Women participated actively in democratisation in Latin America, which began for most countries in the 1980s. Across the region, women served as combatants in armed movements, as protesters decrying the violence of dictatorship, and as human rights activists seeking truth and reconciliation. Yet democratisation marked a return to “politics as usual”—open, competitive elections contested by political parties and dominated by men. Women comprised less than 10 percent of legislators selected in founding democratic elections. This outcome signalled that women’s activist roles would not be “enough” to overcome the systematic gender discrimination women faced in accessing political office.
In response, female activists leveraged domestic and international discourses on gender equality to secure their political rights: in 1991, Argentina passed the world’s first gender quota law, requiring that parties nominate specified percentages of women to legislative office. Quota laws currently apply or will apply to national elections in all Latin American countries save Chile, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Most laws demand that parties nominate between 30-50 percent women, leading to dramatic results. As of August 2013, women comprised an average of 24 percent of the single or lower chambers in Latin American countries with quotas, compared to 18 percent in countries without quotas.
Importantly, Latin America’s experience reveals that quota laws’ ability to elect women depends on their exact provisions. First, electoral systems matter: quotas work best in vote-by-list systems (proportional representation), especially when lists are closed and parties – rather than voters – rank candidates. Second, successful quotas eliminate the legal loopholes that allow political elites to avoid nominating the required percentages of women. For example, placement mandates prevent parties from pooling women in unelectable positions at the bottom of lists. Across the region, initial quota laws often lacked these mandates (Costa Rica) or included other loopholes: excluding senate elections (Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador) or counting substitute, rather than titleholder, candidates as filling the quota (Venezuela and Bolivia). When Mexico first adopted quotas in 2002, for example, placement mandates applied, but party leaders exploited other loopholes: using primaries to nominate candidates to obtain a quota exemption and running women in unwinnable districts.
Quotas must also address informal practices of subversion. For example, the 2002 Mexican quota law required that 30 percent of titleholder (not substitute) candidacies go to women. Parties then placed male substitutes alongside female titleholders; after the election, the women renounced their seats and the men entered Congress. In 2009, these so-named “Juanitas” caused an uproar, and in 2011 the Mexican electoral court ruled that titleholder and substitute candidates must be of the same sex. Elsewhere, parties have broken the law to avoid meeting quota obligations, as in Bolivia, where male candidates’ names were recorded as female names.
Rather than undermine quotas, these subversions have fuelled the revisions necessary for quotas to succeed across the region. Further, quotas have expanded: they have increased the threshold percentage of female candidates, diffused to the subnational level and other offices, and required that parties dedicate resources to female candidates. For example, Mexico raised its quota from 30 to 40 percent in 2008, and proposed a further increase to 50 percent, or parity, in 2013. Mexico also requires that 2 percent of parties’ public funding be allocated to training female leaders; six other Latin American countries have similar “party rules”. Fifteen Latin American countries apply quotas to subnational elections (in Mexico, a federal country where states govern their own elections, all but two states have adopted quotas). Quotas also govern women’s access to other branches of government. Colombia applies a 30 percent quota to the “highest positions” in the executive branch and Ecuador and Bolivia now demand parity in the executive and the judiciary.
Quota implementation in Latin America has not gone unchallenged. Detractors frequently argue that quotas interfere with meritocratic recruitment, alleging that “quota women” are the female relatives of male politicians, thereby perpetuating – rather than destabilising – elite control. Similarly, quota women are criticised for being dependent on party leaders, lacking autonomous voices, and failing to promote feminist policies.
Yet such criticisms are misplaced. First, considerable evidence indicates that quota women are neither less qualified (in terms of their cvs) nor less productive (in terms of their legislative activity) than male legislators. Second, nearly all Latin American politicians are drawn from upper-class families or networks. As a result, some female legislators will be elite, non-feminist, unproductive and undeserving – but so will some (or even many) men. All political leaders, not just women, must be held accountable for improving democracy, for sharing political power and for legislating on behalf of marginalised groups. Quota laws alone cannot attain this goal, but, importantly, quotas end women’s exclusion from politics based on discriminatory, outdated beliefs. On increasing women’s presence, quota laws in Latin America can be judged successful.
*Jennifer M. Piscopo  is Assistant Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, and Magda Hinojosa is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. To read their policy brief on Latin America’s quota laws, visit http://jenniferpiscopo.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/hinojosa-piscopo-final-english.pdf. Picture credit: Dragan and Wiki Commons.