Throughout my coursework at The New School, I consistently found myself researching and thinking about women’s political empowerment. Quota policies seem to be the anchor around which this discussion often happens. In doing research on women’s rights in Chiapas and while gathering data in Nepal, I have started to think about these policies differently. Basically, the necessary first questions seem to be glossed over or ignored altogether. The goal of “increasing women’s presence in government” is of course important, but it proceeds from the the assumption that women can be collapsed into one category and therefore any woman that achieves a government office means women have been and will be empowered. The complexities of women’s lives are flattened or molded or forgotten in achieving this goal. 

When we say women, what do we mean? Which women do we mean? There is a mountain of research that argues about whether quotas are empowering or achieve their desired aim, but this research (usually) falls in line with the policymakers’ assumption of women as a singular category.

In Nepal (Kathmandu, specifically), the janajati women I interviewed were very concerned about the women’s movement and the quota policy being co-opted by the most privileged women (who are nonetheless still politically disempowered) and leading to a singular type of woman (high-caste, upper class, Hindu) representing all women of the very diverse nation. In Mexico, indigenous women have never been elected to national office even though a relatively effective women’s quota exists. If the “empowered woman” in any nation is drawn from a specific group or groups and is not universal, can you say that women in a nation are empowered?

Once we know which women we mean, what do women actually need in order to participate (and not just fill a quota or fill a seat)? Political meetings in local villages in Nepal are held during hours that women have childcare or other familial or cultural duties. How can women substantively participate once elected if they cannot be present? What infrastructure can be created or practices changed in order to help them accomplish the tasks of both their private lives and their public ones? Is it as simple as moving the meeting time or location?

These policies obviously need to be (and are) tailored to specific locations, but the general thrust seems to be that a quota policy will solve political empowerment of marginalized groups. The political system of a country is likely to be mostly easily accessed by the elites, functioning on the whole to keep power where power has always been. If the goal of women’s empowerment in politics taken seriously, then the policy must be coupled with resources: financial, structural, cultural, etc. An increase in sheer numbers is important, but it is not enough.

Let’s begin a discussion. Are you involved in local, state or national government? What do you see as the issues for women in these places, specifically issues of increasing their presence? Are you a woman or other marginalized person? What barriers do you see for women accessing seats of power? Are you an American? How do you think we can overcome the abismal percentage of women in our own legislature (17% at the national level; Rwanda is at 54%, Nepal at 33%)?

I’ve added some of the resources on this topic to my Bibliography page in case you are interested.

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