More Nancy Pelosis, Please

Why the world needs more female lawmakers -- and why quota systems won't necessarily get us there.

When the Indian Parliament passed a bill earlier this month requiring that a third of the body's seats be reserved for women, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the vote as a "historic step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood." But if anything, the Indians are late to the party. More than 100 countries already have gender-based quotas in their legislatures, and if the experience of these nations is any indication, Singh announced Mission Accomplished a little early.

That's because, in most cases worldwide, an influx of female legislators has led to few noticeable changes in policy. To be sure, individual women leaders around the world have proved very influential -- look no further than U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who played a pivotal role in ushering health-care reform through Congress. But in countries that adopt quotas, female legislators tend to be junior players who can be stymied by misogynistic old boys clubs. And the unintended consequences range from culture shock to retrenched anti-feminism to, every now and then, progress in surprising areas.

In Argentina, the transition from an almost all-male parliament to including 30 percent (now almost 40 percent) women was rocky at first. Some female legislators were turned away when they tried to enter el Congreso through the entrance reserved for deputies: The guards would explain that girlfriends needed to use a different doorway. "That particularly happened to the attractive deputies," Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor who studies Latin American electoral politics, observes wryly.

One questionable custom -- converting the dining hall, popularly known as the anexo, into a bar in the evenings where male legislators could rub shoulders with young women -- was eventually discontinued after more women took up seats as deputies. Once the congressional gender composition was altered, running what was effectively a nocturnal meat market within the country's most august legislative building began to look less seemly.

When it comes to policy, however, change isn't always as easy to come by. For one, a double X chromosome doesn't guarantee that a representative will champion issues like access to contraception and subsidized child care. And even if she does, party bosses often stand in the way of getting things done. Part of the problem is inherent in the quota system itself. As I wrote in an article for Slate, women who enter politics through a quota system often have to keep their higher-ups happy because they are generally elected in countries where citizens vote for parties rather than for individual candidates. That means if a candidate runs afoul of party bigwigs, she can be expunged from the ballot, as in the case of former Argentine national deputy Marcela Durrieu, who was kicked out of the party along with her allies when her push for women's rights antagonized Buenos Aires's male old guard.

The female dependence on male party leaders is underscored in some countries by ugly nicknames. In Britain, where Tory leader David Cameron has actively recruited female candidates, the press has tagged some of the new pols "Cameron's cuties." In Argentina, women parliamentarians are occasionally referred to as "mujeres de," or "women of," the implication being that they owe their jobs to the men heading their parties.

In many cases these politicians do have an uncomfortably close connection to party bosses: Wives and sisters are frequently the first people a politician turns to when he is forced to put women on the ballot. Partly for this reason, gender quotas generally haven't increased socioeconomic diversity. Opponents of the Indian initiative pointed to this tendency as a reason to scuttle the legislation. Politicians who arrived through the quota, they alleged, would be upper caste and as such could hardly be expected to champion the interests of the poor female masses.

Of course, it's not just sexist barriers that impede women from enacting progressive legislation. As Michelle Taylor-Robinson, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, points out, freshmen politicians of both genders often find themselves too hamstrung to effect much change. "It takes skill and experience to craft legislation that will pass," she says. "It also takes time to rise to positions to achieve legislative goals." Because quotas are a relatively recent phenomenon, in many countries women are low down in seniority, and that curbs their influence.

Nonetheless, women who band together have been able to effect some change. After a quota law in Rwanda mandated that women take at least 30 percent of seats in Parliament, female legislators ushered through legislation that defined rape and protected victims of sexual abuse. Women can find themselves stymied when pushing for policies that will require resources or offend conservative sensibilities -- building publicly funded child-care centers, for example, or requiring pay equity. But in her research in Honduras, where theoretically the legislature is supposed to be 30 percent female, but falls short of that number because there are no penalties for parties that flaunt the requirement, Taylor-Robinson learned women were able to move issues like domestic violence forward by finding common cause with their male counterparts. "They would convince men it was in their interest, too, by telling them they had wives and sisters and daughters," Taylor-Robinson explains.

