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Women's Representation in Costa Rica

"Legislative Assembly President Carolina Hidalgo (third from left) and leadership" (Legislative Assembly via The Tico Times)

While there are several reasons I believe in efforts to support female candidates, my semester abroad in Costa Rica gave me a new perspective on gender parity pursuits. Studying their electoral system and gender quota laws prompted me to consider what institutional reforms would look like in the United States and strengthened my dedication to advocacy surrounding this topic. 

In 1948, Costa Rica initiated structural change with four significant constitutional amendments.  These included universal suffrage, a nationalized banking system, the dissolution of their army, and notably, the creation of the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) as a fourth branch of the government. The TSE is classified as an independent commission fully responsible for election administration, civil registration, jurisdictional functions, and democracy creation. This body, by virtue of its longevity and organization tactics, has served as a catalyst for Costa Rica’s gender quota achievements.

Figure 1: Gender Quotas in Latin American Countries, Magda Hinojasa (2012)

As is discussed in this fascinating analysis by Magda Hinojasa (2012), when quotas themselves became more mainstream in the early 1990's, gender quotas were successful in adding an average of 5% more women to the composition of legislative bodies worldwide. During the following decade, rates of inclusion increased by 10 percentage points. Since 1991, more than two-thirds of Latin American countries have adopted some form of gender quota, the highest percentage of adoption of all continents. Figure 1 shows gender quota adoption trends in the Latin American region over time. As of 2016, the region has achieved an average of 27.7% of women elected in lower chambers, which mark it as the second region in the world with more parliamentary women (following the Nordic countries).Thus, historical data of gender quotas show their potential for rapid impact. Although critiques of such measures have stated that results are solely quantitative and do nothing to address qualitative outcomes of having more women in power, gender quotas are nonetheless one of the fastest ways to incorporate women into existing legislatures.

For Costa Rica, the early implementation of a preliminary gender quota in 1996 (requiring 40% participation of women, but no placement mandate) has allowed for room to strengthen the initiative over the years. As reported by Hinojasa, a 1999 rule by the TSE moved to specify that placement: women would need to be included in 40 percent of the electable spots (as determined by previous election results) on party lists. Amendments requiring a full 50% of representation among candidates were made in 2009. As an additional motivator, a noted “contagion effect assists with political parties’ adoption— the more parties implement stronger quotas, the more likely others will do the same. 

Additionally, a few more structural elements provide accountability for the adoption of the quotas, namely the country’s use of multi-member provinces, the use of a closed-list system, and the TSE’s close monitoring and public distribution of federal funds to parties. These options encourage the parties to adhere to the quota and also provide ample room for candidates to join and stay in the race, rather than putting forth solely popular (and mostly male) candidates and allowing voters to vote women out (as in an open-list system). 

The results are significant— Costa Rica is currently comprised of 45.6% women in their lower house, ranking the country at #9 out of 193 countries for gender representation. The TSE has provided a viable option for quota adoption by providing a long-lasting governing framework and organizing crucial elements of party activities and election regulations. 

It was this inspiring example that prompted me to consider ways in which the United States could work towards similar levels of achievement in gender equity. While the U.S. does not currently have the institutional mechanisms to create the same level of accountability required for a quota system, reforming other aspects of our election and finance system might result in positive outcomes for women across the country. RepresentWomen seeks to do just that, and I’m excited to continue studying these efforts in the future. 


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