In 2008, Rwandans elected women to 56 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, making Rwanda the first nation to break the halfway mark in a lower house of parliament and placing it nine percentage points above second-place Sweden (as of December 2010, that has increased to 11 percentage points). Just 14 years earlier, genocide had decimated the population of this tiny central African country. Half a million to a million lives were ended in one hundred days. Hundreds of thousands of children were either orphaned or separated from their families. The entire government fled the capital, destroying offices, equipment, and documents as they went. A functioning economy was nonexistent.

Rebuilding was a logistical and emotional nightmare. To hear most Rwandans tell it, women were the first to face it. From the grassroots to civil society and government, they were at the forefront of innovation and action. Women of the post-genocide Transitional National Assembly had a particularly important story.

At 17 percent of that unicameral body, women were not the strongest voice. They were further muted by the divisions of experience and politics. Some had lived through the genocide; others had entered the country at the end, with the victorious rebel army. Some had husbands targeted for killing; others, husbands in prison. Yet in 1996, women from all political parties united in the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians (FFRP). How did they do it?

In the two years after the genocide, female leaders pieced together a picture of common experiences. They noticed that many had gone through similar horrors. Whether in Rwanda or in exile, it was equally punishing to survive rape, sexual torture, and the burden of rebuilding alone after the men were killed or imprisoned. If we have shared challenges, they reasoned, we may also find a shared vision. They did. Agnès Mukabaranga, a founding member of the FFRP who is still serving in the Senate, has described how redefining themselves as women first gave them greater strength in an otherwise weak position.1

The FFRP was the first group to cross party lines in a country sharply and dangerously split. The forum provided an opportunity to discuss issues facing women and the nation as a whole, to formulate policy priorities, and to amplify women’s voices in a newly shared agenda. One bill in particular shows the success of this approach and the value of the leadership style the women modeled.

In 2006, the FFRP introduced a bill on gender-based violence (GBV). The group had spent two years developing the legislation in an unusual process that included collaboration with civil society experts as well as consultations with constituents. This outreach wasn’t just for show. Many suggestions the women legislators heard were incorporated into the bill’s language. As well as enriching the legislation, this inclusion educated the public about GBV and gave them a sense of ownership over the outcome, both of which aided implementation.

Equally important to the bill’s success was the support of male colleagues. Acknowledging that no campaign against GBV could succeed without men’s support, the women members of parliament (MPs) considered ways to bring them on board. Provisions that criminalized wife beating could be perceived as a personal threat to male legislators, so FFRP members spoke with them individually, framing the bill not as targeting their marriages but as protecting their mothers, sisters, and daughters. In a clear act of goodwill and partnership, the FFRP invited as cosponsors four male parliamentarians, whose support reassured other men still wary of the bill’s groundbreaking provisions.


Elizabeth Powley
The triple ballot system in Rwanda ensures that women are represented at all levels of government.

Just as women at all levels of society led Rwandan reconstruction, the female MPs produced the first substantive bill to emerge from the legislature since the new government was formed. In a society with strongly traditional values, in which violence against women was commonplace and unnamed, and in which women had not played formal leadership roles, the FFRP’s campaign was a breakthrough with far more than legal or procedural implications: the women changed a social norm. Today, though it is far from eradicated, few Rwandans would claim openly that gender-based violence is acceptable. Perhaps most important, the topic’s pervasiveness has increased reporting of such crimes. With greater awareness of their options, Rwandan women no longer assume that they must remain silent.2

Not all reports on Rwanda are rosy, however. After incumbent president Paul Kagame won the August 2003 election with 95 percent of the vote, international media coverage became increasingly critical. Claiming voter intimidation, journalists reported a stifling political environment and restricted freedom of speech. The government denied the charges and pointed to the improbable stability it had maintained for nine years. A repeat performance in August 2010 (President Kagame won with 93 percent of the vote) was followed by a leaked report from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that alleged that the Rwandan army had committed acts of genocide in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 1990s. These were profoundly disturbing accusations for an army and government that define themselves by their victory over genocide.

Though it’s irresponsible to ignore such grave possibilities, it’s likewise rash to allow problems to silence solutions: as with any elected leaders, Rwanda’s women haven’t been a panacea, but they have made important, transformative contributions. We should hail their successes even while questioning failures—and learn from their experiences while studying ways to empower them further.

