Since Argentina adopted the world’s first gender quota law in 1991, scholars and policymakers have been captivated by the causes and consequences of affirmative action in politics. Argentina’s law initially required that each party nominate 30 percent women to run for the Chamber of Deputies, and other Latin American countries passed similar legislation throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Presently, all Latin American countries save Guatemala and Venezuela have adopted gender quota laws (and even Venezuela constitutes a partial case since, in the absence of legislation, the electoral institute enforces gender parity in parties’ candidate registrations). Domestic and international pressure to appear modern and inclusive, combined with sustained lobbying by women’s and feminist groups, accelerated quotas’ spread throughout the region.
The effective implementation of gender quotas means that many Latin American countries outpace the Scandinavian nations in terms of women’s numerical representation in national legislatures. Yet observers continue to insist that such quantitative gains are symbolic achievements only, given that female legislators’ increased presence has neither radically transformed policy outcomes nor made congressional politics more responsive and less corrupt. Affirmative action in politics, the critics say, merely elects elite women who continue to preserve the status quo.
In a recently published article, I counter this “skeptical narrative” by highlighting how quota adoption and implementation positions Latin American states as gender equality activists. This argument assesses quotas’ effectiveness not from the perspective of female legislators’ action or inaction, but from the perspective of state power, which has been routinely leveraged to strengthen and expand affirmative action’s reach. Evaluating quotas’ success by looking to female legislators’ achievements sets the bar too high: policymaking is slow, complex, and structured by partisan interests, and all legislators (not just women) must bear responsibility for increased fairness, transparency, and representativity. (Though empirical evidence does show that female legislators have played critical roles in reforming Latin America’s laws on contraceptive access, gender-based violence, and sex trafficking.)
Looking to state power offers a more optimistic picture of quotas’ diffusion throughout Latin America. Nearly all countries have reformed their first-generation quota laws at least once, typically to tighten regulations on parties’ ability to shirk the quota: for example, typical reforms prevented parties from clustering women in unwinnable positions or districts. Other reforms raised quotas’ initial thresholds, typically set at 20 or 30 percent, to gender parity, or 50 percent, and applied quotas to subnational as well as national elections. Reforms occurred in legislatures, but also in other state institutions, including the executive (via presidential decrees) and the autonomous electoral tribunals. The latter have been especially active, sanctioning parties for noncompliance, expanding regulations to close loopholes, and affirming quotas as fundamental to women’s exercise of their electoral rights. Underlying this state activism are gender equality commitments, enshrined in Latin America’s constitutions and non-discrimination laws. Shallow promises quickly yielded concrete steps that successfully raised the percentage of women in government.
The evolution of gender quota laws in Latin America thus offers reasons for optimism rather than cynicism. Individual governments did initially adopt gender equality measures for symbolic reasons, in order to cultivate support among female voters and to appear more modern. Yet once quotas were adopted, they became part of the state—the same states that had signed international gender equality treaties, adopted equal rights clauses in their constitutions, and passed equal opportunity and non-discrimination laws. Quotas’ strengthening and expansion emerged from these commitments. Most notably, electoral and supreme courts established far-reaching jurisprudence that did more than affirm the constitutionality of affirmative action: they judged quotas as essential for correcting past historic, systematic discrimination. The constitutional court in Costa Rica, for instance, ruled that gender quotas sought not just equal opportunity, but equal results, validating all legal measures designed to elect (rather than merely nominate) women in the same proportions as men.
These developments have rapidly reconfigured the distribution of government and state power in Latin America. Seven countries—Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama—have traded quotas for parity, mandating that parties run gender-balanced candidate lists. Parity laws in several countries extend these gender-balance requirements to the executive and the judicial branches. Bolivia elected the world’s second majority-female legislature in 2014 (53 percent women occupy seats in the lower house). Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico have sought parity in the distribution of mayoral offices. Many quota and parity laws now include specific provisions that compel parties to place women on their governing boards and to allocate money for recruiting and training female candidates.
Taken together, these policy innovations send a clear message: the daily business of politics requires women’s presence, and affirmative action constitutes a legitimate means for obtaining this presence. Quota and parity laws do not pretend to solve Latin America’s democratic ills: female politicians alone cannot restore trust, eliminate corruption, improve macroeconomic performance, and end crime. However, Latin American states’ positive efforts to include female politicians in legislative, executive, and judicial decision-making indicates that such transformations cannot be undertaken without women’s full and equal participation.
This article is based on the article “States as Gender Equality Activists: The Evolution of Quota Laws in Latin America”, published in Latin American Politics and Society: