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Gender Quotas and Backlash

Hilary Matfess
Global Fellow
4 MINS READMar 19, 2018 | 21:04 GMT
FETHI BELAID / Stringer / Getty Images

Recent decades have seen a notable rise in the number of countries with quotas for women in politics; the Quota Project tallies 128 countries that have adopted gender quotas in politics. These quotas can take the form of legislated quotas, voluntary quotas at the party level, and the reservation of seats for female representatives. Pippa Norris and Drude Dahlerup identified three waves in the adoption of gender quotas.

The first, in spanning the 1950s-1970s was largely driven by communist states and often relied on voluntary party quotas; the second, in the 1990s, often involved legislated quotas and was driven by the sort of sentiment that lead to Hillary Clinton proclaiming at the Beijing Conference that “women’s rights are human rights;” the third wave, as defined by Norris, is still nascent and could take a number of forms. Work done by Aili Mari Tripp in sub-Saharan Africa has highlighted the role that conflict can play in facilitating the adoption of gender quotas and accelerating women’s empowerment efforts.

Some research suggests that female legislators have different priorities than their male counterparts, highlighting that female legislators are more frequently advocates for women’s and children’s issues. Furthermore, increasing gender equality and improving women’s status is believed to reduce a country’s likelihood of conflict.

Less explored is the potential backlash that these female legislators face. An emergent strand of political violence research highlights the violence directed at female politicians as a distinct form of violence. This type of violence seems shockingly widespread. Consider a survey of female Members of Parliament (MPs) in 39 countries found that 40% had “received threats of kidnap, assault, rape, death, or the abduction of their children while in office.” This survey also found that 80% had suffered “humiliating sexual or sexist remarks” and 20% reported being victims of sexual violence.

Kenya’s recent elections provided a case study of how gender quotas intersect with this new study of violence against female politicians. Research done by Marie Berry, Yolande Bouka, and Marilyn Muthoni Kamuru found that female candidates and their supporters “are being uniquely targeted, and in gender-specific ways.” Based off of extensive qualitative interviews with these female politicians, their staff, and their supporters, the researchers conclude that the objective of targeting female politicians is “to turn back progress ushered in by a new gender quota, implemented as part of a 2010 constitutional overhaul, that has vaulted more women into positions of power in Kenya than ever before.” Once elected, these women continue to face gendered violence; Elizabeth Manyala, a Kenyan representative, reported that she was hospitalized after a fellow politician “slapped her and smashed her into a wall” for her refusal to “reallocate funding from the county women’s caucus to one of his pet projects.”

While the idea that reforms intended to empower women might make them more vulnerable to gendered violence is counter-intuitive, the potential to ‘backlash’ against women’s advancement is well documented. Drawing on the experiences of American women, Susan Faludi observed in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women that “the anti-feminism backlash has been set off not by women's achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finishing line.” Assuming that women’s empowerment will be met with enthusiastic approval, across a variety of global contexts, overlooks the historical record - and puts women at risk by failing to provide them with the appropriate tools to defend themselves.

The solution to the issue of violence against female politicians isn’t to stop advocating for women to have a seat at the table, but to ensure that they can do so safely. This requires understanding the specific types of violence that female politicians face and to mitigate the risks of their participation in politics. Broader sensitization efforts, among male politicians and communities more generally, are necessary to help shift gender norms and help prevent a violent backlash against female politicians.

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