CULTURE | WOMEN OF IMPACT

Rwanda's legislature is majority female. Here’s how it happened.

Women make up 62 percent of Rwanda’s national legislature, far more, proportionally, than any other country. Here’s how the country’s most notable conflict—the 1994 genocide—paved the way for gender equality.

By Kennedy Elliott

Published Oct. 15, 2019

Women account for roughly half the world’s population yet they occupy less than a quarter of political seats. Rwanda is an outlier, with more women in power, proportionally, than any other country (followed by two other authoritarian-leaning nations, Cuba and Bolivia). But political parity—whether through appointments or elections—remains an elusive goal in many countries. (Read more about how women are stepping up to remake Rwanda.)

Percentage of women in national legislature

Rwanda

62 percent

Micronesia

P.N.G.

Vanuatu

U.S.

Sweden

Finland

Norway

Grenada

Costa Rica

Nicaragua

Tunisia

Nepal

Cameroon

Djibouti

Italy

Saudi Arabia

Qatar

Kenya

N. America

S. America

Africa

Europe

Asia

Oceania

Equal representation is a long way off for most of the world.

In 81 percent of the world’s legislatures, women hold less than a third of seats. Three nations (Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu) have no women in their national legislature. Even after the so-called “Year of the Woman,” when a record number of women ran for and were elected into office in 2018, the U.S. only boasts a paltry 23 percent of female lawmakers in its lower house.

Many Nordic countries, like Sweden, Finland, and Norway, that have had a long history of women’s inclusion in civil society, tend to rank highly in terms of women representation. European and many Central American nations, like Grenada, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, also boast relatively high figures.

Representation is written into Rwanda’s Constitution.

As part of Rwanda’s recovery from its post-genocide period, a new constitution was written and ratified in 2003. This gave leaders an opportunity to include progressive measures, such as a gender quota mandating that women hold no less than 30 percent of political seats.

Tunisia and Nepal have written similar provisions into their constitutions during their post-conflict transitions. Other countries, like Cameroon, have electively amended their electoral code to include gender quotas.

Rwanda’s gender quota is particularly strong.

Forty-two percent of countries have some type of mandated gender quota. A “reserved seats” quota requires that a certain percentage of government seats be occupied by women. At 30 percent, Rwanda’s quota is particularly high, only eclipsed by Nepal’s quota of 33 percent. Djibouti enacted reserved seats quotas for the first time in 2018, and its percentage of women lawmakers shot up 15 percent.

Other gender quotas are less strict, but can be quite effective. Costa Rica and Italy both applied quotas to their candidate lists, and female representation increased seven and 12 percent, respectively.

Rwanda’s electoral system boosts women’s chances of getting elected.

Women are more successful at getting elected into office within proportional electoral systems, where percentage of government seats held by a party is roughly equal to the percentage of voters who support that party.

In elections governed by total or partial proportional representation in 2018, women were elected into 27 percent of seats, compared to only 20 percent in other elections. In a few countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the entire legislature is appointed and not elected.

An active women’s caucus amplifies electoral gains.

Rwanda’s cross-party women’s caucus, the Rwanda Women Parliamentary Forum, developed a strategy to expand the number of seats occupied by women beyond the 30 percent required by the constitution. They had veteran lawmakers run for open seats and ushered in newcomers to the reserved seats, compounding gains.

The caucus also had a heavy hand in drafting and ultimately passing anti-violence legislation. In Kenya the women’s caucus developed and aided the passage of a bill condemning female genital mutilation.

Note: In bicameral governments, only lower house data are shown. National legislature data as of July 2019. Legislation data as of March 2019.

Sources: Zeina Hilal, Inter-Parliamentary Union; International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance; World Bank