Gender quotas: The writing has long been on the wall


Sunday, March 23, 2014    

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Where a woman rules, streams run uphill. — Ethiopian proverb

RECENTLY, there have been a lot of discussions on what is being called gender quotas for women in Jamaica's houses of Parliament. The polemic has been mostly one-sided and absent of real data to buttress arguments.

This could be due to a number of reasons. Some commentators may just be 'floating with the tide', as Ralph Butler titles one of his hit songs, others have been playing the politically correct card, probably for personal reasons, while some don't seem to have a straightforward view on the subject.

That we must have a debate on the subject is not a debate, but the arguments that are to determine the outcome of that debate must be checked vigorously for their veracity and logical application. Whatever the arguments for or against, the discussion must be divorced of emotion, religious obfuscation and political sankey singing.

It's against that background that I will present some of the major augments for and against gender quotas which are achieved in largely two ways -- voluntarily or through legislation. The trump card argument for those who support the concept is that quotas are empirically the most effective way of achieving a better balance. I suspect they are arguing from a perspective of historical restoration, or what some people call affirmative action.

Women have been historically deprived of many rights. As a matter of fact, women did not get the basic right to vote until the 1930s in some countries. While this argument is strong, those who oppose gender quotas rebut by pinpointing that gender quotas are discriminatory against men.

They go as far as reasoning that women are trying to achieve a kind of 'reverse vengeance' on men for the historical barriers that have been put in the path of women progressing up the political, business and social ladders.

The supporters of gender quotas also argue that legislated quotas can circumvent conservative party leadership. This is also a strong point, since most conservative parties throughout the world tend to have a kind of patriarchal and hegemonic leadership qualification system which excludes women from journeying to the top.

Margaret Thatcher was perhaps the most notable and successful exception, having won three straight general elections as head of the British Conservative Party, or Tories. While this is a cogent point, opponents say gender quotas usually result in less competent individuals assuming the reins of power simply because there are fewer qualified women from whom to choose. They argue that these women are often less respected and have moderate or no power.

Proponents of gender quotas say once women are elected they serve as role models for other women. Opponents rebut with the argument that basic freedom of choice of voters is taken away if a certain number of seats or positions is reserved for women. Proponents counter by saying that rather than limiting or taking away choice, gender quotas give voters a chance to elect both men and women. In so doing, they argue, the freedom of choice is not limited but enhanced.

Additionally, proponents maintain that when women are represented in decision-making at the highest levels, they can help to remove many of the enshrined barriers against female mobility. Opponents of gender quotas counter by saying that the wrong women benefit; these they identify as daughters, sisters, cousins and kinfolk of traditional male politicians and not those with true competencies in particular areas of decision-making.

Opponents further add that gender quotas encourage women to compete against women rather than struggle together for more influence.

The pros and the cons go on and on like a see-saw. I support Senator Imani Duncan-Price in her call for gender quotas in our houses of Parliament. To argue otherwise would fly in the face of the overwhelming evidence and best practice around the globe.

During the 1990s, 11 Latin American countries passed legislation requiring a minimum level of 20 per cent to 40 per cent women candidates in national elections. Argentina was the first country in the region to introduce a 30 per cent quota and has been among the most successful.

In Bolivia, a similar electoral law with quota of 30 per cent was introduced in 1997. Six African countries -- Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, and Morocco -- introduced gender quota requirements. The constitution of Tanzania states that a certain number of parliamentary seats [not less than 20 per cent and not more than 30 per cent] are reserved for women. In the 1995 Constitution of Uganda, one parliamentary seat from each of the 39 districts is reserved for women [13 per cent], resulting in an increase in women's political representation.

The Government of Belgium passed an electoral law in 1994 that 1/3 of the candidates on the electoral lists would be women in 1999. In Morocco, 10 per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for women [following the October 2002 elections, the number of female parliamentarians increased from two to 35, a record in the Arab world].

In Bangladesh, 30 or nine per cent of seats out of 330 are reserved for women, while in Eritrea 10 of 105 seats are reserved for females.

In South Africa, a municipal act states that political parties must ensure that women comprise 50 per cent of the list submitted for local level elections. Nepal laws specify that five per cent of each political party or organisation [Single Member District] must be women according to the Constitution and the electoral law.

In Norway, the Labour Party adopted the principle of quota in 1981 and in 1983 amended party statues to read: "In all elections and nominations at least 40 per cent of each sex must be elected." In Greece, two government bills were passed by the Parliament in 2002 that required a compulsory participation of at least 1/3 of both sexes on the list of candidates for municipal elections.

The percentage of women candidates on the list for elections increased from 14 per cent in 1998 to 34 per cent in 2002. At the local level, the percentage of women in the regional councils went from 11 per cent to 18 per cent. In 1994, the Australian Labour Party adopted a quota for pre-selections whereby women constitute 35 per cent of all its parliamentary seats by 2002.

In France, a 1999 constitutional amendment established equal access by women and men to elective office where 50 per cent of candidates on the list forwarded must be women. To add teeth to these laws, political parties face financial penalties if they do not comply.

In 2002, Pakistan amended its laws mandating that 17 per cent of all parliamentary seats be reserved for females. A significant number of Nordic countries' political parties [as well as Green and Social Democrats] now have systems including a 50 per cent quota introduced by the Swedish Social Democratic Party in 1993. In 1994, the Swedish Social Democratic Party introduced the 'Zebra' principle of listing a female on every second line of the party list.

This is one instance in which following fashion is equivalent to drinking good soup.

The writing has long been on the wall. Jamaica and the Caribbean are well behind the rest of the world where the acceptance and implementation of gender quotas are concerned. The fact that 51 per cent of our population is female and over 70 per cent of our university student population are female means that women in Jamaica are disproportionately represented in our Parliament where only 16 per cent are female.

As an enticement for more females in our Parliament we need to change our politics, which has been described by former Prime Minister PJ Patterson as "a fight for scare benefits and spoils carried on by hostile tribes which seem to be perpetually at war". Minister of youth and culture Lisa Hanna describes local politics as "blood sport". This cannot be a carrot for greater involvement of women in politics. Senator Dr Nigel Clarke makes a very valid point that, "Politics is a bad word in Jamaica, and, as a result, many categories of qualified persons, including women, have retreated from the public space".

The funding of political parties needs serious consideration and examination also, since our present systems are barriers to the participation of women in politics and decision-making at the highest levels.

In revising our statutes to include gender quotas, we need to take great care to ensure that quality is not exchanged for quantity. The leadership bar must and cannot be lowered. In the final analysis we must never lose sight of the fact that men and women must work as equal partners to ensure the development of societies.

A woman is a flower in a garden; her husband is the fence around it. - Ghanaian Proverb

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Comments to





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