender neutral, and that fair representation is possible without particular interventions.
However, this rosy view of gender quotas for women, while widely supported, is rarely examined. Do numbers of women in legislatures in fact translate into power to implement a feminist agenda? Or are women only window-dressing in legislatures controlled by male patriarchs?
Studies in some countries that have applied quotas have shown that although the quota system in countries such as Rwanda and Uganda has significantly enhanced women’s presence in representative politics, the ability of the nominated women to influence public policy has been curtailed by patronage. Because women appointed through quotas tend to owe their allegiance to the party leaders who nominated them, they have been unable to champion women’s interests, especially if the issues are not supported by the generally male party leadership. In fact, in Uganda for example, women representatives have previously been forced to support Bills that are discriminatory towards women, particularly those related to access to land.
This poor outcome is not a worldwide feature. Studies on developed countries demonstrate that an increase in women legislators leads to a prioritisation in health, an increase in social policy spending, decrease in poverty, and passage of women-friendly policies.
Nevertheless, quotas are an important mechanism through which women today are entering into public office worldwide. Besides, gender quotas have helped overcome constraints traditionally posed by economic underdevelopment, authoritarianism, cultural influences, and even the electoral system.
Dr Wambui is a lecturer at the African Women Studies Centre, University of Nairobi