Has democracy failed women? Analyzing the efficiency of Gender Quotas

By Refiloe Joala

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the feminist movement, with a focus on the formal political spheres of state and political parties in a wide range of countries.   Waylen (1994:327) contends that any analysis of democratisation that fails to include a gendered perspective necessarily discards the actions of certain groups and in so doing is fundamentally flawed.

In a recent report by the aid organisation, Oxfam, it was stated that the rights of women in Afghanistan could be at risk as the United State’s and NATO troops are set to withdraw from the country and government prepares to enter talks with the Taliban to secure a peace deal.  In this report, Oxfam reported that while woman in Afghanistan make up 28% of the parliament, well above the percentage of women in parliament in some Western countries because of the Afghan quota system, the ordinary Afghan women does not necessarily enjoy the same rights as her Western counterpart.

Women in Afghanistan continue to be victims of violence.  Law that criminalises practices such as honour killings and child marriages has only been enacted in less than a third of the country’s 34 provinces.  What is more, scores of women have reported that they suffered “physical, sexual or psychological abuse and even forced marriages.  In addition, while 42% of young primary school age girls have been enrolled in schools since the 2001 US-led invasion, the Taliban continues to attack girls and inhibit the advances of women’s movements in the areas that they control.

Hassim (2009: 4) cites that although global consensus on the need to increase women’s representation followed as the outcome of women’s involvement in pro-democracy movements, the liberation movements that depended on women during their liberation struggle have abandoned their support for women’s interests once they come into power.  In South Africa for instance, the representation of women in parliament has proven insufficient in the advancement of women’s interests.  Despite having had a woman (Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka) serve as the country’s deputy President  under former President Thabo Mbeki between 2005 and 2008, this has not efficiently translated into  tangible improvements in the lives of women.

At the 10th Commission on Employment Equality Report, that was complied by the Department of Labour in July 2010 it was revealed that African women only occupy 3% of top management positions in the private sector, while Coloured and Indian women held only 1% respectively.  With the economic disparities as wide as they in South Africa, emancipation for the vast majority of women is far more basic than trying to change the numbers.  It has been reduced to gaining access to running water, electricity, decent housing and protection against the violations of physical abuse. The strides of the courageous generation of Albertina Sisulu and Helen Joseph have not yet been meaningfully acknowledged.

The protection of women’s basic human rights has not only been a contentious one with escalating levels of violence against women, but a digressive one as well. With one of the world’s highest rape statistics and being ranked third in the world for women’s representation in parliament, the situation in South Africa reflects the cries surrounding the dilemma in Saudi Arabia, in which despite having been granted the right to vote, women are still indirectly being denied the freedom of movement by being prohibited  to drive.

Although during democratisation the emerging political order in a society opened new opportunities for women to express and pursue their interests, the structures that are borne with this new system are not sensitised to the needs and interests of the marginalised groups in that society. Liberal democracy in its entirety, as it continues to be embraced globally, has to a great extent fallen short in the struggle for women’s interests and equality.


Hassim, S. 2009. “Perverse Consequences: The impact of quotas on democratisation in Africa “ in Shapiro (ed) Political Representation. Cambridge, Cambridge University


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