What Explains Women Representatives' Influence in Promoting Gender Equity?

Undoubtedly, quotas, party lists, and other forms of affirmative action have increased women's descriptive representation. This form of representation has value since it changes social perceptions about women being in political spaces and creates possibilities for the articulation of women's needs and gender equity concerns (Mansbridge 1999). Beaman et al.'s (2008) study on panchayats in India reveals that as they are exposed to female leadership, men's prejudice against women's performance reduces overtime, though their preference for male representatives may not change. But does inclusion in politics lead to political influence?

The empirical evidence on whether descriptive representation leads to substantial representation remains inconclusive (Childs and Krook 2009).[1] Many studies show that the presence of women can lead to changes in legislation and policies, while there are others that show little or no difference between styles and behaviours of male and female leaders. It is argued that if a critical mass of women were present in politics and policy spaces, they would have a significant impact. Studies show that a critical mass[2] of women in local-level forest management committees (Agarwal 2011) or in parliament, such as in the Nordic countries, have led to women being able to influence positive programme and policy outcomes (UNIFEM 2008). Studies conducted in the Western democracies reveal that the presence of a critical mass of women allows them to raise matters of concern, especially issues such as reproductive health, violence against women, policing, and labour rights (see Cueva 2004; Weldon 2002). Both Weldon's (2002) and Htun and Weldon's (2010) research on parliaments using large data sets indicate that a critical mass of women in parliament is more effective when there are strong links with women's movements and where an effective national gender machinery exists. The findings of these two studies indicate that there is a need to move beyond critical mass theory and focus on how the substantive representation of women occurs instead of just focusing on when women act for women.

The critical mass theory assumes that there is a linear relationship between numbers and outcomes and a (yet unknown) tipping point at which there is substantive representation (Childs and Krook 2009). This linear assumption does not always hold. How women (or male) representatives may choose to act depends on: a) contexts and opportunities for raising women's needs and gender equity concerns; b) the identity and interests of the individual representatives; c) how representatives and others perceive 'women's issues'; and d) the gendered nature of the policymaking processes. John's (2007) study on women representatives in urban municipalities in India indicates that the presence of a critical mass of women may not automatically lead to the promotion of gender equity concerns. The female councillors in these reserved seats acted as individuals who were linked to their parties and did not want to be identified as representatives of women's interests or gender equity which put them at a disadvantage. They only made exceptions during times of crisis. For example, women councillors in Bangalore were active when it came to women's welfare issues, such as widows' pensions.

In fact, feminist scholars point out that affirmative action measures do not automatically reproduce substantial representation (Phillips 1991; Htun 2004), as the impact of women's inclusion is mediated by different factors. Women ushered in through the gender quota by different affirmative action measures may not necessarily focus on negotiating gender equitable programme and policy outcomes for women, or have policy leverage. Feminist scholars also argue the underlying principle of quotas is essentialist as it homogenizes women assuming that all women have the same values and that men are unable to represent gender equity concerns (Goetz and Nyamu-Musembi 2008).

Some studies conducted in India show that quotas work well for social groups that are geographically concentrated with clear group interests, particularly for groups based on caste rather than gender (Htun 2004). As gender interests are shaped by multiple factors and women in an electoral constituency have diverse interests as a social group, representation of these through gender quotas taking 'women as an independent category' is difficult (Menon 2000). Research also shows that quotas in many contexts, such as in Rwanda, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Egypt (before the revolution) have largely benefited educated and politically elite women in accessing political office. However, their social legitimacy to represent gender equity concerns or their understanding of women's group interests may be constrained (Tadros 2010; Burnet 2008; Tamale 1999; Chowdhury 1994).

Though the connection between women's presence in politics and the inclusion of issues in public debate that are perceived as 'women's issues' is inconclusive; women representatives do tend to express more concern over domestic violence, reproductive health, and women's welfare compared to men (Tripp 2003; Goetz and Nyamu-Musembi 2008). Rai's (1997) study on women parliamentarians in India shows that although women's issues were not high-priority issues for women MPs, most felt the compulsion to take up matters of women's welfare and violence against women, and these issues tended to unite women MPs across party lines. In all of the case- study countries during the transitional period, women representatives have focused their energies on reforming or introducing new laws on domestic violence, reproductive health, and property rights. In Uganda, Rwanda, and South Africa women representatives were part of constitutional commissions and were able to include gender equality clauses in the constitution despite opposition by traditional elites (Goetz and Hassim 2003; Tripp 2003; Burnet 2008).

