Political representation: ethnicity trumps gender in Burundi and Rwanda

Rwanda holds the world record in share of female MPs. Emmanuel Berrod/WIPO/Flickr

Only one in five members of parliament, across the world, are women. To increase female political representation, many countries have introduced some form of gender quota – ensuring women are guaranteed a fixed number of slots.

This has resulted in an increase in the number of women in government, which is largely seen as a necessary step towards equal gender rights.

In a recent study, we looked at the impact of gender quotas in Rwanda and Burundi. In both countries we found that the introduction of quotas had substantially increased the number of women holding office.

But our research went beyond just establishing whether there were more women representatives in government. We set about finding out how women in the two countries felt about having more women in positions of power in government.

What we found was that women identified more with their government representatives based on questions of ethnicity rather than gender. In fact, we found that women felt as strongly about ethnicity as men did.

The fact that ethnicity trumps gender representation for women in the country is an important finding as it shows that ethnicity still dominates the hearts and minds of people.

What we found

We chose Rwanda and Burundi because of their striking similarities: they both emerged from dramatic periods of inter-ethnic conflict, both share a colonial history and have similar cultural and linguistic characteristics.

They also share the same ethnic make-up of the population with a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority.

Gender quotas of 30% female representatives were introduced in 2003 in Rwanda and 2005 in Burundi. These have led to a substantial increase in the number of female political representatives. Rwanda now holds the world record in share of female MPs, reaching 61.3% this year. Burundi is also a good performer; over 35% of parliament is made up of women and the share of female ministers is consistently above 30%.

We analysed more than 700 life history interviews collected between four and nine years after the introduction of gender quotas. These were done with a mix of men, women, Hutu and Tutsi, from Rwanda and Burundi.

Researchers use life histories to trace changes in people’s lives over a period of time. Life histories are an excellent way to understand how important changes in a political situation affect – or don’t affect – the lives of individuals.

Apart from telling their stories, the interviewees were also asked to rank how they felt about their political representatives.

Comparing the rankings across men and women, we didn’t find any significant difference in how they perceived their political representatives over time. In fact, very few respondents even mentioned the gender of the political representatives when the issue of representation was raised. Instead, the issue of ethnicity was raised. We deduced from this that men, and women, were more interested in the ethnicity of their representatives than in their gender.

Policy implications

Burundi and Rwanda both introduced gender quotas in the aftermath of large-scale inter-ethnic violence.

Both countries also tried to design policies to appease ethnic rivalry. Nevertheless, ethnicity still dominates the hearts and minds of many and continues to influence politics.

This has important implications for policymakers.

For instance, Rwanda has two major interrelated policies on political representation – one related to ethnicity the other to gender.

When it comes to ethnicity the government has simply decreed that ethnicity has no role to play in the politics of the country.

On gender, the country’s president has thrown his weight behind empowering women. This has been backed up by quotas for cabinet positions, among others.

Despite these two drives, ethnicity clearly still clearly plays a major role in society and political life.

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