Wanjiku’s Parliament Part II: Why should women’s representation matter?

Wanjiku’s Parliament Part II: Why should women’s representation matter?


Posted 10 September 2011, by Wambui Mwangi and Melissa Williams, The East African (BusinessDaily Africa), theeastafrican.co.ke


One version of the “reverse discrimination” argument holds that it’s unfair to men to suggest that they are incapable of representing women’s interests. Another version of this argument is that it’s insulting to women to suggest that women are somehow so essentially different from men that they have to represent themselves — from which it follows that they are no more capable of representing men than men are capable of representing women. This “critique of essentialism” is one that defenders of measures to enhance women’s representation must take seriously.

On average, women do perform certain social functions that men, on average, perform less frequently or intensively. But there is nothing in this social fact to suggest that such differences are ordained by nature — the view that has been used for millennia to try to justify women’s social and political subordination to men. Instead, we can say that because of historically inherited patterns of gendered difference, including the gender division of labour, women by and large occupy a different social position from that of men. People from different cultural groups experience social life differently because of (or through the medium of) differences in language, forms of economy, beliefs about human relationships to nature and to the cosmos, and so on.

These differences in social perspective, as political theorist Iris Marion Young puts it, make sense of our intuition that it is important to have people from every sizeable cultural group in political life. Representatives who are themselves members of culturally or geographically distinctive communities — some of the very “communities of interest” that the new Constitution has in mind — will do a better job of advocating the interests of their constituencies than representatives from other communities because they have a better understanding of the real-life impact of laws and policies on their constituents. Someone from a drought-prone region will have a different perspective on water policy, for example, than someone from a region with heavy rainfall. These differences in perspective matter for the quality of public policy.

For the same reason, because women’s social positions are different in patterned and well-documented ways from those of men, even across regional, cultural and other forms of difference, they are more likely to be keenly attuned to the impact of legislation on women than are their male counterparts. This line of reasoning does not suppose that men are incapable of understanding women’s perspectives. Indeed, if they were incapable it would do little good to have more women in parliament; it would be as if men and women were speaking different languages. Instead, the point is that while men are capable of understanding, they frequently do not possess as sound an understanding of policies’ impact on women because they lack the social experience that would make this impact obvious to them.

This bias — call it an epistemic bias, or a bias in the kind of knowledge that people possess because of their social positions — affects not only the crafting of individual pieces of legislation, but also the legislative agenda itself. Because men are less likely to be attuned to the challenges women face in their daily lives, they are less likely to give priority to the kinds of legislation that have the greatest potential to improve the conditions that have the greatest impact on women’s well-being.

Take, for example, the widespread problem of sexual and domestic violence. Since men are seldom subject to these forms of violence, it is relatively unlikely that most men will take active measures to prevent it and to criminalise it. As a result, women continue to be far more vulnerable to violence than men. This generates a deep inequality between men and women in the extent to which they enjoy one of the most fundamental human rights, the security of their own bodies from violent harm. It is no accident that, around the world, study after study shows that women legislators are much more active advocates for legislation to protect against sexual and domestic violence than are their male counterparts.

The example of gender-based differences in vulnerability to violence is just one among many important policy issues in which studies demonstrate a strong connection between what political theorists call the “descriptive representation” as contrasted with the “substantive representation” of women. “Descriptive” representation is about whether or not a legislature accurately “describes” or expresses the diversity of the society it claims to represent. Some people refer to this as “mirror” representation: Is the legislature a true mirror of the people?

The metaphor of the mirror is useful in capturing the common experience of women or other segments of society when they look at a parliament and see no one who looks like them. They cannot recognise themselves in the body that is supposedly making laws on their behalf. The critique of parliaments as being insufficiently reflective of important segments of society played an important role in the movements for women’s suffrage and in the Civil Rights Movement for the enfranchisement of African-Americans in the United States in the 1960s. Mirror representation is an intuition that has deep roots in the very idea of representative democracy.

In contrast, “substantive” representation concerns the degree of fit between citizens’ interests and concerns and the actions of their elected representatives. If the majority of citizens in a given constituency are very much in favour of community development, for example, and their representative nonetheless votes against it or fails to deliver it, they are not getting very good substantive representation on that issue.

What, then, is the connection between women’s “descriptive representation” — the presence of women in parliament — and the substantive representation of women citizens’ concerns and interests? The first step in answering this question is to note the obvious fact that there are many differences among women. Women do not all share the same interests; they disagree deeply across a wide range of policy issues, including issues that don’t appear to have a lot to do with sex (say, foreign policy) and those that are all about sex (say, abortion). But study after study reveals that there is a real and persistent gender gap around a range of policy issues.

In general, and with some variations across different countries and regions, women are more supportive of affirmative action than are men. They are more concerned about violence, especially sexual violence. Family law matters are much higher on their political agendas than on men’s. In many African countries, there is a further gender gap around issues of water and energy, which is unsurprising in rural areas where women do most of the hauling of water and cutting of firewood. There have been dozens of empirical studies over recent years on the question whether better descriptive representation translates into better substantive representation for women.