Although this article focuses on women in legislative positions, it’s worth including an overview of women in the executive branch of governments.3 Despite the high profile of women such as Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president in Africa, and Michelle Bachelet, who until March 2010 served as president of Chile, women are just 13 percent of elected or appointed heads of government and heads of state worldwide. That is, of the roughly 192 governments on Earth, only 25 are led by a woman.

Legislatures are little better. A global snapshot in 2010 shows that women fall far short of proportional representation, making up about 19 percent of such bodies worldwide. A decade ago, women were just 13 percent of lower houses. While the upward trend is encouraging but slow, some countries have seen swift progress. The percentage of women in Nepal’s government rose nearly 30 percentage points over the last decade, advancing Nepal 75 places in the rankings. Kyrgyzstan rose about 24 percentage points, or 60 places. In both cases, these remarkable leaps were made following the introduction or expansion of quotas, a tool described below.

When asked which nations lag in women’s representation, many cite those countries that make the news for repressive gender practices. Saudi Arabia has no women in its legislative body, but it’s not the only country with that dubious distinction. Eight other nations—only two of which are in the Middle East (aside from Belize, all others are in the South Pacific)—have no women in their lower houses, and 42 more have representation percentages in the single digits. Although most of those 42 are in Africa, the Middle East, or the South Pacific, this fact obscures two points.


Elizabeth Powley
Across Rwanda, women have come forward as candidates, taking advantage of the mechanisms introduced to advance their leadership.

First, although countries or regions thought to be progressive often escape scrutiny, their records don’t always warrant that trust. A few of the worst offenders are in Central Europe or Latin America. Ireland ranks a disappointing 83. Even France only made it to 63. Out of 132 rankings, the United States is 70th in the world, with women making up just under 17 percent of the House of Representatives. Only the Nordic countries, with nearly 42 percent, come close to half.

Second, regional rankings hide success stories few would expect. South Africa is in the top tier, at nearly 45 percent; Mozambique and Angola aren’t far behind, at about 39 percent each. Among those successes, and among governments with impressive rhetoric on gender equality, none has achieved what Rwanda has. Only there do women make up a majority of the lower house, arguably making that outlier the best case study for women in political leadership.

Rwanda intentionally advanced women in political leadership, designing innovative mechanisms and drawing on established best practices. It’s important to acknowledge the role of President Kagame. During his years leading the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, then-general Kagame included women throughout the movement. Soldiers, fund-raisers, and political officers—women proved themselves capable and dedicated. Their involvement stemmed in part from life in the crucible of exile; the rebels needed all the talent they could get. But Kagame’s direct support was essential. Political arguments aside, he continues to advocate for female leadership. During research in Rwanda in December 2009, the Institute for Inclusive Security found that he was the force cited most often by Rwandans for women’s advances.

Unlike many gender ministries, Rwanda’s Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) had an ambitious mandate after the genocide. MIGEPROF raised gender awareness and promoted gender-sensitive policies throughout the government, coordinating with gender representatives in other ministries, monitoring programs and policies to recommend improvements, and even conducting gender trainings at all levels of government.

In 1996, MIGEPROF introduced women’s councils. These 10-member committees were elected by women to represent their concerns in the general councils at all levels of administration. Those who served gained vital experience working in formal leadership with men and eventually were tapped to fill reserved seats in parliament.

Another mechanism that guaranteed women’s representation (at least 20 percent in district leadership) was the triple ballot, first used in 2001. Any candidate could run on the general ballot, but only women could run on the women’s ballot and only youth on the youth ballot. As with the councils, this structure gave women with less-impressive credentials a chance to compete, gain confidence, and gain experience. Many later ran on the general ballot.

The constitutional committee, set up in 2000 to move Rwanda beyond the post-genocide transitional period, introduced the third crucial mechanism: quotas. Three women were among the committee’s 12 members. Echoing the collaborative process that made the gender-based violence bill a success, these women partnered with civil society and male colleagues to build public support for a remarkably gender-sensitive constitution. As well as establishing a quota of 30 percent women in all decision-making organs of government, the final document references the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and requires that government bodies reflect gender equality. In the 2003 election, the first since the genocide, women jumped to nearly 49 percent of the lower house.


