World House Student Fellows Policy Project: Increasing Female Political Participation

By Du'aa Moharram (Nursing, 2019), Stephanie Petrella (SAS, 2017), Sarah Baer (SAS, 2018), Aminata Sy (SAS, 2019), Miebaka Anga (SAS, 2018)


Throughout world history, women have been underrepresented in politics. Even today, only nine women are heads of states and make up just over one-fifth of national parliaments. As a result of low representation, women have less access to the political process. This phenomenon enables continuing social, political, and economic inequality based on gender. Therefore, investigating laws and approaches that help women acquire political positions may offer new opportunities for political participation. Particularly given the rise of populist nationalism in many democratic nations, including in Europe and the U.S., it is timely to study the number of women in politics and measures to increase women’s political participation. Using case studies and specific laws in countries such as Sénégal, Indonesia, and Sweden, this project will explore how democratic countries can increase women’s political participation and what other countries around the world could learn from these laws. Drawing from our analysis of these cases, we will recommend policy prescriptions that could amplify women’s voices in the political sphere.

Overview: Importance of Increasing Women’s Political Participation

The global issue that we are addressing is the need for more women elected to public office in democratic countries around the world. Women have a limited voice in the issues that impact their everyday lives and face additional discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, and race. Today, women are still paid less than men for the same work and struggle to obtain access to education. Their bodies are strictly legislated, as evident in France recently passing a law that bans burkinis on beaches, veils in schools, and niqabs in public places. However, increasing women’s representation is not only a women’s issue—it is a global issue. Columbia Professor Katherine Phillip has shown that countries that elect women to key national leadership positions have improved economic performance, boasting a 6.8% increase in GDP as compared to their male-lead counterparts. Studies have also revealed that in the U.S., both Republican and Democratic women legislators introduce more bills relating to civil rights and liberties, education, health, and labor than their fellow male representatives.

As women’s underrepresentation has persisted, many societies have accepted it as the norm. While some societies’ outright rejection of women’s participation remains highly problematic, this passive state of acceptance remains nearly as corrosive to women’s rights. For instance, though no explicit legal barriers limit women’s participation in American politics, the U.S. is ranked 98th in the world for percentage of women in the national legislature. Less than 25% of statewide and state legislative offices are held by women. Magnifying the issue even further, the state of Pennsylvania has never had a woman senator or governor, and Philadelphia has never had a woman mayor. This imbalance of political power is alarming.

One approach that democratic countries have taken to increase female voices in politics is parity, or a “quota” system. In 2010, Senegal passed its parity law, which  mandates that women represent 50% of the candidates put forth by political parties in both national and local elections. A former colony of France located in West Africa, Sénégal became independent in 1960. The country’s population is estimated at 15,129,273 people with 50.9% women. The country’s female parliamentary representation grew from 0% in the years following independence, to 22% from 2008 to 2012, to 43% from 2012 to 2017. This significant progress was due largely to the country’s 2010 parity law, passed under the country’s third president, Abdoulaye Wade. The law was first tested in Sénégal’s 2012 election, when the country's fourth president, Macky Sall, assumed power. Following the election, 64 of the 150 new representatives in the country’s national assembly were women.

Outside of the parliament itself, the parity law influenced Senegalese society in social ways. About 94% of Senegalese identify themselves as Muslims, 4%  as Christians, and 2% as Other. Gender roles have been traditional, in that women typically raise children and conduct household chores. Even with numerous societal obstacles that Senegalese women experience, many are still optimistic about the direction in which the parity law has been taking the country. The President of the National Observatory of Parity, Fatou Kiné Diop, said during the sixth anniversary of the law that it is changing the way Senegalese think about the power dynamic between men and women. The law is creating new norms in society; thus slowly breaking rigid perceptions of gender roles in Senegalese culture. Furthermore, other African countries have been paying attention to Sénégal’s parity law. On November 2016, about 50 Guinean female members of parliament went to Sénégal’s National Assembly for a working session with their committees to learn some of their strategies as it relates to the parity law.

Considering the wave of populism in Europe and the U.S., we will also explore political strategies that would help elect women in democratic countries. Though the meaning of populism differs in context, journalist Fareed Zakaria states that “all the versions share a suspicion of and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions. Populism sees itself as speaking for the forgotten ‘ordinary’ person and often imagines itself as the voice of the genuine patriotism.” In the U.S., Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump ran populist campaigns. Trump won the 2016 U.S. elections and is expected to begin his term on January, 20, 2017. In France, Marine Le Pen, the founder of the right-wing French political party the National Front, came in third in the country’s 2012 presidential election and has a strong chance of becoming France’s next president in 2017. Like Trump, her campaign pushes an anti-immigrant, anti-NATO, and anti-Islam rhetoric. However, with Europe's migrant crisis, the Brexit vote, and terrorist attacks, voters are welcoming her message. How would increasing the numbers of women in politics work in the context of populism? In June 2000, France became the first country in the world to adopt a parity law similar to that of Senegal. By examining France’s parity law under Le Pen’s populist campaign, we could propose programs that may help more women in Europe and elsewhere enter the political realm.

