For a country that boasts about equality, Malta’s gender balance in politics is downright depressing and pitiful.
Out of 67 members of Parliament, just six are women. This marks us as one of the worst countries for women’s political participation in the European bloc. It’s worryingly undemocratic seeing as roughly half of Malta’s population are female.
This year, a woman-led committee of politicians, academics and lawyers tabled an ambitious set of reforms to bridge the gap between the sexes and give women the push they need to make it to top positions of political power.
Gender quotas or a “gender corrective mechanism” is being proposed. The reaction has been mixed, with some fearing that imposing measures on the basis of gender results in parliamentary tokenism and goes in direct conflict with the principle of equal opportunity.
But what is being proposed to tackle this complex problem? Does it include those controversial gender quotas? Will women be left as shallow tokens in extra Parliament seats?
What exactly is being proposed?
A fresh, bold set of proposals was tabled just before COVID-19 forced Parliament to stop. The bill involves measures to lure more women into the political process and breakthrough hurdles they face in becoming candidates like their male counterparts.
At the core of the bill is a gender corrective mechanism. It involves adding up to 12 extra seats in Parliament for women if they make up less than 40% of the House of Representatives after an electoral process. Each political party would get up to six seats each and would be taken by women who failed to get elected on the first round.
Other measures involve:
- State funding to parties to support women to contest in Maltese general elections. This would be done through legal amendments to the Financing of Political Parties Act to give funds to recruit, promote and train female candidates. Parties would be obliged to give a financial account on how these funds are being used to promote equality.
- Extending the remits of the Electoral Commission. Currently, the entire board is composed of men. This would ensure that the commission is representative of both sexes and ensure political parties are held accountable for the state funding of gender equality.
- Constitutional and legal amendments. The gender quotas will need to be made into legal provisions in order to be activated should women make up less than 40% of Parliament.
- Gender mainstreaming and family-friendly measures. Besides the legal amendments, the bill calls for a Gender Equality Strategic Plan, involving the choice to opt for a full-time position on a voluntary basis and availability of child-care services.
The proposal also has a sunset clause, which would lift the amendments when Parliament has at least a 40-40 balance between the sexes.
Has it worked elsewhere?
Across the globe, women make up less than a quarter of Parliamentary members, but some countries have tackled it head-on with corrective measures.
The most notable place where we can observe the impact of gender quotas in the African state of Rwanda.
The 1994 Rwandan genocide killed around 800,000 people in just 100 days. Women then made up 70% of the country and were forced to rebuild society with a deeply-engrained patriarchal system.
Less a decade after the horrific event, the Rwandan government wrote and ratified a new, bold constitution that included measures to mandate a gender quota – no less than 30% of seats in all decision-making organs had to be filled by women. Its political parties also adopted voluntary quotas for female candidates on their ballot lists.
Ten years later, the Rwandan election saw 64% of seats taken up by women – breaking the record for most women in politics across the globe. The state is now a progressive leader of the continent, improving gender equality and reducing domestic gender-based violence, extensive property rights for women and upholding their representation in the workforce through a multitude of legal reforms.
A look at Ireland
Ireland, a country that shares many commonalities with Malta, implemented a similar system in 2016. Both states use the single transferable vote (STV), a system designed to achieve proportional representation through ranked voting, inherited through their colonial pasts.
Both experienced late secularisations, have a strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church on state affairs and had very low female participation in Parliament.
In Ireland’s general election of 2016, gender quotas for candidate selection were applied. They saw a 40% increase in the number of female MPs elected.
However, we have yet to see the true effects of the quota.
What happens with weak gender quotas?
Despite being one of the first countries in South America to impose a gender quota, Brazil’s representation of women in politics has never moved much beyond the 10% mark. Despite a 30% quota rule on parties and coalitions for the second sex, legal loopholes and a lack of enforced sanctions led to mass violations.
Neighbouring Argentina and Costa Rica, however, prove that strong legislation is vital for the schemes to be successful. In the 1980s, both became the first Latin American states to hit the 30% threshold for women in national parliament. Argentina’s quota is unique in that it was the first in the world to legislate them on candidate lists.
Today, all South American countries have some kind of political quotas, whether on Parliamentary seats or candidacy lists except for Guatemala and Venezuela. Bolivia is a regional leader, with 53% of its Parliament made up of women, beating all supposedly progressive European states.
Are there alternatives?
But perhaps gender quotas in politics isn’t the only solution to underrepresentation.
Finland was one of the first countries to grant women a vote and is often heralded a leader in gender equality. Their current Prime Minister Sanna Marin is one of the young women to hold the highest positions of power in the world. Yet, the Nordic state does not have any gender corrective measures imposed on candidates, which may be influenced by their electoral system, which requires one candidate per district through a closed voting system. However, most Finnish parties set their own goals for equal representation.
It does however have a quota provision that applies to its public bodies. Through the Finnish Equality Act, all state-administration committees, advisory and municipal boards and working groups must have at least 40 per cent of men and men. They do not apply to those bodies chosen through elections.
What could gender quotas achieve?
Women’s symbolic representation in parliament is important because it is likely to trigger meaningful change. This is because the presence of female bodies in politics can lead to the increased presence of so-called “female issues” in politics like childcare and anti-harassment laws into political discourse.
And while women are certainly not a monolith of thought, the mere presence of them can hurl female issues, normally delegated as women’s problems to deal with, to the forefront of the political sphere for serious discussion.
