Analysis of the Status of Women in Burundi’s Political and Electoral Processes

Publication Date: 
17 Jul 2014

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Author(s): 
Serge Nanourou and Abigail Wilson

Burundi is one of few countries in the world to have adopted a gender quota for its legislature in an effort to promote the inclusion and participation of women in the political process. As such, it presents an informative case study on the impact a gender quota can have as a catalyst for more progressive and inclusive governance. Given the International Foundation for Electoral System’s (IFES) commitment to gender equality and women’s participation in electoral processes and government, a thorough analysis demonstrating the effectiveness of quotas is a vital effort that aids IFES in supporting their use as a tool for democratic progress. As detailed in IFES’ Analysis of the Status of Women in Burundi’s Political and Electoral Processes, gender quotas in Burundi, which have their origin in the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that marked the end of a long and bloody civil war and have been encoded in Burundi’s Constitution and Electoral Code, have led to significant increases in the number of women participating in government, which is an important initial step in ensuring meaningful participation of all members of society.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of success of the gender quota policy in Burundi is the high rate of women’s representation in the legislature. In the 2010 elections, 31% of National Assembly members and 46% of senators were women. Most remarkable is the fact that provisions to ensure quota requirements, which are set at 30% minimum, did not have to be invoked in order to reach these figures. In contrast, the 30% quota was only reached after seats were added in the 2005 elections. Four years prior to that, before provisions ensuring a minimum of 30% of women’s representation in the legislature had been adopted, less than 20% of seats in both the National Assembly and the Senate were filled by women. This marked improvement from election to election is strong evidence for the efficacy of gender quotas in the Burundian context.

Although only constitutionally enforceable in the legislature, the 30% quota for women’s participation has also been attained in other governmental institutions. For example, the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) leadership includes two women out of five total members, exceeding the 30% mark established in the Constitution. The 30% quota is also respected when composing provincial- and communal-level election commissions, as well as during the recruitment process for polling station workers. Furthermore, 52% of registered voters are women. While voter registration is not affected by Constitutional quotas for the participation of women, the high rate of women’s registration does provide a sense of how politically active women are at the grassroots level, compared to men, and, thus, after further study, could offer some insight into the societal effects gender quotas may be having. Interestingly, at 35%, the Burundian capital of Bujumbura has the lowest rate of registration of women by a significant margin – an unexpected statistic, and one which also requires further study given the higher rates of literacy in the city.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, on the other hand, is one of the weak points in gender equality, particularly given its importance within the Burundian government. Glaringly, there are no women within the Ministry’s leadership at the national level. Furthermore, only three out of seventeen provincial governors are women. While the rate of women’s participation does improve further down the chain, it still falls below the 30% mark for most positions (women occupy approximately 37% and 51% of the communal administrator and communal advisor positions respectively).

Within political parties, women’s representation is also considerably lower than 30%. According to a study by the Governmental Action Observatory (OAG), only four of the twelve political parties studied counted more than 30% of women within their membership. Two of those parties – FNL and PARENA – fall below the 10% mark. Furthermore, of the 44 currently active political parties in Burundi, only two are headed by women. Given that political parties, which are not required to abide by constitutional quotas, are often a better gauge of societal perceptions of women than governmental institutions, the low rate of women’s participation in political parties is a testament to the need for further progress on gender equality within Burundian society.

In fact, while Burundi has made significant strides in the participation of women in government, significant barriers still exist. Women’s literacy rates continues to lag behind men’s, and women suffer from cultural prejudices that restrict their access to education, capital, political activity and leadership positions. While the study conducted by IFES offers interesting insight into the effect of quotas on the number of women involved in government, the true metric of the effectiveness of quotas in promoting women’s political participation will lie in their effect on perceptions of women as leaders at the grassroots level. This will require further in-depth study.