Avenues for Research:

Barriers to women’s participation are deeply ingrained in societies around the world. Women are often socialized to be submissive and accommodating, rather than confident and assertive, like their male counterparts. They also learn to suppress emotion in professional fields, for fear that they will labeled unfit to fulfill their responsibilities or occupy their position.  While it is critical to keep such cultural restraints in mind while investigating this issue, we recognize that cultural change is a long-ranging and imprecise process. Thus, we plan to center our research around policy mechanisms that may increase the number of women holding elected political office, and the effectiveness of those office-holders. We hope that as populations are exposed to women in power, a positive feedback cycle will result in which cultural barriers to women’s political participation decrease, thus allowing further growth in substantive female participation.

It is also important to note that although increased numerical representation of women in politics is critical, ensuring that women are effective once in office is a key component to this project. This task often involves improving women’s access to education and grassroots training programs needed to equip them for a political role. Additionally, it will be necessary to explore how women are regarded by their fellow party members. Once women are in office, do they merely represent a quota, or do they have the support of their fellow party members required to push forward meaningful legislation? More broadly, does their country’s constitutional foundations provide legal support for their political participation? Ultimately, the quality and effectiveness of women’s participation will be manifest in their ability to contribute to the agenda setting process and advance women’s issues in their national spheres.

Although Sénégal’s parity law has had success in increasing women’s representation, significant barriers remain to equalizing the rights and effectiveness of women in politics. Religious leaders and prominent male figures in the country have criticized the Parity Law  as departing from Sénégal’s constitution and traditions. Living in a patriarchal society, Senegalese women face gender stereotypes and limited access to education and employment. About 12.7 percent of Senegalese ages 15 to 35 were unemployed as of 2011. On the national scale, 71 out 100 people unemployed in 2011 were young women. Among the unemployed, 46 percent were uneducated and 28 percent had only attended school up to sixth grade. Furthermore, French (Senegal’s official language) is taught in schools and used in both the public and private sectors, but since some of the female representatives who gained seats in the 2012 election may have received a limited formal education, they were unable to understand French. The assembly sought to mitigate this problem by introducing simultaneous interpretation and translation from French into six of Sénégal’s eight recognized languages. Nonetheless the need for translation at all highlights the serious barrier that a limited education presents to women’s political effectiveness.

Our initial research suggests that investigating existing laws that have both helped and harmed women’s ability to acquire political positions and to use them productively may offer a new direction forward. Through a comparative case study analysis, we hope to identify the successes and failures of existing policies, and offer insight regarding future policy implementation. Our research will encompass three to four in-depth case studies that span various regions and developmental stages, as well as different democratic countries. We will examine both specific governmental policies addressing gender equality in politics as well as overarching structural factors that either enable or inhibit the effective participation of women in politics. We will incorporate the United States into our discussion as a reference point, recognizing that many countries have surpassed the United States in the number of female elected officials despite various cultural and developmental impediments.  Through this diverse set of case studies, we aim to make comprehensive recommendations that are widely applicable.


Our objectives for the research are twofold: First, to determine what policies are more likely to succeed in increasing the number and effectiveness of women in politics, and second, to identify how these policies can be applied across culturally distinctive democratic societies. Given the information we compile in achieving our research objectives, we will then recommend policy prescriptions to be used in alleviating women’s inequality in politics.

Our research should prove useful for organizations such as UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, which is an important organization for addressing women’s rights in politics. Through its intergovernmental bodies, namely the Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women promotes the formulation of gender equitable policies on a global scale. One of its main initiatives, advancing women’s leadership and political participation, perfectly aligns with our research goals. Furthermore, the organization is committed to helping UN member states implement policy by providing the necessary support and engaging with civil society across the globe. Ultimately, UN Women’s broad reach and shared mission will make it an excellent partner in our efforts to increase female political participation and leadership through actionable policy. Beyond such large scale international organizations that encourage change from above, we also hope to identify some grassroots NGOs that can enact change on a local level in the specific areas studied. We believe the combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches will have the greatest likelihood of effecting change and increasing the role and effectiveness of women in political leadership worldwide.