Gender quotas are not enough to get women into politics

In Pakistan’s general election in 2002 a female lawyer from my hometown, having no political background, was nominated by a small political party against a reserved seat. The party knew fully well that she would not qualify for the seat. However by a stroke of good luck the party earned the seat and the lawyer became a member of the Punjab Assembly. 14 years down the road and completing her respective tenure in the assembly, she is back to her chamber as a lawyer having nothing to do with the political activities and leaving no mark neither as a lawmaker nor as a political worker in the area. This is how the gender quotas are being squandered.

It does not mean that all women in parliament through gender quotas are playing the same role but it is true in the majority of cases. It is taken as a windfall by them as a result of the services rendered to the party and they do not make use of this opportunity to take steps aimed at political advancement and female empowerment.

Governance systems worldwide are male-dominated. Women occupy only 22.8 percent of parliamentary seats around the world. According to UN Women, 10 women are serving as head of state and 9 are serving as head of government. Surprisingly, Rwanda has the highest number of women, 63.8 percent, in the parliament worldwide. In Pakistan, 60 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly, 17.5 percent, are allocated to women. These seats are allocated to the parties according to the proportion of their general seats in the assembly. The same quota is applied for the seats of women for the four provinces.


Rwanda’s parliament – the first in the world where women hold a majority. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Women face enormous difficulties all over the world when it comes to political participation. Socio-economic and existing structures are stumbling blocks to their political role. Women are far from achieving parity in political arena. Gender parity cannot be achieved without active participation of women in policy formulation. Participation of women is increasingly being ensured through gender quotas across the globe.

Gender quotas are effective channels of boosting women’s participation in decision- making bodies. It is pertinent to remark here that quotas are temporary measures and give women a breathing space politically. This gives them an opportunity to remove the socio-economic and structural barriers hindering their way to political advancement.


Marvi Memon, chairwoman of the Benazir Income Support Program, Pakistan’s largest social safety net program. Marvi was not elected; she was selected by her party in 2008 for a seat reserved for women. Photograph: Carolyn Beeler/PRI.

Seen in this perspective quotas themselves do not ensure empowerment. It is the political role of women that is crucial to removing the barriers and increasing their political participation in the long-run. Sadly this is not happening in Pakistan; women in parliament through gender quotas have not acted strongly and coherently. On the other hand, they are motivated by parochial interests and remain loyal to the party-lines. This is largely because of the reason that women selected on gender quotas by the respective political parties are not their genuine workers. They are selected, barring a few ones, as a part of political favours granted to the women of well-placed families for their allegiance to their parties. That is why we have not seen any collective effort by the female parliamentarian to empower women and ensure their maximum participation neither within the parties nor in the parliament.

This state of affairs is also because of lack of democratic culture within the political parties. Promotion of democratic culture will enable the genuine political workers to rise and eventually be selected for the gender quotas, keeping their contribution in view . Inclusivity of the political institutions will make gender quotas a meaningful exercise. The political parties and the female parliamentarians should make a joint effort to make this happen so the talent of half of the populations can be used to put the country on the path to development.

By  Muhammad Shahid Rafique
Muhammad Shahid Rafique has background of development studies with special interest in gender and development. He is also running an NGO named as Rural Empowerment and Development(READ) Association aimed at economic and social uplift of the under-privileged in rural areas.