In fact, the introduction of a statutory gender quota on candidate lists resulted in more proposed bills for women’s rights in many Congresses like Argentina’s, the majority of which were lead by female legislators.
This led to 80% of bills to decriminalise abortion, 69% of all violence-against-women bills and 73% of all sexual harassment bills in the Latin American Parliament to be introduced by female legislators.
And while Argentina and Malta overlap on their blanket bans on abortion, the former has taken some important steps, with an exponential increase of bills to legalise abortion presented by women in the last 30 years.
This is miles apart from where Malta’s fight for abortion rights, with only a handful of politicians coming out as pro-choice, and only when their careers aren’t on the line.
And while their opinions may vary, women can offer their countries different, fresh perspectives. The Labour Party’s women forum Nisa Laburista recently launched a set of bold proposals recently, including better reproductive rights. Imagine what could be achieved if they were given a seat at the legislation table.
Why is it being proposed in Malta?
With just six female MPs, women currently can’t influence the direction of the country on the same scale as men, let alone on “women’s issues” like bodily autonomy.
Because of this, MEP Josianne Cutajar, who co-authored the bill, said that women in Malta are often rendered politically invisible.
“We need a change because there’s a historical gender deficit where women’s representation has remained static since the enactment of universal suffrage in 1947,” she told Lovin Malta.
And while women in Malta do work in all levels of the political sphere from grassroots work to administration and campaigns, they result in fewer candidates.
According to the document, it boils down to aggressive polarisation and a system which dictates that one’s worse competitors are same-party candidates within one’s own district.
An issue of time-management since most activities are held in the evening, lack of resources, media visibility and prevalent traditional stereotypes also impinge on gender roles and power.
“It’s not that women don’t get votes, it’s that we don’t have enough choice and women on the candidate ballots,” Equality Commissioner Renee Laiviera, who also formed part of the bill’s technical committee explained to Lovin Malta.
“The status quo is imbalanced. Something has to happen to shake that balance. And once that happens, it will change, and we won’t need these mechanisms anymore.”
Symbolic representation through gender quotas may be vital to break through the hurdles women face.
“The presence of a few successful female leaders means that there is a lack of female role models for other women to take the plunge and act on their ambition to lead,” MEP Miriam Dalli said, who also mentors women in LEAD, Labour’s initiative to mentor females and give them the resources they need to get on those ballot sheets.
Just a few years into the initiative and many of the women have gone on to have fruitful careers in local councils. Just imagine the changes we would see if such initiatives were legislated for all Malta’s parties.
“What the natural course of time did not do, that is, promoting women to leadership positions, has to be done with this law. Initiatives like this will help change unconscious barriers and allow all of us to learn diversity.”
But solely relying initiatives like LEAD won’t bring about the change needed without temporary quotas.
“Soft internal measures employed by the political parties, on their own, have not been adequate to address this under-representation,” Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Reforms Rosianne Cutajar explained, adding that financial, cultural hurdles are similar worldwide. “As a result of these obstacles, it’s difficult for many women to enter and sustain a meaningful political career.”
Why is it controversial?
Some believe that quotas will lead to the tokenism of women. A woman with less than 20 first count votes could make their way to Parliament if the bill is passed, begging the question of whether one should be judged by their merits or their sex.
It is also in conflict with the notion of equal opportunity because they do in effect discriminate against one gender over the other.
By placing restrictions on Parliament, these legal reforms effectively alter citizens’ single chance to influence the political direction of a country by imposing a choice of candidate on them. By doing so, it also deflects the responsibility political parties have in luring women to join their ballot sheets.
And while symbolic representation is important to show other women and voters that the second sex does in fact belong in politics, it does not mean that meaningful change is guaranteed, because women have diverse opinions.
It also raises the question on whether we must pick candidates based on their merits ad talents and not their biological make-up.
On merits and sex
But the bill’s authors don’t think we should just focus on merits in Parliament.
“Political representation is not only about merit and competence. It is about representing the people,” the document reads. “Political representation is about rights and justice. How can the fact that men occupy more than 80 per cent of the parliamentary seats in the world be justified?”
It argues that gender quotas do not discriminate, but compensate for existing barriers that stop women from receiving their fair share of political seats preventing further barriers and mechanisms of exclusion.
“When we see women in high positions, we question her. But we never question a man’s experience,” Laiviera said, adding that the majority of university graduates are women and yet they still don’t turn up on our ballot sheets.
“When someone in the 1940s suggested that adult women should have the right to vote there were people who resented the move. There were people who thought it wasn’t the woman’s place to decide,” MEP Cutajar added. “I am sure today we can all agree that it was a very positive step forward.”
“It would have been a tragedy had people failed to take that brave step despite the opposition. I do not think we should risk letting doubtful conservative voices let women in this country miss their opportunity to be duly represented and impact our collective future.”
Why aren’t quotas applied elsewhere?
If the gender quota bill is passed, why shouldn’t we discuss ones for transgender people, black people and foreigners too? Do they not form a significant part of this population?
Lebanon has had a religious quota in place – and it’s failed miserably. Dividing parliament based on – has resulted in a system mired by incompetence, with particular groups being favoured simply on the merit of being part of that group.
“It is not possible or practical to have quotas for every minority group,” Rosianne Cutajar replied. “But diversity needs to be at the heart of our recruitment when seeking out potential candidates to run for office.”
The bill has already passed the first reading and will be tabled again in the coming weeks. Whatever you think about it, this is the time to let your voice be heard.
Do you agree with gender quotas?