Women parliamentarians in Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, and Brazil have also created cross-party caucuses on gender equality, and in South Africa they have created a standing committee in the parliament on women's rights. These caucuses have had mixed success in promoting gender equality in parliamentary debates. The Rwandan women's caucus was instrumental in drafting and lobbying for the Inheritance Act in 1999, which allowed women to register property and open bank accounts under their own name for the first time (Burnet 2008). In Uganda, the women's caucus was able to use the principle of non-discrimination to push through affirmative action for women's representation. However, they were not effective in promoting the co-ownership clause in the Land Act 1998 as they could not create a common platform as the NRM party leadership was not in agreement with this demand (Goetz 2003a; Tripp 2003). In South Africa, the ANC women's caucus created effective links with the male parliamentarians and lobbied for change in the Constitution and other gender equitable policies (Kemp et al. 1995; Hassim 2003). The women's caucus in the Brazilian Congress, along with feminist lobbying groups, have managed to secure the approval of laws against domestic violence and sexual harassment, legislation on women's health and maternity benefits (Sardenberg and Acosta 2014). These findings indicate that a closer analysis of the contextual factors within which gender quotas are being introduced is required for understanding the political effectiveness of women representatives.

Unsurprisingly, given the entrenched nature of patriarchy combined with other class, caste, and racial interests at the local level, women representatives have difficulties in promoting gender equitable programmes and policies in the case-study countries. Studies on India, Bangladesh, and Uganda show that women representatives face male resistance in accessing development budgets, centrally allocated resources, and in chairing important committees (Hossain and Akhter 2011; Mohanty 2007; Goetz 2003a). Countries such as Bangladesh have provisions that stipulate that women should be chairs of at least one third of all project development committees and members of one third of all project implementation committees and distribute 30 per cent of the resources allocated by the centre. Though these provisions have ensured women's inclusion into committees, their capacity to represent gender equity concerns remains debatable and women members have been used by chairs to implement their own projects (Nazneen and Tasneem 2010).

Despite these difficulties faced by women representatives in local government, both quantitative and qualitative studies show that women representatives have tried to address complaints filed by women, and the needs of women, such as access to water and other common resources and women's employment in government schemes. Comparative research on panchayats in West Bengal and Rajasthan provinces in India show that there is a systematic difference in the complaints and requests filed based on the sex of the person filing the complaint. More women than men filed complaints on water resource management. The number of drinking water projects were 60 per cent higher in councils with female heads compared to councils which had male sarpanchs. In West Bengal, female-led councils undertook roadbuilding projects at a higher rate than male-led councils, where jobs were likely to go to females. The authors of the study claim that there was no difference in the type of requests that were made to male- and female-headed councils but the difference was in the nature of the response to women's requests (Chattopadhay and Duflo 2004). Admittedly, just because female sarpanchs prioritized water or roads does not necessarily imply that these are perceived as women's needs, even if more women have complained about these. In fact, Agarwal (2011) points out that many of the female sarpanchs perceive these as general issues that are important for both men and women in their constituency. Actually, what are considered as women's needs at times may adversely influence what is taken up in the local councils. Female representatives may be reluctant to push issues that are perceived as 'women's issues' or being identified as the women's representative since this may put them at a disadvantage electorally.

There are considerable research gaps in understanding the links between women's inclusion in politics through quotas and other measures and their ability to exercise influence and promote gender equity. Systematic and comparative research on women representatives is required to explore: what type of women enter politics through quotas and other means; what type of gender agenda is espoused by them; how do women become critical actors promoting gender equity; what strategies do women use to negotiate gender equity interests with their parties and other social actors; when and why do other actors facilitate the promotion of gender equity agenda; and so on.

  • [1] See Childs and Krook (2009) for a detailed discussion on critical mass theory and how thisissue has been researched.
  • [2] The popular notion is that one third of the representatives are women.
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