Do quotas for women in politics work?


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 [2002] 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 Picture credit: Dragan and Wiki Commons.


Ending unwanted pregnancies in Latin America

Latin America leads the globe in maternal mortality rates due to “back-alley” abortions, which account for 12 per cent of all maternal deaths in the region. With the exception of Cuba and the federal district of Mexico City, the procedure remains illegal throughout the region, with most countries criminalising abortion in all circumstances.

Some countries make the procedures available in cases of rape, incest, or health risk, but women will lack access even in these circumstances: in Argentina and Peru, for instance, judges withhold authorisations for legal abortions and doctors refuse to perform the procedures.  Nonetheless, criminalisation and inaccessibility have not eliminated demand.  Illegal abortions are sought in 35 out of 1,000 pregnancies, and total estimates of back alley abortions range from 30,000 per year in Nicaragua to 300,000 per year in Colombia. The magnitude of the public health risk cannot be understated.

The unmet need for contraception underlies this risk. Throughout Latin America, over 10 million married or cohabiting women lack access to contraception information and devices.  Many family planning programmes will not serve unmarried women and adolescents. The most restrictions are placed on emergency contraception (EC).  Based on the inaccurate perception that EC acts as an abortifacient, constitutional courts in Ecuador, Chile, and Peru have ruled that EC violates the state’s constitutional duty to protect life. The Honduran Supreme Court recently upheld proposed legislation that would criminalise not just EC, but the dissemination of information about it.

The clearest path to improving maternal mortality – and eliminating unsafe abortions – lies with decreasing unwanted pregnancies. Across Latin America, however, cultural and religious beliefs prevent women from accessing family planning services. Even when federal laws guarantee universal and free access to contraception, as in Argentina and Colombia, local public health officials subvert these laws by withholding programme funds, restricting clinic hours, and delegating implementation to religious organisations.

This September, the Colombian Supreme Court found that officers in the national Human Rights Office – the very public officials charged with protecting women’s equal access to healthcare – knowingly distributed false information about the medical effects of contraception. This victory, while notable, remains a rare instance of reproductive justice. Latin American states lack the capacity to enforce their laws in every clinic, especially in rural areas, and resistance to birth control often extends from local doctors to cabinet ministers.

Yet many Latin American politicians, activists, and public health officials do support reproductive rights, and advocates are pushing their countries to follow Argentina and Colombia in mandating free, universal access to contraception.  Recent developments in Chile – where the constitutional court reversed its EC ruling and upheld a free contraception law – show that progress is possible. Successful campaigns highlight how contraception availability lowers maternal mortality. While legal change cannot instantly manufacture cultural change, laws provide advocates with clear avenues of redress.

International aid agencies can support domestic advocates by exposing the unwillingness of current governments to promote women’s health, and by providing the organisational and financial resources to address these shortfalls through the courts. Irrespective of their personal views on abortion, policymakers must act pragmatically: demands for back alley abortions will only decrease once women can control the space, timing, and number of their pregnancies.

*Jennifer M. Piscopo PhD is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Salem College in North Carolina.  She was a 2002-2003 Gates Scholar, receiving her MPhil in Latin American Studies. Learn more about her research at Picture credit: Inter Press Service and Creative Commons.