Equal representation lies at the very heart of democracy. Research suggests that a society becomes more secure and economically prosperous as gender equality improves, together with public trust and political stability.

So why do political parties, which arguably set the direction for national policy objectives, still have such low rates of women in top positions?

One argument is that the process by which candidates are selected is one of the main obstacles to the equal and fair representation of women in political parties.

In most cases popularity and “the will of the people” is the only process followed, whereas in some cases, parties either volunteer or are required by legal or constitutional provisions to have a set number of women in their structures.

Argentina was the first country to implement a gender quota, which it did in 1991. It was required that women constitute 30% of the candidates put forth by all political parties running for election to the Chamber of Deputies, the equivalent of South Africa’s National Assembly. In one way or another, many countries have followed Argentina’s example, either through legal or voluntary party quotas.

South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, stipulates in its constitution that it will implement “the provision of a quota of not less than 50%” of women in all its structures and will support the effective participation of women.

This is a commendable move by the ruling party, because it is the only party that has shown its support for the empowerment of women through a quota system.

The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, has rejected the idea of gender quotas and makes a case for merit-based appointments instead.

The primary goal of gender quotas is to increase the number of women elected to legislatures (and there have been a number of success stories worldwide). What we do not yet know is whether quotas have the same effect in party structures.

Yes, South Africa is among the most gender-diverse Parliaments in the world, ranking third in Africa (after Rwanda and Namibia) and 10th globally.

More recently it boasted its first gender-equal Cabinet. But one cannot help wonder whether a gender-equal Cabinet is something to celebrate when few women are in parties’ top structures that make decision and policy.

It can be argued that parliamentary candidate lists (and their rankings) are an indicator of the value political parties place on women as leaders.

None of the top three political parties in South Africa — the ANC, DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters — had an equal representation of men and women in their parliamentary candidate lists. The EFF came close with 44%, yet, just like the ANC, which had one woman in its top six of the national executive committee, the EFF had one woman in their top five, with the top three positions being occupied by men. The DA had five women in their top 20.

In addition, of the 48 parties that contested the 2019 national and provincial elections, six were led by women.

This means that although South Africa is doing well in the global Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings, when we take a closer look at the internal dynamics in the top political parties, we see quite a gloomy picture regarding the value they actually place on women representation.

By burying female candidates at the bottom of party lists parties are essential saying: “We see you, but we are not ready to hear you.”

What can we learn from countries that have successfully implemented gender quotas? Bolivia is an interesting case. The Bolivian experience talks to the dramatic effect quotas have had on the election of women to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Bolivia’s Parliament. There are lessons to be learned from this experience, which can be adopted by political parties in South Africa.

After a 2010 constitutional amendment, half of all party candidates for the Chamber of Deputies were required to be women. This “quota law” ensured that men and women are given an equal opportunity to participate in making decisions and policy.

Brazil also has a quota law, but the results have not been as successful as in Bolivia. Although there is a 30% quota for women elected to the Chamber of Deputies, only one in 10 of the seats are occupied by women, leaving the representation of women far lower than desired. The difference between these two countries is how quotas are designed and implemented.

First, Bolivia has rules in place about how women candidates are ranked and represented on party lists. This is a crucial element for the design of gender quotas, especially in electoral systems such as South Africa that follow proportional representation.

It defeats the purpose to have quotas mandatory for party lists yet women candidates are placed at the bottom of the list, and men remain on top.

Second, in Bolivia the design of the quota is that of a “zipper/ zebra” system — every second candidate on the list is a woman. The EFF followed the zebra principle but only from the fourth candidate onwards, with the top three candidates being men.

The ANC also made a commitment to follow the zebra list earlier in South Africa’s democratic dispensation, but didn’t implement the idea.

Third is the issue of enforcement. France is an example of a country that imposes fines on political parties that do not comply with the gender quota.

But fines as a form of punishment are not always a strong deterrent, because parties that can afford to pay can incur the penalty rather than enforce quotas. In Bolivia, any party list that does not reflect the zipper system is barred from contesting elections.

There is no doubt that South African women are interested in leading and meaningfully participating in politics, and the 55% women voter turnout, which has been consistent and higher than the men voter turnout, strengthens this point.

But, women need to be educated, empowered and given opportunities to occupy top positions, not only in Cabinet (which is good and necessary) but also in the top structures of the parties they represent.

In a society such as South Africa, where men still dominate, especially in politics, quotas implemented through the zebra/zipper system, are a great start in giving women substantive power and not just symbolic power.

Gender quotas are not a “silver bullet” for problems because women are not a homogenous group with similar world views. But, quotas provide a means towards changing the cultural and social norms regarding gender and power.

originally published at: