Burundi’s Quota for Women in Politics Has Had Mixed Results, but That’s No Reason to Scrap It

Since 2005, Burundi has set quotas to ensure that the country’s three ethnic groups (Hutu, Tutsi and Twa), as well as women, are represented in its parliament, central government and municipal administrations. Its constitution states that women should make up at least 30% of these institutions.

The senate, Burundi’s highest chamber of parliament, recently started a process of evaluating ethnic quotas in political institutions. This process is expected to lead to recommendations on whether quotas should continue to be used. Regrettably, the evaluation lacks methodological rigour and transparency.

As researchers with a focus on gender representation in politics, we believe this is a missed opportunity. Gender and ethnic quotas have been adopted in Burundi as a forward-looking solution to sustainable peace. A decision about removing them should be based on whether they have met (or can meet) their goals.

In a recent paper, we examined whether gender quotas foster Burundian women’s political representation.

We drew on data covering the period between October 2001 and June 2020 to determine three things:

  • whether Burundian political actors abide by the gender quotas
  • the relative importance of ministerial portfolios allocated to women
  • whether these gender quotas have had an effect on government positions where they aren’t mandated.

Read more: Political representation: ethnicity trumps gender in Burundi and Rwanda

We found that gender quotas have gradually resulted in women being assigned to prominent ministerial portfolios. The impact of this, however, has been mixed.

Women have remained confined to typically “feminine”, care-giving ministerial portfolios, such as health and education, over nearly two decades. They have been excluded from portfolios such as defence, security and foreign affairs. Their representation as senior advisers to the president or as CEOs of parastatals has remained marginal.

Our research illustrates that embedding gender quotas in the constitution can fast-track representation. But it doesn’t necessarily spiral beyond the targeted positions and institutions. This implies that any policy targeting an increase in women’s representation needs to take into account the broader political setting.

While formal mechanisms to enforce gender quotas in government and parliament in Burundi are in place, they are absent in other important and sought-after positions, such as parastatal CEO or provincial governor.

Meeting the gender quota

Gender quotas have been consistently respected in Burundi since 2005.

The country has one of the highest shares of women in parliament. It ranks 41st out of 145 countries in the 2023 global political empowerment metric.

This is mostly because gender quotas are compatible with clientelistic politics. Most women positions are allocated to people related to key regime figures. This has led to the increasing assignment of women to key portfolios like justice, health and education.

In theory, one might expect that gender quotas would affect both the supply and demand side of women political elites, triggering an upsurge in women’s representation.

Burundi’s cabinet ministers, of whom 30% are women, nominate individuals to head departments under their jurisdiction. The pool of qualified candidates for such positions has increased as more women take on political responsibilities. Ideally, this should facilitate the nomination of women, even when there are no quotas.

But the gender quotas in Burundi have fallen short of spilling over into quota-free positions. Women are still under-represented as senior advisers to the president, permanent secretaries in ministries or CEOs of parastatals.

Our interviews with political elites and women civil society activists revealed two ways women are sidelined.

First, women are not fully embedded in the formal and informal structures that decide who to appoint where and when.

For instance, women are not in the ruling party’s main decision-making body, Conseil des Sage (council of the wise). They are also not part of the ruling party’s Cercle des Généraux (circle of generals). This is a group of former army and police generals who enjoy a de facto veto right to any important decisions. Equally important, women aren’t appointed as provincial and municipal party executive secretaries. These are the career brokers and connectors between grassroots ruling party structures, the party’s leadership and the president.

Second, the ruling party has increasingly relied on coercion to maintain its dominance in politics since 2005. It relies heavily on hardliners, most of whom are former combatants in Imbonerakure, the party’s youth league, or Abahumure, party veterans.

In the paramilitary power configuration that has prevailed in Burundi since the ruling party’s accession to power, the ability to wage violence has become a valued “skill set”. This is a comparative disadvantage for women, leading to their under-representation in appointed positions where gender quotas don’t apply.

Opportunistic use of quotas

Our research found that women made important gains in high-value ministerial positions, in cabinet positions and in provincial governor positions in the 2015-2020 legislature. Their representation in high-visibility ministries increased, growing their political role.

On the surface of it, it may appear to be due to the gender quota policy. However, this would have taken a longer time to produce the desired effects. In our view, the 2015-2020 legislature resulted from a chaotic and contested electoral process in 2015 that was marred by massive human rights violations.

This election prompted key donors, such as the European Union, to withdraw support to the government. We see what resulted as an opportunistic use of gender quotas as a window dressing strategy. It was an effort to sanitise a regime that had become an international pariah.

What next

Gender quotas have the potential to increase women’s representation in decision-making positions. However, to lead to sustainable change, governments need to take into account informal political practices. These include the role played by multiple layers of clientelistic networks in accessing key political positions. Women’s integration in political parties’ formal and informal structures would better level the playing field.

Reginas Ndayiragije, Associate researcher, University of Antwerp

Petra Meier, Professor of Politics, University of Antwerp

Stef Vandeginste, Associate Professor, University of Antwerp

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