Electoral Gender Quotas and Attitudes Toward Traditional Leaders: A Policy Experiment on Lesotho

Gender-based political quotas in Lesotho diminish the perceived power of traditional leaders, which in turn challenges patrilineal political systems that have previously kept women from holding political office.


Over the past two decades, electoral gender quotas have proven a successful intervention to increase women’s representation in elected political leadership around the world. Successful examples include India and Rwanda, the latter of which now boasts the highest percentage of women in their national legislature (64%). Indeed, eight of the top ten countries with highest female political representation have gender quotas with the goal of increasing the number of women in politics.

However, formal quotas have also been criticized for failing to challenge the de facto power of traditional norms and patrilineal leaders, which hold a significant amount of power at the local or village level.

In 2005, Lesotho, a small landlocked country in southern Africa, began dividing 10 main administrative districts into smaller community councils, each composed of 9-13 community councilors representing single-member electoral districts. The 2005 quota mandates that 30% of all newly formed single-member electoral districts be randomly reserved for women candidates.

This study takes advantage of this randomly assigned quota to evaluate whether an increased number of women elected officials weakens the traditional political system that is upheld by unelected chiefs, whose lineage is patrilineal.


While quotas for mandated female elected leaders did not directly change how communities perceived women, they did reduce the perceived influence of unelected chiefs (who are all men) over the community. This change in perception of a typical leader created an opportunity for women to be taken seriously as political officials in regions where only men had traditionally held power.

  • Exposure to a quota-mandated female leader resulted in a 9 percentage point drop (18% decrease) in the number of (male and female) respondents who report that traditional leaders in their area have a “great deal” of influence in governance, as compared to villages without the quota.
  • Similarly, respondents in quota districts were 33% more likely to report that chiefs have a small amount of influence.
  • In quota districts, traditional leaders’ perceived influence significantly decreased, regardless of whether they had a lot of influence or a little influence before the quota was instituted.
  • After instilling a quota, there was no evidence that respondents in reserved districts lamented or experienced conflict over the shift in power, indicating some level of acceptance of the quota system.

This study provides evidence that citizens perceive quota-mandated female leaders as filling governance roles that were previously associated with predominantly male chiefs. While the perceived power of traditional chiefs decreased in areas with council seats reserved for women, there were no changes to their perceived power in non-reserved electoral seats. This finding that the number of women in electoral seats itself was not enough to change perceived power of the patrilineal structure speaks to the specific power of implementing quotas, which could in turn create opportunities for women to lead.


Between 2005 and 2011, the Local Government Elections Act in Lesotho required that 30 percent of all newly created single-member electoral divisions (distributed across the newly created councils) be reserved for only female councilors. Women still competed with other women in these electoral divisions, but men were not allowed to compete.

Importantly, the all-women constituencies were assigned completely at random. Therefore, between April 2005 and October 2011, electoral law required that Basotho citizens in 30 percent of all local electoral divisions be exposed to quota-mandated women as political leaders, whereas the remaining 70 percent of electoral divisions had open arenas of contestation.

This study uses data from the 2008 Afro-barometer survey, which includes a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Basotho, to measure the effect of the 2005 quota three years after implementation. Local-level data of the Afro-barometer survey includes the village of each respondent (located in 577 villages), which enabled researchers to match survey responses with data collected from Lesotho’s Independent Election Commission to identify the quota status and gender of the community councilor representing each village. The comparison between reserved and non-reserved villagers’ responses to the Afro-barometer survey was used to measure the impact of the quota.

Non-quota-mandated women held 26.3% of all seats, men held 44.6% of all seats, but quota-mandated women held 29.1% (slightly less than the 30% requirement) during the time period of this study.

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