Inclusion without Influence: Women, Power and the Quota System in Guyana
The above photo is of the National Assembly of the Parliament of Guyana.
The following extract has been adapted from the above chapter in Negotiating Gender, Policy and Politics in the Caribbean: Feminist Strategies, Masculinist Resistance and Transformational Possibilities.
"Guyana still suffers from an unbalanced distribution of power, access, and material gains between men and women, with men predominating."
A series of constitutional reforms in 1998 and 1999, resulting predominantly from the mobilization of Guyana’s feminist movement and influences from the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, gave birth to the establishment of an electoral quota system, making Guyana, in 2001, the first country in the Anglophone Caribbean to legally and systematically promote higher representation of women within the political sphere. The quota law stipulates that the total number of women on each party’s national top-up list be at least one third of the total number. However, there is no mandatory law about the number of women to be selected to the National Assembly and political parties are allowed to allocate their parliamentary seats as they wish. Nonetheless, while the constitution does not require one third women to actually be extracted from the list and placed in the National Assembly, it is strongly recommended that women are represented “in and around” the one third benchmark of the total number of parliamentarians. In fact, the Carter Centre on its most recent visit to Guyana expressed concern that while the Representation of the People Act mandates that one-third of the lists of candidates on the national top up list be female, there is no requirement imposed on the parties to do the same for the National Assembly (Kaieteur News 2015).
Guyana’s quota system has indeed acted as a catalyst for the representation and inclusion of women in politics at the level of parliament as well as in other levels of government. But while the quota system has been successful in increasing the visibility and descriptive representation of women and certainly creating space for some women, it has not managed to bridge the distance between women and patriarchal norms, patriarchal state processes and patriarchal state structures. Nor has it translated into substantive increased representation of women in leadership roles outside parliament or increased representation of women’s issues within parliament. Women’s participation and involvement in the decision making process and in top level management has traditionally been terribly skewed and Guyana’s quota system has had little effect on translating the gains related to participation and empowerment of women in politics to other spaces, such as arenas where women have traditionally been marginalized like on state boards and in the country’s corporate world.
One of the central reasons that Guyana’s quota system has had little impact on translating the gains related to participation and involvement of women in politics to other arenas such as state boards, commissions, and women in corporate Guyana is because the quota system is grounded in a feminist framework that seeks justice by focusing on women’s empowerment. The problem however is that it seeks justice in a national context where the struggle for women’s empowerment has already been delegitimized by the destructive effects of male privilege and a pervasive myth of male marginalization that positions men as the disempowered victims of women. Thus quotas, which seek to ensure a mere 30 percent of women in parliament end up reinforcing an overall view that women do not need access to more power because they already have enough, further invisibilising and reducing the significance of male power even when the numbers tell a different story of women’s continuing inequality. This is an example of how the women’s rights and empowerment discourse becomes systemically undermined ideologically and materially. It has therefore been counterproductive in Guyana’s case as it places women as the main category of analysis in a masculine and traditionally patriarchal dominated and controlled space. As a result, patriarchy prevails and feminism is policed (Khan 2014). While Guyana can boast legislation such as the Peoples Representation Act, a “high” number of women in parliament, along with women’s bureaus and commissions, the country continues to misunderstand gender, gender inequality, and the role, responsibility, and capacity of these structures to deal with inequality and the advancing of gender justice. Eudine Barriteau argues that “we can achieve conditions of “equality” and still have an “unjust” outcome (Barriteau 2007) and to an extent this is what appears to be the problem in Guyana, with an attractive looking electoral quota that does not translate to equality in reality. While the country may have policies, and systems, and politicians that talk a good talk, Guyana still suffers from an unbalanced distribution of power, access, and material gains between men and women, with men predominating. For some, equality appears to be alive and well, but as Barriteau points out, there is often a tendency to focus on the concept of gender equality rather than delving into an analysis of gender justice. Often times, like in Guyana, the vision for equality and the targets that are set out, differ from implementation, norms and practices on the ground. While women may have the right to participate in various activities and positions of power, the gender prejudices and injustices that inhibit women from effectively and equally participating retain their power and cannot be ignored.
Barriteau, Eudine. 2007. "30 years towards Equality - How many More? The Mandate of the Bureau of Gender Affairs in Promoting Gender Justice in the Barbadian State." Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, Issue 1, 15p.
Kaieteur News, 2015. "Gender must be Central in the Formulation of Policies" August 2015. Accessed from: http://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2015/08/29/gender-must-be-central-in-the-formulation-of-policies-sita-nagamootoo/
Khan, Iman. 2014. "Advancing Gender Justice? The Opportunities, Resistances, and Limitations of Guyana's Quota System." IDRC Research Report 106430-001. Ottawa, ON Canada: International Development Research Centre.
Gabrielle Hosein is a Lecturer in the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. She has published in Feminist Review and contributed chapters to edited collections.
Jane Parpart is Research Professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at McCormack Graduate School in the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is coeditor with Marysia Zalewski of Rethinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations (2008), and co-author of Women, Employment and the Family in the International Division of Labour (2013).