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Gender Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

More Than a Numbers Game: Gender Quotas in Africa’s Parliaments

2020 MARKS THE twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a seminal moment when world leaders committed to key principles that still guide global action to advance women’s rights.[i] The platform called for greater representation of women in all spheres of society and, more specifically, for countries to establish goals for gender balance in governmental bodies. There are now more women in parliament than at the declaration’s signing, with the world average increasing from 11 percent in 1995 to 24 percent in 2019. However, women remain underrepresented in most parliaments around the world.[ii]

African countries are often cited in international discourse on gender parity in public office because of the progress that certain nations have made and the legal mandates and quotas that have helped improve the representation of women. As a region, sub-Saharan Africa has kept pace with the global average of women serving in parliament, their representation having more than doubled since the Beijing Declaration from 10 percent in 1995 to 24 percent in 2019.[iii] Driving this progress regionally is the African Union’s Agenda 2063, launched in 2013, which explicitly calls for “an Africa, whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth,” and includes a focus on equal and effective women’s participation in leadership and governance.[iv]

In light of the anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and approaching the African Union’s Agenda 2063 upcoming ten-year anniversary in 2023, it is important to reflect not only on the purpose of gender parity in political representation, but also on the benefits and limits of the common policies that countries have implemented to achieve more equal representation in Africa. Representation quotas are one solution to gender imbalance issues in government office pursuant to the broader goal of gender equality in “all spheres of society.” However, the indicator of gender parity in public office can mask the power imbalances that continue to persist for women in all spheres, even for women in office, calling into question whether representation through quotas actually results in power parity in politics. Gender quotas may successfully increase the number of women in public office without addressing the root causes of gender inequality or the patriarchal culture within which quotas exist.


In 1989, Uganda became one of the first African countries to institute a gender quota law. By December 2018, Uganda had 40 percent female representation in parliament; increasing from 12 percent in 1989 and meeting the requirements of the Ugandan Constitution, which stipulates one woman representative for every district.[v] However, representation alone does not necessarily mean that Ugandan women elected to parliament because of a quota have equal power to their male counterparts. Recent analysis demonstrates that women elected to parliament through quotas in Uganda receive less recognition by name in parliamentary sessions compared to their non-quota elected male and female counterparts.[vi] In the study of Uganda’s parliament, name recognition can be a result of calling on a Minister of Parliament (MP) to make an intervention or referring to previous statements, accomplishments, or other matters related to an MP. As such, recognition serves as a measurement of whether one’s parliamentary colleagues recognize their contributions in meaningful ways and is a proxy for relative respect and authority within the chambers. The lack of name recognition of quota-elected women in Ugandan politics suggests that these women do not necessarily have equal policy influence within the legislative body even though they hold public office. Furthermore, quota-elected women that hold “reserved seats” are significantly less recognized than their female counterparts in non-reserved seats, suggesting that this lack of respect and authority can be attributed to the quota and not solely gender.[vii]


Rwanda leads the world with the highest proportion of women in parliament, achieving 61 percent female representation in 2019.[viii] In the time since Rwanda’s gender quota was introduced in 2003, mandating that 30 percent of representatives at all levels of government be women,[ix] Rwanda has made significant progress, surpassing 50 percent female representation in national parliament in 2008 and continuing to add more women in following elections.[x] This is a major improvement from the approximately 18 percent of parliamentary seats that were held by women in the 1990s.[xi] But many have noted that the country has become increasingly authoritarian under President Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and have questioned whether female representation in Rwandan parliament is being used “for purposes of political expediency and to rubber-stamp the government’s agenda.”[xii] Rwanda is not unique in this accusation of tokenism; in authoritarian and democratizing countries, the legislature may have little influence and gender quotas can be used by the ruling party to legitimize the regime’s authority domestically and internationally.[xiii]

While the number of women in Rwanda’s national parliament has exceeded the quota requirement, women’s representation has yet to achieve parity in other federal civil servant positions and is even less equal in local government where the constitutional requirement is seldom met.[xiv] Furthermore, many argue that progress on gender parity in parliament has not yet translated to gender equality in other spheres of life, supporting the observation that female representation may be more in service of the RPF’s agenda than comprehensive gender equality. Qualitative analysis based on one-on-one interviews 54 Women’s Policy Journal by Justine Uvuza, a former government official in Rwanda, found that women who held positions in public office were still treated as less than equal in private, domestic life.[xv] Rwandan women have played an important role in supporting peace and development as public servants, but numerical representation alone is an incomplete measure of gender equality and does not necessarily result in sufficient progress toward equality in other aspects of a woman’s life.


Quotas can get women elected into positions of power but do not in and of themselves guarantee voice and influence without additional structural and cultural change. This begs the question: when quotas are enacted but result in insufficient power or influence, what more can be done to make women’s voices heard? In democratic settings, evidence suggests that instating additional structural measures that ensure women have placements on certain decision-making committees once in office can advance their influence.[xvi] In Malawi, women played an important role in passing the HIV and AIDS Act and scrubbing it of problematic provisions, largely due to their involvement on the relevant committee. [xvii] Other analysis on the Ugandan parliament has recommended that the purpose of quotas should be rearticulated to better reflect a goal of gender equality in broader society.[xviii] A more normative understanding of gender quotas that is embedded in quota laws could make quota policies more effective in addressing gender inequality.

