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Current fundamental issues on quotas for women's participation in politics
14/12/2017 14:50' Send Print
National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan attends the Plenary session of the 137th Inter-Parliamentary Union General Assembly. Photo: VNA

Overview of quotas for women's political participation

The quotas for women's political participation have been debated in many agendas of many countries. Initially, this issue was addressed in parliamentary forums for fear that, due to gender bias, if the parliament had too few female members, the initiation and adoption of policies, laws would be gender biased, thereby affecting women. Later, the issue of women's participation in politics has been extended to other branches of state power.

Towards the goal of raising awareness on gender equality, since the 1990s of the 20th century, the United Nations Economic and Social Council identified that, by 1995, countries needed 30% of women in elected bodies and in the leadership of the state apparatus. In 1995, the World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China urged states to ensure equal gender representation at all levels of policy-making in national and international institutions. Since then, quotas for women's political participation have been viewed as a common and feasible policy choice. Currently, nearly half of the countries in the world have applied the quotas in various forms, levels and scales.

The quotas for women’s political participation can be of three types: voluntary quotas, quotas for candidate, and fixed quotas. The proportion of countries applying voluntary quotas is the highest, accounting for 61%, followed by the legislated quotas 20%.

The differences between the systems of quotas for women’s political participation reflect the differences between political systems and the cultural traditions of regions in the world. The Northern European region is considered the first place to initiate gender quotas in political activities. Norway took the lead in this issue in 1975 when it set its goal of having at least 40% of the female candidates in elections. Denmark and Sweden followed suit with similar policies. Results of a survey showed that West European countries have much higher quotas for women's political participation than East European countries. However, the United States - a special case - does not apply any form of quotas in women’s political participation. In Latin America, the quotas were first mentioned in the early 1990s. African countries have more diversified forms of gender quotas in political activities. Meanwhile, South Asian countries have rapidly increased the use of quotas in political activities, most notably the fixed quotas. In the Middle East, due to influence of Islam, only a few countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Israel, have recognized the quotas for women's participation in politics.

The above facts and figures show that the adoption of quotas for women's political participation is common and diversified in many parts of the world. However, only about half of the countries in the world apply the quotas. Despite supporting opinions, there are also some views against the quotas.

In terms of equality, supporting views maintain that adoption of gender quotas would directly increase women’s representation in leadership positions, thereby limiting gender discrimination. In fact, there is a difference in average female representation in the legislatures of countries using and not using the quotas. The lack of female representation in the political scene results in the lack of attention to women’s interests in policy. If female representatives often pay more attention to issues such as health, and children, men are less concerned about these issues. India is a case in point where the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was higher than in those with men-led councils. (1)

In terms of efficiency, the adoption of the quotas for women’s political participation contributes to rapidly reducing the gender gap in political sphere towards more long-term goals of removing gender bias in this aspect. Additionally, it helps improve the capacity of women who are working in the state apparatus, motivate and encourage other women to take more active deeds, and overcome prejudices about the role of women in politics.

However, the application of the quotas may have negative impacts on the political system, as it is forced to structure and select some politically incompetent women for leading positions. Moreover, they also has a negative impact on potential female leaders who may not strive to enhance their capacity because they find out that they can reach leading positions through the quota mechanism. In addition, as nominations are already made, voters have limited choice of candidates. If no gender quota is imposed, voters can select better candidates.

The status of adopting quotas for women’s political participation in Vietnam

Recognizing the role of women and the importance of gender equality in political engagement, the first Constitution of 1946 stated: "All power is vested in the people of Vietnam, regardless of race, man, women, rich, poor, class, and religion.” The 1946 Constitution also recognized the equal rights of women in elections, candidacy, participation in the administration. The 2013 Constitution continues to affirm: "Men and women equal in all aspects. The State has policy to guarantee gender equality rights and opportunities." The 2006 Law on Gender Equality stipulates more concretely gender equality in the field of politics, such as candidacy and nomination of candidates to state agencies, political organizations and socio-political organizations to ensure the appropriate proportion of women in leadership in state agencies. This is the legal basis for implementing the right of women to participate in politics in Vietnam.