Tom Fitzsimmons
Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is the first elected female head of state in Africa.

When women don’t lead, countries lose. In other words, the shortage of women in political leadership isn’t only a gender issue. True, women’s political rights are violated by systems that exclude them, and other rights suffer when stakeholders are unable to shape the policies that affect them.4 Political representation is widely accepted as a universal right, set forth in the 1960s by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Without vigorous efforts to realize those rights, ethnic minorities, marginalized religious groups, and other populations remain underrepresented. In 1979, CEDAW made explicit that human rights apply to women. Out of 193 countries, only seven have not ratified the convention (Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States). Despite such overwhelming international support, ensuring women’s equal participation in public life is just one of the many provisions that remain unmet.

Where the rights argument fails to convince, a pragmatic argument might succeed—excluding more than half of the population from leadership is inefficient. The Rwandan case shows the benefits of tapping into that potential.

The leadership style of the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians was inclusive and collaborative. As researchers have found in contexts around the world, the women MPs were more likely than men to consult their constituents, to invite civil society’s participation in policy shaping, and to share power in partnerships.5,6 The GBV bill is one example of this approach. Service provision is another. When the legislature is allocating funding to communities, women MPs return to the villages, convening constituents wherever they can, sometimes even under trees. They ask what the community members prioritize and often discover that they and their male colleagues got it wrong. Yes, members of the community could use bicycles to get to the market, but they need clean water more. They could use more funding for local transitional justice mechanisms, but they need classrooms for their children more.

Those successful consultations grew out of years of informal leadership, which gave female MPs credibility at the grassroots. Rwandans are far more likely to approach representatives who are women. In those private conversations, the women MPs learn details that affect policy implementation. One leader described planning a family health center. A local woman came to her and explained that the women will come only if they can bring their families, and if their children aren’t comfortable there, the women won’t go. Build a garden nearby, so children can play while their mothers learn about nutrition. That detail improved service delivery immeasurably.

Women’s legislative priorities in the Rwandan Parliament have differed as much as their leadership style. Their efforts led to reform in 1999 of inheritance and succession laws, for the first time giving women and girls such rights. In 2001, their advocacy resulted in comprehensive child protection legislation. The FFRP has a consistent reputation for examining each bill’s impact on women, children, and families. Now, boys and girls go to school in equal numbers; women open bank accounts; mothers pass citizenship to their children; women and girls inherit, buy, and own land; and both genders conduct affairs largely on an equal legal footing.

The advantages don’t accrue just to women and children. Inequality harms society by blocking what the U.S. Agency for International Development describes as a “multiplier effect.” Women are more than three times as likely as men to spend family income on products and services that improve the health and well-being of their children.7 That, in turn, strengthens entire communities. The World Bank concluded that cash transfers to women better reinforce the community-strengthening goals of aid programs, since women focus their spending on nutrition and education.8

Still, affirming that more women should lead doesn’t get them into government, and getting women into government doesn’t optimize their impact. Indeed, there is no guarantee that women parliamentarians will advocate for all women or take an active role more generally—although we have seen them doing so more often than not. Solutions for advancing female policymakers in effective political leadership therefore have two phases. First, get the women elected. Second, build their capacity and influence.

The Problem of Political Will

Perhaps the most elusive of all obstacles is the lack of political will. Too often political leadership is invested in keeping its own hold on power, is too involved in other concerns to devote the resources to reform, or is too unconcerned about changes that no voters are demanding. Political will grows as cultural expectations evolve, but some actions can provide more immediate incentives to change.


  • Ask international donors to require government reports on women’s representation, whether or not the funds are for gender-specific issues.
  • Donors should provide incentives for progress.
  • Educate voters on the value of women’s leadership, and encourage them to voice their support for it.

Even when the rights to lead are equal, the opportunities are not. Gatherings at which women are forbidden or unwelcome can be incubators for political parties, providing leadership opportunities, training, mentorships, candidates, campaign assistance, funding, sponsorships, and, ultimately, victories.

The Problem of Legal Norms

Legal norms can establish and maintain systems wherein men retain the rights to employment, higher-level positions and pay, landownership, and inheritance—in short, economic power. Women without financial means are unable to campaign, which is a nearly insurmountable obstacle in areas where vote buying is common.


