Does the Election of More Women Lead to Women Being Better Represented: The Case of Peru

By Kiara Castaman Diaz.

This article explores the relationship between female representation in government and the general environment of women’s rights within a country. The article focuses specifically on Peru, which has high rates of female representation in Parliament, but also high rates of gender discrimination and violence against women.

Female members of parliament from all over the world meeting in the House of Commons in the UK. (Source: UK Parliament Twitter)

Enhancing women’s political representation has been one of the most attractive measures to reduce the gender gap around the world. Enhancing women’s public and political representation is vital to improving women’s life quality in society. There is empirical evidence of the benefits that gender quotas can bring besides increasing the political participation of women. In some cases, quotas have led to a higher recognition of women’s rights in general. In countries like Belgium or Norway, the introduction of political gender quotas has increased the number of women in company boards. In Latin America, in countries like Argentina and Costa Rica women’s rights are now centered in the national political agenda.

Nevertheless, quota implementation is still controversial. Many detractors think that establishing quotas affects the principle of equal opportunities, typical of a liberal democratic system. Others argue that quotas “impose” the inclusion of candidates not reflecting people’s preferences. The radicals believe that quotas allow the inclusion of unqualified people to power.

An argument supported by quota detractors is that a limited group of women cannot represent all the various identities that women embody. This debate goes around descriptive representation as a preliminary step to ensuring substantive representation in political institutions.

Peru is one of the Latin American countries with highest rates of discrimination and violence against women. The World Health Organization affirms that Peru is the third most dangerous country for women in the world since the number of rapes and femicides keep increasing across the country. To date, Peruvian girls and women remain a high-risk population due to persistent gender inequality. 

However, female presence in Parliament has increased since the implementation of gender quotas in 1997. From that moment, electoral legislation changed towards greater participation of women in the political arena. Nowadays, regional and national electoral lists have to include a 30 per cent minimum of female candidates. 

To date, Peruvian girls and women remain a high-risk population due to persistent gender inequality. However, female presence in Parliament has increased since the implementation of gender quotas in 1997.

Within the electoral gender quota implementation, this essay evaluates how the increment of women in the Peruvian Parliament (descriptive representation) is related to changes in female-friendly legislation (substantive representation). This essay presents three examples of gender-based debates in the current Parliament and the reactions of women as political representatives between 2016-2018.

The Gender Quotas

Establishing quotas is based on the idea that raising the presence of vulnerable people in political institutions would create a favourable scenario to orient legislation towards this population’s benefit. The gender quota is an affirmative action mechanism that aims to select women or men for positions in government institutions and ensure that no gender is marginalised from political life or has a purely decorative presence.

In a context of the gender-based inequalities affecting women, electoral quotas force the nominating bodies to recruit, nominate or select more women for political positions in democratic systems.

IDEA International distinguishes three types of gender quotas currently in use: Reserved seats (constitutional and/or legislative), Legal candidate quotas (constitutional and/or legislative), and Political party quotas (voluntary). 

The first one regulates the number of women elected, and the number of reserved seats depends on the decision makers. The last two set a minimum for the share of women on the candidate lists, either as a legal requirement or a measure written into the statutes of each political party.

The establishing of gender quotas can be mandated either by the constitution, by the electoral laws -as it happened in Peru- or by a voluntary decision of political parties.

The Implementation of Gender Quotas in Peruvian Government Institutions

In Peru, the implementation of gender quotas started in 1997 with an adjustment of the electoral legislation (legal candidate quota). The political decision to do it was based on international and local factors, as the ex-member of the Parliament, Anel Townsend mentioned:

“The numerous meetings Peru participated in 1994 granted special legitimacy to the decision of approving the Quota Law in Peru, especially the Beijing Conference where [Alberto] Fujimori was the only Head of State who attended. Fujimori’s strategy was to improve his image and capture the political support of women in Peru, within a situation which his allegations of authoritarianism, corruption and violation of human rights were already beginning to echo in international forums”.

Figure 1: Proportion of seats (%) held by women in the Parliament, Peru, 1997-2017. Data from the World Bank (2018)

Beyond the President’s agenda, the gender quota was established and kept improving. It went from a requirement of 25 per cent minimum of male and female candidates in Parliament lists, to 30 per cent at national and regional candidates’ level. Hence, the number of women in government institutions increased as well, as Figure 1 shows. From 1997 until 2006 each adjustment to the Peruvian electoral law led to an increase in the share of female members of Parliament for each electoral period. 

Nevertheless, it was not until 2016 when public demands for women’s rights started in the country. Following the ideals of the Latin American social movement “Ni Una Menos” (‘not one [woman] less’), numerous civil collectives began demanding the criminalization of discrimination and violence against women. This was a particular demand based on the increasingly high rates of femicides and physical violence affecting the female population in the country shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Number of femicides and femicide attempts registered in Women Emergency Centers (WEC), Peru, by year 2009-2018. Data from the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Population (2018)

The demand was clear: changes in the legislation that criminalised gender-based violence. Several civil organisations clamoured for the reinforcement of laws against discrimination, rape, and murder affecting girls and women in Peru. The first ‘Ni Una Menos’ protest drew in up to 500,000 people.

Thus, discussions towards the policies required to promote gender equality became a matter of national debate. The protests around the country increased, the groups and social pro-women’s rights organisations acquired presence and support from social media, television, radio, and the streets. For the first time, media shared the testimonials of victims who decided to raise their voices against inequality, indifference, and impunity.