In the process of social development, together with the policy of liberating women, the implementation of the principle of equality between men and women is the guideline of the Party and State as reflected in many resolutions, and directives, such as Instruction No. 37-CT/TW on 16 March 1994 of the Party Secretariat, on "Some issues on female cadres in the new situation," Resolution No. 11-NQ/TW on 27 April 2007 of the Politburo on "Work on women in the period of accelerating industrialization and modernization" and typically the Law on Gender Equality in 2006. The "2011-2020 National Strategy on Gender Equality" adopted in 2010 set out three targets: to strive for the percentage of 25% or higher of women participating in Party committees in the 2016-2020 tenure; the percentage of over 35% in the 2016-2020 term; by 2015, 80% and by 2020, over 95% of ministries, ministerial-level agencies, government-attached agencies and People’s Committees at all levels will have female leaders; by 2015, 70% and by 2020, 100% of Party and State agencies and socio-political organizations with the number of female cadres, civil servants and public employees making up 30% or higher will have women holding key leading positions.

On external relations, Vietnam has also participated in many international commitments, such as the "International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women" (CEDAW), the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the “Beijing Platform for Action.” These documents identify goals and solutions to eliminate all forms of discrimination between men and women in all areas.

According to a report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in most international rankings on gender quotas, Vietnam has high ranking, especially compared to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. (2) However, Vietnam has not yet achieved the targets concerning percentage of women in elected bodies and political system. Over the last two decades, the number of female deputies in the National Assembly has been declining. In 1997, Vietnam was among the top 10 countries in terms of the number of female deputies in the National Assembly. By 2012, with 24.4% of female deputies in the National Assembly, Vietnam’s ranking dropped to 44th in the world. At the 14th National Assembly elections in 2016, though the percentage of female deputies to the National Assembly increased to 26.8%, it still fell short of target.

This situation is attributed to many reasons, first limited awareness on the role of women in society and in politics. This problem exists in most countries around the world. In addition to this, there are several other causes in Vietnam:

First, legal institutions relating to gender quotas in political activities in Vietnam are not synchronous and not binding. This can be seen in different strategies, and documents on gender equality. The 2015 Law on the Election of Deputies to the National Assembly and the People's Councils stipulates the female quotas as follows: the number of women introduced and nominated to the National Assembly should account for at least 35 % of the total number of candidates. It is possible to see discrepancies between the stipulation with the targets set out by the “2011-2020 National Strategy for Gender Equality" which aims at more than 35% of female deputies to the National Assembly and People's Councils at all levels for the 2016-2020 term.

Also relating to the above mentioned provisions, the number of local female deputies was not concretely specified by Resolution No. 1135/2016/UBTVQH13 on 22 January 2016 of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on the tentative number, structure and composition of the National Assembly deputies to the 14th Legislature which only requires "a reasonable number of female deputies" (Item 2, Article 2). This is not in line with the "2011-2020 National Strategy for Gender Equality."

In addition, the current electoral law of Vietnam does not regulate the percentage of women in electoral institutions, such as the National Election Council, and other local election committees. Neither do legal regulations on the organization of state agencies, such as laws on the organization of the National Assembly, Government, and local administrations. Thus, the lack of a synchronous legal regulation on quotas for women's political participation has caused obstacles to achieving the targets of women's participation in the Party and State agencies and social organizations in Vietnam.

Second, constraints in establishing the quota system for political participation are diverse, not only gender related but also on other criteria, such as ethnic minority, age, and self-nomination. Basically, it is necessary to recognize the diversity of quotas for political participation. However, recognition of such quota system is not enough. The point here is attention should be paid to dealing with "quota overlapping." In other words, if candidates meet all priority criteria, they can be selected against other candidates. In principle, such application does not violate existing regulations, but representation diversity will be diminished due to prioritizing representatives who meet multiple criteria. Such conflicts of quotas shall not occur if it is stated that a candidate is selected by only a certain criteria, such as gender, age or ethnic minority. Thus, instead of one female representative who meet a number of priority criteria if slected, two or three female representatives, each meets a priority criteria can be selected.

Third, constraints in personnel preparation. In addition to meeting the female criterion, candidates who want to be selected must have certain professional qualifications and inheritance is also taken into consideration. However, in this regard, according to a study of UNDP: "In high-level decision-making positions there are not enough women in senior positions to support and promote work on women; many men in senior positions do not promote work on women." (3) At present, human resource planning and training mainly depend on the subjective will of decision makers without any clear quota for woman training. According to a report by the Center for Women's Studies in 2012, “there is almost no guidance and specific regulations on percentage women in recruitment, planning use, training, re-training, rotation and appointment. There is no obligation to implement or to set out the percentage for women in all above-mentioned processes.” (4) Meanwhile, if the "hard" quota on the minimum percentage of women in training is set, it will increase the competitiveness of candidates and motivate them to strive for professional development rather than making no more efforts because they are already included in training plans, and encourage them to foster their will and enhance their expertise.

