SIERRA LEONE: Legislative Quotas - a Solution to Voter Sexism??

Friday, March 16, 2012
Concord Times (Freetown)
Western Africa
Sierra Leone
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Women constitute 51% of Sierra Leone's population, yet only 16 out of 112 elected parliamentarians are women. Furthermore, even though 12 parliamentary seats are reserved for Paramount Chiefs, women hardly occupy these seats. Not surprisingly, therefore, as we draw closer to the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, the current debate on electoral quotas is viewed by many feminists as critical for an increase in women's political representation. However, there is less clarity in the current discourse about which of the three types of quotas--constitutional, legislative and voluntary is being advocated for, and how such quotas can be applied especially in an electoral system where only one candidate represents a political party in each constituency. Such omissions in the debate limit understanding on which type of quota can be most effective in numerically improving women's representation in high level political positions, and whether or how different types of quotas can be combined to yield the desired effect.

In recent years, efforts have been made by women's groups such as 50/50 and other international actors to encourage political parties adopt voluntary quotas as measures to increase women's representation in political institutions. To aid this process, 50/50 even compiled a list of 50 academically qualified women which consequently helped address some reasons cited for women's under-representation in major decision-making positions. This includes possession of the required skills and qualifications essential for high political office, and women's unwillingness to participate in elections. This has enabled gender activists to focus attention to what is regarded by many as a major impediment to women's participation in political life--the limited political will by major political parties to nominate and support women as possible presidential and parliamentary candidates.

Addressing this presumed lack of political will is important especially in a post-conflict country like Sierra Leone; the reason is that post conflict situations creates opportunities for social, political and cultural reforms. Like Kellow (2010) argues, many women who have been marginalised in decision-making processes can now be encouraged to assume new roles. Indeed, the need for Women's increased political participation in post-conflict situations was emphasised in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000. The Beijing Declaration(1995) also asserts that women's active role in politics will not only empower them, but will also address issues of gender inequality, build sustainable peace, promote democracy and good governance.

One would argue that the effect of adopting a voluntary quota system by some political parties has been minimal in terms of increasing women's representation in Parliament. Nevertheless, a lot has been achieved with regards political appointments. For example, the current government of Ernest Bai Koroma has appointed for the first time women to the positions of Auditor General and Chief Justice. The decision by the opposition SLPP to select a woman as running-mate is also laudable even though it should be noted that such measures can only address structural/institutional discrimination. Socio-cultural gender stereotype which can influence voting behavior towards women and limit political success remains unaddressed.

When situated within the context of perceived gender roles and personality traits for instance, a number of studies found evidence of voter bias based on traits stereotype especially on policy preferences. Using hypothetical candidates, these studies examined how physical and emotional personality trait differences between men and women can influence voting behavior and attitudes towards female presidential candidates. It was found that women are perceived by voters as less aggressive and assertive, and are thus regarded as less competent to handle security, economic and foreign policy issues (See for e.g. Kenski and Falk, 2004; Lawless, 2004; Sapiro and Johnston, 1997). Even though majority of these studies were conducted in the U.S.A, and no such study exists in Sierra Leone, one would expect voter sexism influenced by perceived gender roles to be more pronounced in a patriarchal society like ours where socio-cultural values and beliefs on women's traditional roles and responsibilities are common.

The process of socialism ascribes roles, social status, behavioural patterns and positions of power to people based on sex. This sex-gender distinction contributes to the public/private sphere divide in many societies which allow men to hold positions of power, while women do unvalued domestic work with limited roles in decision-making processes at all levels. If women are culturally considered to be homemakers, and thus unfit to hold positions of power or run for high political office (e.g. the presidency), then, such perceptions will have a negative impact on voting behaviour towards them. What women are thus advocating for is an equal opportunity to hold positions of power through the removal of patriarchal structures and beliefs that suppress them.

Quotas foster equality by addressing barriers to women's participation. Legislative quotas for example stipulate a percentage of seats to be reserved for women; it can thus simultaneously address structural/institutional gender prejudice and exclusion within political parties, economic challenges faced by women who want to run for political office, and most importantly socio-cultural stereotypes and voter sexism. Furthermore, this approach can be effective as it will compel political parties to take actions to promote gender equality or face sanctions.

An argument can be put forward that quota systems discriminate against men, and is undemocratic as it limits voter choice. Such arguments, however, may be based on assumptions of equality between men and women which can be problematic given the fact that socio-cultural norms and beliefs have for years discriminate against women. As traditions are hard to change, quotas offers women who are as qualified as male counterparts an opportunity to showcase their skills, benefit from major decision-making roles, and fulfill their capabilities and ambitions. Quotas should therefore not be seen as an exercise of discrimination where women are brought in just to make up the numbers, but rather a strategy to combat gender stereotypes and voter sexism.

The adoption of legislative quotas will give women the chance to represent their views and interests on social and economic policies which can in some cases vary from that of men, and contribute meaningfully to national development. In time, we can get rid of quotas when actions challenging gender stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes towards women have yielded the desired effects, and women are judged not by their sex, but their ideological views and policy competence. Until we get there, legislative quotas will be an effective strategy to help address the current imbalance in women's political representation in Sierra Leone. The problematic issue of whether such strategies will create a 'glass ceiling' for women's representation in parliament and indeed their greater participation in elections and politics will be addressed in time.