As of October 1, 2014, the Rwandan Parliament had the greatest percentage of female representatives of any legislature in the world, with a total of 57.5 percent in the upper and lower houses. The nation’s constitution declares: “The State of Rwanda commits itself that women are granted at least 30 per cent of posts in decision making organs,” making it one of more than 40 countries to enforce a gender quota in elections to national parliaments.
Gender quotas like Rwanda’s were devised to improve the problem of female underrepresentation in government. Women hold only about one-fifth of seats in legislatures worldwide (and at least 101 of 535 seats in the incoming U.S. Congress). The specific parameters of quotas often vary by country, but sometimes use gender-neutral language, for example by requiring that a party list contain at minimum 40 percent of each sex. However, “gender quotas” are always understood to impose a floor on the number of female representatives, since underrepresentation does not affect men as a group (though individual men may still be excluded based on their minority status in other areas). The assumption behind gender quotas is that women are present in low numbers because something has gone wrong in the political recruitment process, rather than—as opponents of quotas insist—that women participate in a fair system and are consistently defeated at the party and electoral levels simply because voters find them less qualified to serve.