Creating collective capabilities: women, agency and the politics of representation.

Author:Tripp, Aili Mari
Position:The Works of Martha C. Nussbaum: Feminism and Liberalism; History, Identity and Sexuality; Gender and Development

In her groundbreaking book, Women and Human Development, (1) Martha Nussbaum builds on Amartya Sen's human capabilities approach, which shifts the focus from "rights" to what people actually can be or do to realize their full human potential. The approach draws on a liberal philosophical framework that emphasizes individual capabilities. This Article explores the strengths and limitations of such an approach in countries that adopt non-liberal collective capability frameworks in relation to women's rights.

This Article argues that the capabilities approach needs to be understood not only as being limited to individual capabilities, but also as encompassing the collective capability to act. Moreover, the process of creating capabilities is intensely political and therefore requires agents and agency. This is not to say that the individual capabilities approach is not important, but that it is insufficient to address the issues surrounding women's rights. The individual capabilities frame should also include collective capability frames because they are prevalent in the world today; they highlight women's agency in creating and enhancing their own capabilities; they highlight the structural nature of gendered marginalization within institutions and the ways this impinges on individual collectivities; they emphasize the importance of political solutions to the problem of capability, since ultimately most intractable problems involving power relations can only be resolved through political struggle and accommodation; and they open up alternate ways of conceptualizing competing and conflicting rights, such as cultural versus women's rights.

This paper examines these questions in light of efforts to increase female political representation in legislatures and in local and national governments around the globe through the adoption of quotas. There are three main types of quotas: 1) reserved seats, which specify the number of seats that are to be won by women in an election; 2) nomination quotas, which require all parties to nominate a certain percentage of women as electoral candidates; and 3) voluntary measures, adopted by political parties, which are intended to influence the number of female candidates. The first two types of quotas can be created and mandated by national legislation or constitutional directives.


    In developing her capabilities approach, Martha Nussbaum points to limitations in utilitarianism, Rawlsian liberalism and human rights approaches. Drawing on Aristotle's ideas of human functioning, Nussbaum advances Sen's work to articulate precisely which capabilities are critical to human development. What matters, Nussbaum argues, is not simply an individual's preference, how resources are distributed, or whether someone lives in a country that guarantees a particular fight on paper; what matters is whether the individual actually has the capability to have a good human life and fully realize their humanity. (2)

    Preferences, Nussbaum suggests, are unreliable as a basis for determining what is just. While individual preferences are important to consider, those preferences are formed out of habit. (3) Thus, being accustomed to and socialized by unequal institutions, we have a tendency to justify what seems inevitable. Nussbaum believes human rights approaches rely too much on a formal approach to rights rather than focusing on the structural obstacles to equality and the capabilities that might allow women to exercise those rights. (4) However, in Nussbaum's final analysis, it is the individual's capability that becomes her central target of concern. (5)

    Focus on individual capabilities is important, but insufficient. Women's rights are not conceived of as individual rights in most parts of the world, but rather are conceived through a variety of collective frames that emphasize women as social actors who experience common oppressions that need to be addressed by treating women as a group. Such collective frameworks offer their own possibilities and limitations, as do the individual rights frames. Many of the collective frames that draw on "maternal welfare" or "political motherhood" create their own sets of problems by essentializing women and making assumptions about all women based on presumed innate characteristics or culturally defined roles. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such collective frames suggests that most countries regard the problem of women's representation not only as a problem of individual women and their capabilities, but also as one that needs to be thought of within the context of a collective frame.

    Nussbaum refers to political representation as the capability to control one's environment by being able to "participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life." (6) Women's representation is an area where one finds the biggest gender gaps, and, like so many gender inequalities, it is a problem which is pervasive across the globe. Overall, according to a recent study done by the World Economic Forum, the gender gaps in healthcare and education have virtually closed. (7) However, the gender gaps in economic and political participation have closed by only fifty-nine percent and seventeen percent, respectively (Table 1). (8)

    Interestingly, many of the countries with the largest gaps in political equality between genders have tended to treat women's rights through a liberal individual rights frame (Table 2). For example, the United States ranks 74th when it comes to the percentage of women in the legislature, with women holding fifteen percent of the seats in the Senate and 16.8% of the seats in the House in 2009. (9) In contrast, the countries discussed in this paper that have adopted collective quota strategies rank significantly higher in terms of female legislative representation: Finland (seventh), Argentina (tenth), Germany (seventeenth), and Uganda (twenty-first). (10)


    One question that arises from Nussbaum's approach is how it would improve women's capabilities in the area of political representation, especially when considering that the rate of change without any intervention has been excruciatingly slow. It is difficult to imagine that significant changes in the rates of female representation would happen without some intervention by actors advocating for change. For this reason, female activists and femocrats the world over have pushed for gender policy change, but have done so largely on collective grounds. In light of the fast paced introduction of electoral quotas in many countries, Drude Dahlerup, Lenita Freidenvall and Hege Skjeie have argued that the incremental model of increasing women's representation in parliament that led to high rates of female representation in the Nordic countries in the 1970s has now been replaced by the fast track model that one finds in developing countries, where dramatic jumps in parliamentary representation are taking place almost overnight. (11) Thus, countries like Rwanda have fifty-six percent of their parliamentary seats held by women as a result, in part, of the adoption of quotas. (12)

    Women have been integral to efforts to advance themselves in the political arena. Women's movements domestically and internationally have pressed for increased representation of women. They have lobbied political parties and governments in their own countries as well as international and regional bodies to adopt policies that would increase the representation of women. In various African countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya and Sierra Leone, there are 50/50 movements advocating that women claim half of all parliamentary seats. International and regional bodies, including the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the U.N. Beijing Conference on Women, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and others have also encouraged the adoption of measures to promote women's parliamentary representation. (13) Some regional organizations, like the aforementioned SADC, set targets for their member states: for example, women representatives in SADC member states are to hold fifty percent of legislative seats by the year 2015. (14)

    Over 100 countries have adopted some form of quotas to increase the numbers of female candidates running for office and another twenty have debated the institution of quotas over the past ten years. (15) These efforts include legislative or constitutional provisions for the adoption of party quotas, reserved seats, and the adoption of quotas on a voluntary basis by parties themselves. In the 1990s, new efforts to introduce quotas to improve women's legislative representation were especially common in Latin America and Africa, and, more recently, those efforts have spread to the Middle East and North Africa. In many countries, quotas are being adopted as temporary measures, designed to bring more women into positions of power.

    Quotas are adopted with a variety of justifications, such as rectifying the gender imbalances that have existed historically in political representation; advancing justice and fairness; increasing gender equality; representing women and giving voice to women's special interests; ensuring that women's views on a variety of matters are adequately represented by women themselves; and encouraging more women to participate in politics. Political leaders themselves may have other motives for adopting quotas: for example, they may be more interested in improving a country's international image or in casting their party or government as modern and/or secular, perhaps in order to create a wedge between themselves and Islamists or other conservative forces. They may also be complying with international treaties like the Convention Against the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), seeking to obtain women's votes, or to expand patronage networks.

    As a result of collective strategies...

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