In Rwanda’s 2008 elections, women won 45 out of 80 parliamentary seats, making Rwanda the first country in the world where women make up the majority in parliament. This is a great achievement for a country still recovering from a terrible genocide that ended just 14 years previously. Rwanda’s constitution, written in 2003, reserves 24 parliamentary seats (30%) for women. Winning an additional 21 seats, however, shows the prominence of women in Rwandan society today. After the genocide, women accounted for 70% of the population, which resulted in a change in gender roles. Though this gender imbalance has leveled out since 1994 (now the population is roughly 55% female and 45% male), women have remained an integral part of the recovery.
More impressive than the percentage of Rwandan women in parliament is what the women have been able to accomplish since coming into office. The genocide left many women widowed and without rights. They were not allowed to own property or even open a bank account. Women in parliament drafted a new bill to give Rwandan women rights to land inheritance and more provisions for family protection. Additionally, Rwandan women in parliament successfully moved rape into the most severe category of crimes committed during the genocide. In the draft bill, rape was relegated to the lowest category (alongside looting), punishable only by a light prison sentence or community service.
The case of Rwanda raises interesting points about women in politics. Firstly, I think Rwanda shows that female representation is necessary to effectively address gender sensitive issues, such as rape (or abortion, maternity leave, etc). Secondly, Rwanda raises the debate about quotas for women in politics (see the Quota Project for facts, definitions, and debates about quotas).
Looking beyond Rwanda to the rest of the globe, even though women make up half of the world’s population, they hold only 19.2% of parliamentary seats (see Facts below for a breakdown by region). So why is female representation around the world so low? In many countries, women face socio-economic and cultural barriers, which are deeply rooted in that country’s history. A traditional gendered division of labor and historical subjugation of women no doubt result in low political representation.
In countries in the West where many of these barriers have been alleviated, representation is still much lower than I would have expected. A recent article in the New York Times reported that only 15% of contributors to Wikipedia are women. Jane Margolis suggests that women are less willing than men to publicly assert their opinions. Perhaps related is the idea that women do not want to subject themselves to the scrutiny that politicians face. Additionally, though gender roles are changing/have changed in many parts of the world, women still put in more hours of unpaid work at home than men. Politicians generally spend a lot of time traveling and out of the home, which is still more acceptable for a man to do than a woman.
Aside from under-representation in politics, I often wonder if women politicians are respected in the same way as their male counterparts. A radio station in Australia asked Julia Gillard, the country’s first female prime minister, if she would pose topless for a men’s magazine, a completely inappropriate and sexist question. Had a man been elected, he would never have been asked a similar question 1) because a man as a head of state is the status quo, and 2) men are not objectified in the same way that women are. Women politicians have to walk a fine line: if a woman is viewed as too feminine, she is seen as weak and unable to lead her country in tough situations. If a woman is viewed as too masculine, however, she becomes the butt of many jokes.
So my conclusion is that women face challenges as politicians that men do not, and that female representation in politics is extremely important. Rwanda is a great example of what women can accomplish politically, and the impact they can have on society as a whole. My hope is that the women of Rwanda (and others such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi) keep on keeping on, and that other women will follow suit.
Women in Politics World Facts:
- In the United States, women occupy only 89 out of 535 seats in Congress (16.6%). This is below the world average, below the average for North America (18.7%), and below the average for high-income OECD countries (23.4%). The percentage for female representation is slightly higher (21.6%) for positions in state governments, including governors, mayors, and other statewide elected officials.
- Nordic countries have the highest percentage of female representation (41.6%), followed by the Americas (23.1%), Europe (19.9%), Asia (18.6%), Sub-Saharan Africa (18.5%), Pacific (12.6%), and lastly the Arab States (11.7%).
- 101 countries have some sort of quota for women in politics, whether it is for reserved seats in parliament, candidate quotas, or political party quotas. 20.5% is the average representation of women in countries with quotas, only slightly higher than the world average.