Fourth, no individual or organization is responsible for achieving targets and no punitive measures are in place to sanction individuals or organizations failing to meet gender targets. The absence of sanctions makes the implementation of gender targets formal. Reports of state agencies have only pointed to causes to low percentage of female representation in the political system and failed to mention who are responsible. The process for a woman to become an elected representative is divided into stages from introduction, consideration and selection, each stage is attached to a competent authority which is responsible for consideration and assessment of candidates. Therefore, it is feasible and convincing to trace accountability of each authority in each stage. However, this measure has not yet been in place.

Fifth, there are no incentive measures in place to recognize those which reach targets. Besides punitive measures for those who fail to fulfill their tasks, it is necessary to put in place, incentives, such as commendation, or preferential policies and budgets for localities which fulfil or overfulfil targets. Due to the lack of sanctions and supportive measures, related stakeholders do not often pay sufficient attention to ensure the targets and quotas for women's political participation.

Orientations, tasks and solutions for achieving targets and quotas for women’s political participation

Based on the above analysis, it is clear that the policy on quotas for women's political participation in Vietnam is consistent with the common view on woman rights in the International Human Rights Law. Vietnamese laws have many specific regulations to implement these quotas. However, there are limitations in terms of policy and legal framework leading to difficulties in implementation. Overcoming these limitations, the 12th Congress of the Communist Party put forward an overall line: "Effective implementation of measures to promote gender equality and the advancement of women." (5) In order to carry out the Party line, and State law on quotas for women's political participation, concrete orientations, tasks and solutions are needed.

1. Orientation to promote gender equality in politics

First, communicate, educate and raise awareness of people of all social strata on gender equality; step by step change and abolish gender prejudices in all domains; and disseminate Party lines and State policies to promote gender equality.

Second, honor and fulfill common goals, joint declarations, and global action programs on gender equality; promote comprehensive and inclusive gender equality through gender mainstreaming in development programs, national economic, cultural and social objectives; develop and promulgate special programs and strategies to promote gender equality in leadership.

Third, honor and observe provisions of international laws on gender equality; continue to build and perfect the legal system to ensure gender equality in all areas of social life in the principles and regulations of the 2013 Constitution; and take administrative and judicial measures to ensure gender equality in society and in the political system.

2- Tasks and solutions to be implemented

First, review and synchronize regulations on quotas for women's political participation, especially laws on elections and organizational structure of state agencies, reflecting a balance between the expected and minimum quotas. The number of female candidates should always be higher than the number of elected female representatives.

Second, clearly identify the limit of priority criteria, in which gender priority is an important one. Consideration must be made to select each candidate on the basis of a priority criterion instead of selecting just one candidate because she meets more priority criteria than the other candidates.

Third, set up a system of gender quotas in activities related to fostering succeeding human resources, such as planning, training and retraining. Expand the scope of quota application to raise capability competitiveness among candidates.

Fourth, supplement incentives and rewards as well as punitive measures on stakeholders which fulfill or do not fulfill the gender quotas; use incentives and rewards and sanction as a complementary tool to ensure the implementation of gender quotas.

In order to achieve the above objectives, quotas for women's political participation should be identified as an important tool to promote gender equality. This goal can only be achieved when the legal framework of quotas for women's political participation is rationally stipulated.

Achievements in ensuring gender equality in the socio-political field in Vietnam will continue to be promoted if the above-mentioned measures are fully realized, in which the improvement of the framework, and law on quotas of women's political participation are of critical importance.


(1) See: UNIFEM Global Synthesis Report on Gender and Accountability 2008. Communication Handbook for Promoting Gender Equality in the Political Domain, Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, Hanoi, 2014, p. 26

(2) UNDP: Women's Representation in the National Assembly of Viet Nam - the way forward, Hanoi, 2012, p.1

(3) UNDP: Women's representation in the National Assembly of Viet Nam - the way forward, Id., p. 8

(4) UNDP: Women's Representation in Leadership in Vietnam, Hanoi, 2012, p. 16

(5) Document of the 12th National Party Congress, Office of the Party Central Committee, Hanoi, 2016, p. 304

This article was published in Communist Review No. 900 (October 2017)

Assoc.Prof. Vu Cong Giao, PhD, Vietnam National University, HanoiNguyen Anh Duc, MSc, Vietnam National University, Hanoi