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Quotas the annihilators of confidence

The Reporter (Addis Ababa)
October 13, 1999
By Yodit Teklemariam

Addis Ababa - The last few weeks there has been something similar to a campaign in which women in Ethiopia were encouraged to participate in the upcoming elections. A workshop organized by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association urged women both to go to the polls and to compete as candidates. The same theme was upheld in women's meetings at zonal and other levels.

So far so good. However, a statement came from W/o Tadelech Hailemichael, head of the Women's Affairs Bureau at the Prime Minister's Office, some two weeks ago. Again, she urged women to participate in the next elections and that the confidence of women in politics should be built. To this end, W/o Tadelech said that competing political parties should set quotas for women when they are picking their candidates.

This may not be something new; it's been a few years now since "Ethiopian women" in general have always been identified as disadvantaged in the past and eligible for a number of privileges which these days are passing as "women's rights." However, my aim in this article is not to ask whether or not it is appropriate to treat the issue of women the way it has been treated in recent years. What I would like to deal with now is the effect of quotas in elections, and how quotas can never serve to "build the self-confidence of women in politics."

I see it necessary here to discuss what I understand by "self-confidence." Self-confidence, as the dictionary defines it, is a "firm belief in one's abilities." It is not the mere feeling of self-righteousness; it is not the mere feeling that one is capable of doing something. Rather, it is a belief in one's abilities.

This means that, before one could entertain the feeling of self-confidence, one needs to possess ability, and one should be able to know with certainty what one is capable of. Any feeling of uprightness that comes without ability is either arrogance or some supercilious fanaticism. Otherwise, self-confidence always requires ability.

Now, let us see what quotas actually mean. A quota is a guaranteed position, a guaranteed benefit, etc. It is something that guarantees advantage without requiring the benefactor to possess the ability which otherwise would have been necessary to obtain that benefit. No one can ever claim to have achieved quota- derived benefits as a result of his abilities. Quotas by their very nature are granted to those who need "a little push" to achieve something. Or, in other words, quotas are given to those who cannot achieve something without "a little push." It would be wildly meaningless to grant quotas to individuals who are capable of achieving without quotas.

Let me now come to the statement by the head of the Women's Affairs Bureau. What she said was that political parties should set quotas for women, so that the self-confidence of women in politics could ultimately develop. If, according to her, quotas are to be set for women to participate in the upcoming elections, it means that not much ability would be required of women to participate in the elections. The mere fact of being female would qualify a woman for the quotas in the parties. And since positions for candidacy are thus available without any requirement of ability, it means that women will participate in the elections, not as a result of their abilities but rather as a result of a quota which no one (with ability or without) will take away from them.

In a nutshell, when quotas are set for women to participate in elections, it means that those positions for candidacy are guaranteed, in which case no ability is needed to participate in the elections. And since there can be no self-confidence where there is no ability, hardly any woman who goes into the elections as a result of the quota system will ever come out self-confident. Quotas by their very nature work to destroy self-confidence; it can never be possible to build self-confidence with quotas.

There is something else I would like to mention in relation to the significance of able candidates in the elections. The maladministration and injustice that we have suffered during the last five years (particularly at lower administrative levels as in the kebelles and woredas) was largely attributable to the inefficiency and lack of skill among those elected five years ago. In light of this, it should be important now to urge political parties to emphasize on the abilities of their candidates, female or male. I must say it is anything but constructive at this point to advise political parties to present candidates whose abilities have not been tested, thanks to quotas.

Of course, those in favor of quotas would immediately argue here that the setting of quotas in this case would not necessarily invite the participation of incapable women in politics. They would argue that the dangers I mentioned above could be averted by making sure that ability would be taken into consideration as well. But, the one thing they always refuse to admit is that capable women do not need quotas. They might make use of moral encouragement (just like male candidates), but they never need quotas. They never need some institutionalized guarantee which says, "you will be a candidate no matter what!"

Quotas, therefore, are harmful to the administrative structure that we will be setting up through the next elections, and they will never manage to build the confidence of women in politics. The only way to build the confidence of women in politics is to build their ability to pursue success and not to expand their dependence on guaranteed success.

Copyright (c) 1999 The Reporter. Distributed via Africa News Online ( For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.

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