Elizabeth Powley
Rwandan schoolchildren demonstrate against human rights abuses.

Though equality in the long term relies on numerous legal reforms, a well-designed electoral system can require rapid change. Quotas are the classic example of bringing in marginalized groups to right historical wrongs or imbalances. They may set a minimum level of representation for a given group or stipulate that no single group can occupy too great a majority of seats. Constitutional mandate, electoral law, and voluntary party participation can all create quotas.

Although modest quotas for women in parliament appeared in some forms quite early—perhaps most notably in the 1956 constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan—the modern momentum started in 1970, when political parties in the Scandinavian countries established them voluntarily. Thereafter, regional leaders began implementing quotas in a number of ways. Some parliamentary systems require women to be on candidate lists or party lists but don’t specify where they must be positioned. This can result in lists top-heavy with men, leaving the women unlikely to win. “Zippered” lists correct this kind of imbalance by requiring, for example, that women be every third candidate. Beyond party lists, a “reserved seats” approach focuses on the outcome by setting a legal minimum of elected women in a given governmental body.

Progress has been uneven but steady. Individual parties in a few countries, such as Uruguay and Spain, adopted voluntary quotas in the 1980s. South Africa jumped from 141 to 13 in world rankings in 1994, after the ruling ANC party insisted on 30 percent representation of women from the local to national levels. Argentina led the way in Latin America with electoral reform in 1991.

In the four decades since Scandinavia sparked the movement, 40 countries have established parliamentary quotas mandated by constitution or required by electoral law. Political parties in 53 countries have voluntarily set internal party quotas, whether or not national law dictates the policy. Indeed, six of the 10 countries ranked highest for women’s representation have voluntary political party quotas.9

Yet the effects of quotas are uneven. The laws may be written with loopholes, such as candidate lists that don’t require zippering. Enforcement may be weak or nonexistent. Backroom deals may bypass the general pool of women candidates in favor of those connected to power brokers. In spite of these risks, quotas remain one of our most effective tools for achieving equality of representation.


  • Include women in drafting constitutions or electoral-system legislation.
  • Fund civil society programs that educate the public about women’s right to representation.
  • Track compliance with new policies at the ministry level, to show top-level support for bringing women into leadership.
  • Provide public financing for campaigns, limiting other sources of funding.
  • Establish mechanisms such as women-only ballots, which will accustom electorates to women candidates.

The Problem of Cultural Norms

The legacy of cultural norms creates immense inertia. Changing them requires attention to their causes, heightened public awareness, and targeted logistical support. As noted above, one such legacy is women’s exclusion from social networks that serve as incubators for political leadership. Legal reforms will help, but it’s also valuable to use existing social structures. Women’s traditional networks in civil society can be used as pipelines from the grassroots to the national level.


Farah Council
At a workshop in Kabul, women civil society leaders prepare for participation in Afghanistan’s June 2010 National Consultative Peace Jirga. Shown here is a page on which they collaborated to draft recommendations on the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Program. They presented strategies for demobilization and reintegration of armed groups, negotiations, grievance resolution and traditional justice, and the inclusion of communities in reconciliation and reintegration.

Exclusive circles of influence are not just a feature of repressive societies. In the United States, where the media industry can be an equalizer in campaigns, it often is not. Journalism and mass communication students are 65 percent women, but only 24 percent of new media jobs go to them. It’s worse in media decision-making positions, only three percent of which are held by women. Does this distortion affect coverage? Influential political shows host male guests four times as often as women, and the National Communications Association has observed that the press covers women less often than men, offers little about women’s policies, and comments much about their appearance.10,11 If candidacies rise or fall based on visibility, then the media matters—and the networks that feed into media leadership matter.

Safety and logistics also depend on cultural factors. Women in areas with extremist elements face grave physical danger yet lack protection. During Afghanistan’s legislative elections in September 2010, 413 candidates were women. President Karzai had increased the number of seats reserved for women and fixed electoral loopholes that had encouraged harming female candidates. The incentive for harm was removed, but cultural resistance to female candidacy remains. According to the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, nine out of ten threats against candidates targeted women.

