Political Gender Quotas

Key debates and values for Myanmar

A group of women are discussing about their concern for the village development, Photo by: Pan Ei Phway Phyu Sin/Oxfam
Paper author: 
Alysone Brody, Jasmine Burnely and Poe Ei Phyu
Paper publication date: 
Sunday, May 22, 2016

Despite the increased global visibility of women in politics, including at the highest levels, there is still a yawning gap in their level of political representation, compared with men. In October 2013 only one-fifth of all seats in national legislatures around the world were occupied by women, and today the vast majority of high-level decision making positions are still dominated by men. This gender imbalance is starker in Myanmar than in many other countries. Myanmar’s recent historic election – the first largely free and fair election ever to take place in the country – saw a big increase in the numbers of both women candidates and women MPs elected to government: the new parliament has nearly three times the number of women MPs than the previous parliament. But with fewer than 10 percent of elected parliamentary seats held by women, Myanmar is still the worst performer in the region for representation of women in parliament.

The world over, these gender disparities in governance reflect the resistance of legislative (and other) systems to recognize their responsibility in reproducing male-dominated systems of patronage and power and presenting internal barriers to women’s progression within political parties. These barriers range from inflexible working hours that cannot be reconciled with the unpaid domestic care work often shouldered by women, exclusive ‘boys’ cultures of decision making often taking place after office hours; or the often blatant gender discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

In response to this lack of gender equity in governments and to the call for affirmative action in the Beijing Platform for Action, a growing number of countries have introduced quota systems for enhancing women’s representation. Currently more than 100 countries have quota systems, and in over 75 percent of cases these have been introduced in the last 20 years – particularly since 2000. Strikingly, the majority of nations that have adopted quota systems are low- or middle-income countries. Evidence indicates that quotas are playing an instrumental role in levelling the gender balance of political representation. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in 2012, electoral quotas were used in 22 countries holding elections. With legislative quotas, women took 24 percent of seats and with voluntary quotas they gained 22 percent. Where no quotas were used, women took only 12 percent of seats.

However, the issue of quotas remains contentious and is the subject of much debate. This paper outlines some of those key debates and – with reference to case studies from a number of countries – sets out some of the conditions under which quota systems appear to be most successful. Taking a snapshot of women’s rights and political representation in Myanmar today, the paper considers the potential value of a quota system for Myanmar and sets out recommendations for pathways forward.