Are Women in Government an Accurate Representation of Equality?

This post was submitted directly to the WomanStats Blog by the original author and published with her permission. The content was taken from a paper originally written for Dr. Rose McDermott’s “Women and War” course taught at Brown University.


In 1995, the 4th World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, called for all countries to ensure that their government was made up of at least 30% women at the national level, codifying the number of women in government as a leading marker of progress towards equality.[1] While statistics about female representation are easy to understand, they oversimplify gender equality to only what can be seen in the public sphere. The reliance on public-facing variables like the number of women in government obscures the lived experiences of women, particularly those who hold marginalized identities.

However, the public representation of women does not correlate with the private treatment of women. The private sphere encompasses the actions and beliefs of an individual either within the house or in an individual relationship. It is often the actions within the home and the ingrained biases that are not publicly shown, making the private sphere important because it reveals biases through behavior. The distinction between the public and private is critical to understanding the discrepancy between how countries present gender equality and the lived experiences of women. Women make up 38% of the federal government in Ethiopia and Argentina, 12% above the global average. Examining the two countries in conjunction highlights that despite shared gender parity legislation, issues of gender equality manifest in distinct ways within the private sphere.

This analysis of Argentina and Ethiopia rejects commonly held theories that women in government directly cause higher levels of gender equality. Looking at experiences and understandings of sexual violence in both countries reveals how women do not serve as a panacea to inequality. Bodily security is central to discussions of equality because it threatens women on the most basic level but also serves as an explanatory factor for how inequality plays out in the rest of society. Cultural norms that reinforce male dominance lead to violence against women.[2] This theory bridges the gap between the experiences of violence in Argentina and Ethiopia and each countries’ ostensible gender progress.

While rape is illegal in Argentina, the standards for what constitutes rape reflect entrenched norms that protect men over women. Rape prosecutions are often based on whether the perpetrator used force, not whether the victim gave consent.[3] In addition, sex crimes more generally are prosecuted ex officio, meaning that an individual has to pursue prosecution rather than the state.[4] This leaves victims of sex crimes vulnerable to further harm and intimidation from their abuser or from others in their lives who want to avoid conflict. Placing the burden of action on the victim is not productive for meaningful legal action against sex offenders. Furthermore, the policy implies to victims that their trauma is a private matter rather than a public concern.[5] It shows that the state views sex crimes as a matter between two people rather than a danger to all people, again proving the institutional hypocrisy between the progressive public sphere which turns a blind eye to injustice in the private sphere.

Despite its high number of women in government, Ethiopia still has significant barriers for the safety of women in the private sphere. Perhaps most emblematic of the unwillingness to address the private sphere, Ethiopian law does not consider rape within marriage a crime.[6] The institution of marriage is a protected space where men can do what they want to their wives without interference from the state, demonstrating the state’s lack of interest in the private treatment of women. 59% of women in Ethiopia have experienced sexual violence.[7] But the issue further reveals itself through the lack of understanding that men have of sexual violence. The majority of school-aged boys surveyed in Addis Ababa could not name a concrete example of sexual violence, despite the fact that most girls reported experiencing sexual violence regularly.[8]

Comparing the aggregate experiences of women in Ethiopia and Argentina shows that increased representation alone does not change gender equality. On the surface, Argentina and Ethiopia appear to be making great strides towards gender equality, but an analysis of sexual violence in both countries reveals the private sphere to still be incredibly dangerous for women. Public-facing data alone is not able to crack into the private sphere and affect change. While gender quotas have drastically changed the face of governments across the world, let us think of them as the first step towards progress and not as the outcome of gender equality. When we begin to think of gender equality as a holistic and multistage process, we can go beyond symbolic change and make gender equality a reality. We cannot rely on women in government as a panacea to inequality. Achieving lived equality requires an interrogation of the markers we use to measure progress in order to make that progress meaningful.

-by Sarah Campbell Tucker


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[1] “Women in Power and Decision-Making,” Platform for Action, The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (September 1995).

[2] Htun, Mala and Weldon, S. Laurel, “The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change,” American Political Science Review, vol. 109, no. 1 (2015): 549.

[3] “UN Special rapporteur challenges Argentina to step up protection of women in ‘machismo culture’” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (November 21, 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Allen, Mary and Raghallaigh, Muireann Ní, “Domestic Violence in a Developing Context: The Perspectives of Women in Northern Ethiopia,” Affilia, vol. 28, no. 3 (2013): 258.

[7] Le Mat, Marielle, “Sexual violence is not good for our country’s development,” Gender and Education, vol. 28, no. 4 (2016): 564.

[8] Ibid. 569.

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