The Silent Revolution in the Parliaments of Latin America and Africa


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I was recently doing some research on the state of women in political office. As usual, I went to the IPU database on Women in Parliaments and when I looked at the top ten countries with the highest number of women in parliament something startled me: seven out of the top ten countries are neither located in Europe nor are they Western advanced democracies for that matter. Based on the percentage of women in the lower parliament, the top ten (as of May 1, 2014) are:

  1. Rwanda (63.8%)
  2. Andorra (50%)
  3. Cuba (48.9%)
  4. Sweden (45%)
  5. South Africa (44.8%)
  6. Seychelles (43.8%)
  7. Senegal (43.3%)
  8. Finland (42.5%)
  9. Nicaragua (42.4%)
  10. Ecuador (41.6%)

Yet looking at the discourse on gender and politics, especially in the United States, two topics have been remarkably steady in the past decade: First, Scandinavian countries (especially Sweden) are the leaders in gender equality – both for numbers of women in politics and for progressive gender equality policies such as family leave policies; and second, Rwanda is the poster child as the only country that has achieved not just gender parity in parliament but a gender majority. Both topics are important: yes, Rwanda has achieved an incredible improvement when it comes to gender equality and yes, Scandinavian countries are great role models on how to get gender equality policies right – yet few people are talking about the other surprising and steady trend that has emerged in the past ten years: The increase of women in political office in non-Western countries while the numbers in Western countries have remained stagnant or rose only slightly.

A little bit more than a decade ago, at the end of 2000, the top 10 consisted of:

  1. Sweden (42.7%)
  2. Denmark (37.4%)
  3. Finland (36.5%)
  4. Norway (36.4%)
  5. Netherlands (36%)
  6. Iceland (34.9%)
  7. Germany (30.9%)
  8. New Zealand (30.8%)
  9. Mozambique (30%)
  10. South Africa (29.8%)

Not only did we see an increase of women in parliament across the board (the top 10 averaged 34.5% in parliament in 2000 compared to 46.61% today) but that increase has primarily taking place in non-Western countries. While the percentage of women in Western parliament has remained stagnant or rose only slightly, non-Western countries particular in Africa significantly improved their share of women in parliament over the same period. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand roughly gained 2-3% since 2000 while Finland, Germany, and Iceland managed to grow by 6-7%.

In the same time frame, Mozambique and South Africa gained 9% and 15% respectively while Rwanda more than doubled their share of female representatives from 25.7% to 63.8% women in parliament. So did little Andorra (and the only Western country to do so) raising their percentage from a mere 7.1% to 50%. Likewise, Senegal saw an increase of 31.2% from 12.1% women in parliament to 43.3%. In Cuba, women gained roughly 21% in parliament seats and the Seychelles similarly increased their share from 23.5% to 43.8%. While Nicaragua saw an increase of 32.% and Ecuador one of 27%. We need to widen our conversation and discussion on women in politics beyond Rwanda and Scandinavia and investigate the causes and conditions that prompted these encouraging changes across all these countries.

Surely, gender quotas have played a role: Senegal, Ecuador, and Nicaragua have quotas that mandate that candidate lists must alternate between men and women, effectively prescribing a 50% quota. Yet these advances cannot solely be attributed to quotas alone. Most countries, notably Rwanda, have a quota of not more than 30% (see Global Quota Database) or only voluntary party quotas. As such, these countries not only fulfill their quota requirements but surpass them. Other factors must be at play whether these are slow changes in cultural attitudes, recent historical experiences (such as civil war and/or genocide), or substantial improvements in socioeconomic conditions enabling women to finally run for office and succeed in being elected. The list of potential explanations is long but it is time that we investigate these trends more closely and ask: what happened in the past decade that prompted such a tremendous shift in rankings? Why did some countries – most notably Rwanda, Andorra, Senegal, Nicaragua and Ecuador – saw such a dramatic increase of women in parliaments? If quotas are responsible, what prompted these countries to adopt such drastic legislative quotas compared to other less stringent quota measures? And maybe even more importantly, what can we in Western countries learn from it?

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