Traditional roles hold women back in ways that are simple but difficult to overcome. Where boys are prioritized, girls are excluded from education, stunting their preparation for leadership. Nearly universally regarded as children’s primary caregivers and the ones most responsible for managing the household, women are far less able to leave the home. While 120 countries provide paid maternity leave, fewer than 50 countries provide any kind of paternity leave; the latter often is limited to a day or a week.12

Cultural norms are slow to change. In the meantime, solutions can start with logistics: easing the pressures in women’s daily lives that may stop them from getting involved politically and lowering barriers to entry into local government, which can be a training ground for higher-level legislative leadership.


  • Link female community organizers with local policymakers to build a transition to political leadership.
  • Train women on election law and campaigning.
  • Connect women in civil society to high-level political leadership to share best practices, set up mentoring, and create a pipeline of candidates from local government.
  • Monitor the media to document biased coverage of candidates.
  • Train journalists in gender-balanced coverage.
  • Encourage lawmakers to visit their constituents, to distribute literature about women’s right to political engagement, and to raise the visibility of existing female leadership.
  • Provide transportation and protection to female candidates who must travel long distances to participate or who face threats.
  • Hold government meetings in local languages to engage women without formal education.
  • Lower the education requirements for candidacy.
  • Support cooperatives for child care to free up women otherwise unable to leave the home.
  • Offer day-care centers in legislative buildings and limit evening meetings, when women typically have other responsibilities.
  • Require girls to attend school and encourage boys to participate in household tasks.

The Problem of Capacity and Influence

Once in government, women don’t automatically become the powerhouses that research has shown they can be. Lack of capacity and political allies can limit female legislators’ impact, but addressing these gaps must take into account long-standing imbalances in education and experience. Women’s confidence and ability to legislate will improve with training in advocacy to advance women’s agendas; with coalition building to enhance their presence in legislatures; with message management to ensure they’re heard loud and clear; and with issue-specific training, so that women participate with authority in policymaking on the most pressing national challenges.

Optimal effectiveness also may require a “critical mass” of women leaders. The idea that women exhibit styles of leadership and priorities different from those of men only when they achieve a certain proportion in the institution has its roots in the late 1970s but picked up momentum a decade later.13,14 Many have discussed the estimate that critical mass is achieved at around 30 percent, which is a challenging benchmark without quotas.15

Lacking strong measures or creative solutions, legislatures must fall back on traditional processes, such as making it to the top of party lists via power within political parties. Rwanda’s RPF—the party that grew out of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front—has strong internal dynamics for candidate selection and places a high value on women’s inclusion. The reason for that emphasis, however, may rely too heavily on the kind of high-level support that few parties elsewhere can expect. In cases where party leadership does not prioritize women, political power generally is granted to those who rise in the networks, who have connections and status. That is, men.

Parliamentary caucuses can take on some functions that men’s networks do, building connections among government and civil society leaders with access to networks, training, and publicity. A forum in which to build consensus around a unified agenda, such as that modeled by the FFRP, can also be a corrective in parliaments where a greater number of women has not resulted in more effective leadership.


  • Provide skill-building in advocacy, agenda setting, coalition building, message management, and context-specific issues.
  • Encourage senior-level women to mentor local leaders, for example, by setting up convening structures such as an informal association of current and past women leaders from all levels of government.
  • Explore triple ballots and similar mechanisms to guarantee women’s representation and to provide leadership opportunities.
  • Set quotas for women’s participation at all levels of government and in all branches, especially through constitutional mandate.
  • Provide training on best practices for parliamentary caucuses.16
  • Convene women’s group leaders to strengthen women’s support networks and agendas.

The cost of women’s exclusion isn’t just women’s exclusion—it’s ineffective governance. Poverty, lack of education, poor health, institutionalized inequality, gender-based violence, social unrest: the problems women face are the problems society faces. Though these claims do not apply to all women and all issues, an encouraging picture has emerged: empower women in formal leadership structures, and they can disrupt the cycle of poverty, identify the most vital problems, and transform the dynamic between government and stakeholders. Fortunately, governments making strides can point the way to solutions for those still stumbling.


Roxane Wilber

Roxane Wilber is a senior researcher and writer at the Institute for Inclusive Security, where she conducts primary and secondary research on women’s leadership in peace-building, politics, and other...

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