The evidence is affirmative and clear, from study to study, from country to country. On average, women representatives do a better job of advocating the issues that matter to women than do their male counterparts. In a recent study on women’s representation in Tanzania, for example, Mi Yung Yoon shows that women MPs do more than male MPs to bring issues such as poverty, child labour, energy, HIV/Aids, water, agriculture, marriage, maternal health, energy and community development to the legislative agenda. Moreover, they frequently lead the debates on these issues. Noting these dynamics, Tanzanian House Speaker Samuel Sitta remarked, “Female MPs improve not only our awareness but also the national awareness on women’s issues. It is a national awakening.”

In short, presence matters. Having women in parliament makes a real and measurable difference to the quality of political representation received by the 50 per cent of the voting citizens who are women. In measuring the impact of women’s legislative presence on substantive representation, empirical research shows equally clearly that numbers matter. While even a small contingent of female representatives can make some difference in policy, significant changes in legislation and in policy agendas occur only when women have reached a “critical mass,” which most studies indicate is at about 30 per cent of the legislature. This is why Kenya’s constitutional provision guaranteeing that, in this case, women should hold 33 per cent of the seats is well targeted, even if it is only slightly above the threshold where descriptive representation brings a significant improvement in substantive representation.

Numbers matter for a number of reasons beyond the advocacy of women’s interests by women representatives. First, a larger number of women representatives increases the chances that they will be able to form strategic coalitions with male legislators around key issues. In other words, the power of numbers gives women more clout to advance the legislative agendas that matter most. Numbers matter, as well, because having more women in parliament disciplines male legislators to desist from the rhetorical tactics that they have so often used to silence their female colleagues.

In Kenya, as former parliamentarian Joe Khamisi notes in his recent book, The Politics of Betrayal, “During debates, women legislators had to endure sneers and snippets of degrading comments from their male colleagues, sometimes making their comments inaudible.” Having more women in parliament makes it less likely that sexist views have a place in the halls of the national legislature (where surely they do not belong). Instead of silencing women’s voices, sexist male representatives find that the rules of civility require them to silence themselves — a species of what Norwegian social and political theorist Jon Elster calls “the civilising effects of hypocrisy.”

Both presence and numbers matter for another critically important reason: Having significant numbers of women in parliament sends a loud and clear signal to all citizens that women have a proper place in the halls of power. This is particularly important when battling historically entrenched ideas. As democratic theorist Jane Mansbridge points out, this signalling effect goes far beyond mere symbolism. In societies where women have been historically excluded from the franchise (as in Kenya during colonial times), and then excluded from positions of responsibility (as in Kenya today), bringing women’s representation above the “critical mass” threshold makes it unambiguous that women can no longer be treated as second-class citizens.

Wanjiku’s Constitution, Wanjiku’s parliament

When women have a strong presence in parliament, it signals not only to women but to all citizens that no one is more or less “fit to rule” by virtue of the attributes they have at birth. Democracy is incomplete as long as children grow up believing that the course of their lives is pre-ordained by the accident of whether they have been born male or female, rich or poor, born in Taita, Bondo or Matondoni. In Kenya’s bold new Constitution, this spirit of democracy, grounded in social justice, is strong. The provisions for women’s representation are not a dispensable add-on to this new, democratic, vibrant and inclusive vision of Kenya but rest at the very heart and soul of Kenya’s inspiring constitutional moment.

The overt attempt to abandon the Constitution’s provision for gender diversity is not a minor affair to be explained away by the supposed “technical impossibility” of meeting the thresholds specified in a legal sovereign document approved by a supermajority of Kenya’s citizens. As noted above, multiple other contributors to the public debates have made clear that there are a number of technical devices fully adequate to the task, including the designation of the 80 new parliamentary seats as women’s seats.

Kenya is in the middle of an historic, self-chosen transformation achieved at great cost. Kenyans face a critical choice in this moment, whether to carry through on the principles expressed so powerfully in our horizon-widening new Constitution or to be complicit in allowing its opponents to pick apart the very provisions that are essential to fulfilling the principles and the promise of a more just and more democratic Kenya.

Kenyan Supreme Court Chief Justice Willy Mutunga is reputed to have said that in Constitutional matters, “Wanjiku is the boss.” Perhaps we can save Fida lawyer Judy Thongori her promised appearance in court the “very next day” to contest any attempt after the next general election to sit a non gender-compliant Parliament.

Perhaps we should ask instead, “What would Wanjiku want?”

Let’s implement the Kenyan Constitution. It’s the law.

Wambui Mwangi is a political scientist, photographer and writer. Melissa Williams is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of the award-winning Voice, Trust & Memory: Marginalised Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation.




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