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Women’s Electoral Quotas: Filled but Empty Seats?

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
September 18, 2012
Fikra Forum

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For decades, the Arab states have had the lowest rate of female parliamentary representation of any region in the world. While that rate has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from 4.3 percent in 1995 to 10.7 percent today, the Arab world still ranks at the bottom.[1] During the same time period, women in the rest of world expanded their participation from 11.3 percent to 19.5 percent.[2]

In an effort to include more women in politics, some Arab governments have adopted quotas to boost female participation. That trend has expanded in recent years, but with mixed results. The concept behind quotas is that reserving seats for women helps overcome structural challenges that depress female participation. Over time, this should give female politicians more experience and draw talented women into the political pipeline; as voters come to appreciate their contributions, women should be able to win elections on their own merits and quotas can be eased; in the meantime, quotas at least ensure that women's perspectives are represented in government.

In practice, quotas do not always play out that way. They can be manipulated by political parties to their advantage, and as with any affirmative action program, the very nature of the quota can tarnish the whole group of beneficiaries as second class.

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