An increasing number of women serve in parliaments across the world, and a growing body of research has studied female political representation. Within this research line, three points of focus can be distinguished:
► Study of female representation in a descriptive manner, with concentration on the number of women in Parliament;
► Exploration of substantive representation, preliminarily concerned with the effect female representation has on policy outcomes and political styles and cultures; and
► Consideration of symbolic representation.
This last research-focus suggests that female Members of Parliament (MPs) are role models for women in society, inspiring them to engage in political activity and discussion and serving to increase political trust.
Little research exists, however, on how female representatives themselves think about female political representation. And no study has empirically investigated female representatives' conceptions of female political representation. Yet, these perspectives and conceptions are important, because they may eventually indicate how female representatives behave.
My explorative case study, Conceptions of Female Political Representation: Perspectives of Rwandan Female Representatives, investigates the conceptions of female political representation held by female members of Parliament in Rwanda.
Rwanda has positioned itself on the international stage as having the most gender-equal Parliament in the world. In 2003, the country adopted a gender-sensitive constitution, including a guarantee that 30% of posts in all decision-making organs would be held by women. The Lower House of the Rwandan Parliament has 80 members, 53 of whom are directly elected by a proportional representation system. The additional seats are reserved for women (24), youngsters (2 seats), and disabled people (1 seat). (credit for February 2011 AFP photo of Rwanda's Parliament in session)
As a result of this rule, women hold at least 30% of the seats in the Lower House of the Parliament; a number that is added to by women elected through additional, openly contested seats. Women also hold at least 30% of the seats within the Senate, the Upper House of the Rwandan Parliament, as indicated by the constitution. (Prior IntLawGrrls posts here and here.)
My analyses, based on Q method exercises during interviews held with 14 female Rwandan members of the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament, revealed three unique types of conceptions regarding female political representation. Specifically, female representatives focused on:
► (1) Symbolic and descriptive representation;
► (2) Symbolic representation and power; and
► (3) Substantive representation.
The first group treats the political representation of women mainly as a numbers game, and focuses on descriptive representation. Women in this first group also have a favorable attitude towards gender quota. As one female representative put it:
'If there would have been no quotas; we would not be here.'This group puts little emphasis on the substantive effect of female political representation but is aware of the symbolic effect they have. They strongly believe that, as one said,
'Having women in Parliament stimulates other women to become active in politics.'The second group, "symbolic representation and power," also associates female political representation with its symbolic function. But in contrast to the first group, these women ascribed greater value to power than to numbers. As one representative argued:
'The number is important, but to be able to influence politics, you need to have power. Women will have more influence when one of them holds a higher position in Parliament (e.g., President or Vice-President of the Lower House or Senate) than when they are all only ordinary MPs.'A final, small group, "substantive representation," comprised 3 respondents. This group treats female political representation mainly as a substantive issue: one subgroup saw a low substantive effect of female political representation, and another sub-group emphasized the substantive effect of female political representation on policy outcomes.
Overall, my analysis revealed some combinations of ideas that do not fit the theoretical conceptions of descriptive, substantive, and symbolic representation. In particular, some representatives are looking for a delicate balance between a focus on capacities and the numerical presence of women in Parliament. That is, they focus on the need to have a substantial number of female representatives in Parliament, but at the same time also believe that it is important to have the best politicians in Parliament, whatever their sex is.
In general, however, I find some clustering around ideas of descriptive, substantive and symbolic representation.
Furthermore, my study shows little emphasis among Rwandan female representatives for substantive policy effects. Some female representatives consider themselves as better at representing women because they have experienced the same problems and know the problems that women are facing. Some even argue that they have put gender issues on the political agenda. However, support for the idea that female representatives have a substantial influence on policy outcomes is limited.
Rwandan female representatives value the function as role models more than an actual role in policy making. This may be related to previous research on female political representation in Rwanda, which found a limited effect of female representation on policy outputs. (See Jennie E. Burnet, “Gender Balance and the Meanings of Women in Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” 107 African Affairs 361 (2008), available here; Claire Devlin & Robert Elgie, “The Effect of Increased Women’s Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda,” 61 Parliamentary Affairs 237 (2008), available here.) Although I can obviously not confirm the causality of the relationship, the ideas most women have regarding female political representation do seem to be interrelated with women’s actual role and influence in Parliament.
At the same time, it is important to keep the Rwandan political context in mind, in which few policy differences between MPs are discussed in public. Indeed, during the interviews I had with the female representatives, it was often repeated that all Members of Parliament have generally the same ideas. As one female representative reported:
'All MPs have to work together on issues which are good for the Rwandan society as a whole, for all Rwandan citizens. In general, all MPs have the same ideas and points of view. If everyone wants good things for society, there is not much difference between the MPs.'At the same time, there is limited scope and place for political debate within Rwandan parliament, and limited capacity to check and influence executive authority. Political scientists Gretchen Bauer and Hannah E. Britton addressed this point on page 23 of Women in African Parliaments, a 2006 work they edited. They wrote that the highly centralized power of Rwanda's executive also
'discourages full democratic participation regardless of gender.'