Despite the potential shortcomings of gender quotas in achieving equality for women, quotas are an important starting place for growing women’s power in Africa. While most African countries still have a long way to go until they achieve gender parity in parliament, simply having more women in positions of public leadership on the continent has made an impact. Moreover, an analysis based on a review of civic engagement indicators in 31 African countries suggests that greater representation of women in public office enhances women’s political participation and civic engagement.[xix] Having a gender quota helps cultivate a future generation of women who are more civically active and have greater political influence in the years to come through role modelling effects. Literature also shows that higher levels of women’s representation in government is associated with higher budget expenditures on public health[xx] and more durable post-conflict peace.[xxi]

While more women in parliamentary bodies should be applauded in Africa and in other parts of the world, it would be a mistake to solely judge the fight for women’s rights and political power based on these numbers. As demonstrated in Uganda and Rwanda, quotas place women in public office, but their power to influence policy making and pursue gender equality may still be limited. Harvard Kennedy School Academic Dean Iris Bohnet wrote, “Gender equality is not just a numbers game. Numbers matter, but how those numbers came to be and how they work with each other is quite possibly even more important.”[xxii] Quotas alone may not always be enough to advance women’s actual political power and achieve gender equality. Additional structural reforms are needed to ensure that women have not only a seat but also a voice at the table within parliamentary decision-making bodies. As the world embarks on the next 25 years of action on gender equality, progress on representation must catalyze a transformation in society that goes beyond numbers so that women everywhere are treated as equal.


[i] “The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,” (presented at The Fourth World Conference on Women, New York, NY, 4-15 September 1995), Beijing_Declaration_and_Platform_for_Action.pdf.

[ii] “Facts and figures: Leadership and political participation,” UN Women, accessed 15 January 2020, en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-andfigures# notes.

[iii] “Women in parliament in 2018: The year in review,” Inter- Parliamentary Union, 8 March 2019, accessed 15 January 2020, women-in-parliament-in-2018-year-in-review.

[iv] “Gender Equality & Development,” African Union, accessed 15 January 2020,

[v] “Uganda—Parliament,” Inter-Parliamentary Union, accessed 15 January 2020, id=13479.

[vi] Amanda Clayton, Cecilia Josefsson, and Vibeke Wang, “Present Without Presence? Gender, Quotas and Debate Recognition in the Ugandan Parliament, Representation,” 50:3, 379-392, DOI: 10.1080/00344893.2014.951232.

[vii] Clayton et al., “Present Without Presence?”

[viii] “Rwanda—Chamber of Deputies,” Inter-Parliamentary Union, accessed 15 January 2020, rwanda?chamber_id=13513.

[ix] Ravi Kumar, “These three countries significantly increased women parliamentarians,” Governance for Development, 7 March 2016, significantly-increased-women-parliamentarians.

[x] Alex Thornton, “These Countries Have the Most Women in Parliament,” World Economic Forum, 12 February 2019, https://www. the-most-women-in-parliament/.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Irene Ndung’u, “Does the dominance of women in Rwanda’s parliament signify real change?,” Institute for Security Studies, 12 November 2013, of-women-in-rwandas-parliament-signify-realchange.

[xiii] Lindsay J. Benstead, “In Tunisia, more women in office can make all the difference,” Washington Post, 6 July 2019, https://www. can-make-all-difference/.

[xiv] Ndung’u, “Real Change?”

[xv] Justine Uvuza, “Hidden Inequalities: Rwandan Female Politicians’ Experiences of Balancing Family and Political Responsibility,” (PhD thesis, Newcastle University, 2014), http://

[xvi] “Equality in Politics: A Survey of Women and Men in Parliaments,” Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2008, http://archive.ipu. org/PDF/publications/equality08-overview-e.pdf .

[xvii] Nic Cheeseman and Susan Dodsworth, “How to Get Women’s Voices Heard in African Politics,” Mail & Guardian, 23 July 2019, in-african-politics/

[xviii] Dina Refki and Diana Abbas, “Mapping the Substantive Representation of Women in Ugandan Parliament,” Wilson Center, 3 September 2014,

[xix] Erin Accampo Hern, “Gender and participation in Africa’s electoral regimes: An analysis of variation in the gender gap,” Politics, Groups, and Identities, (2018): 1–23, https://hollis. .1080/21565503.2018.1458323&context=PC&vid=HVD2&sear ch_scope=everything&tab=everything&lang=en_US

[xx] Amanda Clayton and Pär Zetterberg, “Quota Shocks: Electoral Gender Quotas and Government Spending Priorities Worldwide,” The Journal of Politics 8, no. 3 (2018), https://

[xxi] Sarah Shair-Rosenfield and Reed M. Wood, “Governing Well after War: How Improving Female Representation Prolongs Post-conflict Peace,” The Journal of Politics 79, no. 3, (2017), https://

[xxii] Iris Bohnet, What Works: Gender Equality by Design (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 8, dp/0674089030.