This moment proved pivotal in two regards. First, the heightened awareness about women’s vulnerability led to more accurate registration of misogynous crimes. Second, the dynamism of the protests became organized, manifested in citizen groups demanding concrete legislative changes.

Within this context, the number of women in parliament was the highest since the quota implementation: 36 women (27 per cent) — seemingly fertile ground to reduce the gender gap. However, of the 29 gender-related laws proposed by various parliamentary committees, only three were discussed and approved by the Parliament. The approved laws were focused on punitive actions towards the perpetrator, promoting a very narrow view of the gender-based violence. No prevention measures were considered, and violence against women was considered an unavoidable issue. 

When, in 2016, the Minister of Education tried to tackle gender inequality by its roots by introducing a gender equality approach to the national curriculum, the Parliament shot it down: An emergency session was set to evaluate the censorship of the Minister and his reforms. With 74 votes in favour, the Parliament censored Minister Saavedra and eliminated the “gender ideology” from the educational system. 23 out of the 36 women in Parliament supported this decision. Almost 64 per cent of the women representatives voted against the education based on equal rights, duties, and opportunities between men and women.

23 out of the 36 women in Parliament supported this decision. Almost 64 per cent of the women representatives voted against the education based on equal rights, duties, and opportunities between men and women.

In addition to that, in July 2018 a big corruption scandal became public. A recorded personal phone call was released — the president of the Second Transitory Criminal Court of the Supreme Court giving an illegal pardon to a criminal. The crime was sexual abuse, and the victim was a ten-year-old girl.

The scandal opened up the debate of gender quotas in the highest level of the Justice sector: The National Council of the Magistracy. In September 2018, the Parliament Committee of Justice and Human Rights voted against this quota implementation. Of the 11 members who rejected the implementation of gender parity, four were women (36 per cent).

Finally, the current President of Peru suggested increasing the gender quota on the parliamentary lists up to 50 per cent. To this, the President of the Parliament Constitution Committee, Rosa Bartra (female), responded: “Women need spaces to participate, but these should not be imposed by quotas. I do not think that a measure like this would necessarily help women, we may end up forcing the participation of women into politics”, providing a striking reminder that gender quotas are not well accepted among every woman in power. 

From Descriptive to Substantive Representation

As we can see, in a context characterized by historically high female political representation and increasing national and international feminist collective action, there was no positive response from the Parliament. The possible explanations might not be related to the share of female members in government institutions but related to representatives’ political affiliation.

For the electoral period 2016-2018, 72 per cent of female parliament members were from Fuerza Popular (FP), a right-wing conservative party. Also known as Fujimorismo, this party was founded by Alberto Fujimori, today in custody for human rights violations and corruption. The current party leader is Keiko Fujimori, the ex-dictator’s daughter, who is in custody as well. Fujimorism has been accused of being responsible for the forced sterilization of more than 250 000 women in the nineties when Keiko was the First Lady.

With an absolute majority in the parliament, FP’s actions have never been aligned to a feminist agenda. The 23 women who voted against a national educational curriculum based on gender equality principles were all members of FP. When the parliament discussed establishing a gender quota in the high-level of the justice system the four women who voted against were from FP. Finally, Rosa Bartra, quoted in example is affiliated to FP as well.

As Mariz Tadros argues, the introduction of quotas is not necessarily an expression of feminist agency. Quotas can be implemented by profoundly undemocratic politicians to undermine the power base of their opposition or to make a statement about their modern credentials. The presence of disadvantaged groups like women can expand the scope of decision making not necessarily to follow progressive ideals. 

There is evidence that conservative women in power considered feminist movements as their strong opponents. It is necessary to bear in mind that politicians’ identities matter in their decisions. Identity is a complex social construction which can be based on gender, ethnicity, class, or political affiliation.

It is necessary to bear in mind that politicians’ identities matter in their decisions. Identity is a complex social construction which can be based on gender, ethnicity, class, or political affiliation.

Fujimorism has been linked to misogynous attitudes since 1990, which suggests that promoting gender equality is not a party priority. The party-political decisions might be aligned to different goals. As is evident, female members of FP used their position in power to represent an agenda not intent on furthering gender equality.

Conclusions

Finally, for the electoral period of 2016- 2018 it is possible to conclude that in Peru, descriptive representation was not linked to substantive representation, from a gender quota approach. Women in power were aligned to a party agenda rather than to a feminist agenda.

The electoral gender quota in Peru increased the number of female members in the Parliament and other electoral candidacies. But since the quota was established, no significant female-friendly laws have been implemented. 

Even though the gender quota implementation also brought the attention of population and media towards the gender gap, rates of gender-based violence are still high in Peru. It affects female girls, adolescents, and adults in multidimensional ways. 

Intersectional identities of women in power can explain why the majority of female representation in Parliament are not promoting gender equality. More than 70 per cent of women in the current Parliament is from the party “Fuerza Popular”, a party which has a long history of misogynous policies. Female decision-making in Parliament is based on a political affiliation rather than a gender-based identity.


Kiara is from Peru where she did her Bachelors in Sociology. She is interested in inequality, power and political participation in authoritarian regimes. Prior to starting her Masters in Poverty and Development at IDS she was working as a teacher assistant at the undergrad level and also at an NGO in Lima. 


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