Policy isn't just tweaked after women become a substantial portion of the representatives -- the culture of institutions changes, too. When female politicians poured into the Argentine Congress after a quota law was enacted nearly two decades ago, legislators dropped the habit of passing seminal legislation in the wee hours of the morning. That new schedule wasn't just friendlier to working moms -- it also improved transparency because there were more observers around to detect when sketchy amendments were slipped into legislation.

Sometimes cultural changes can extend beyond the walls of Congress. Peruvian politician Lourdes Flores -- who for months was the front-runner to become her country's president in 2006 -- found in focus groups that the more women who served in elected office, the more comfortable voters were installing a woman in the presidential suite. "Once voters see women in executive positions," says Joan Caivano, deputy director of the Inter-American Dialogue, "it becomes commonplace and they don't fear it."

That gradual acclimation arguably already has helped women climb their way to the very top. Consider Costa Rica, where former vice president and justice minister Laura Chinchilla was just elected president. The Central American country adopted a quota law two decades ago, and women now comprise more than a third of legislators. Against that backdrop, it didn't raise too many eyebrows when outgoing President Oscar Arias cultivated a woman as his successor. "He may not have done that when women were only 10 percent of the Congress," Jones points out.

To be sure, passing feminist legislation and potentially electing a female president are not the express purposes of legislative quotas. Proponents often promote the idea of "women serving as women" -- in other words, the legislators will muscle through policies that will provide more government services and protections to a classically marginalized group. At this point, those expectations generally have not been fulfilled.

But the mere presence of women in politics changes the face of power, and that can have a far-reaching impact. It could be that if India ever elects a female prime minister who isn't a scion of the Gandhi dynasty, historians will look back to the adoption of the quota law as instrumental to her historic rise.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Africa's Cyber WMD

Think that Russia and China pose the biggest hacking threats of our time? The virus-plagued computers in Africa could take the entire world economy offline.

Imagine a network of virus-driven computers so infectious that it could bring down the world's top 10 leading economies with just a few strokes. It would require about 100 million computers working together as one, a "botnet" -- the cybersecurity world's version of a WMD. But unlike its conventional weapons equivalent, this threat is the subject of no geopolitical row or diplomatic initiative. That's because no one sees it coming -- straight out of Africa.

Cybercrime is growing at a faster rate in Africa than on any other continent in the world, according to statistics presented at a conference on the matter in Cote D'Ivoire in 2008. Cybersecurity experts estimate that 80 percent of PCs on the African continent are already infected with viruses and other malicious software. And while that may not have been too worrisome for the international economy a few years ago (just like the continuing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo does not affect our daily lives), the arrival of broadband service to Africa means that is about to change. The new undersea broadband Internet cables being installed today will make Africa no further away from New York than, say, Boston, in the virtual world.

Broadband Internet access will allow Africa's virus and malware problems to go global. With more users able to access the Internet (and faster), larger amounts of data can be transferred both out and inward. More spam messages in your inbox from Africa's email fraudsters will be only the beginning.

Here's how the most alarming scheme could work. From a central hub, computers across the continent could be taken over, often without the knowledge of their owners, and set up to forward transmissions (including spam or viruses) to other computers online. These new zombie computers, or "bots" (as in robots), serve the wishes of some master spam or virus originator. "One botnet of one million hosts could conservatively generate enough traffic to take most Fortune 500 companies collectively offline," Jeffrey Carr writes in his book Inside Cyber Warfare. "A botnet of 10 million hosts could paralyze the network infrastructure of a major western nation." The African continent, home to almost 100 million computers, would be a top target for botnet herders, with devastating results.

Why Africa, of all places, when surely there are computers to hack elsewhere? In short, because the continent is home to the world's most vulnerable computers. About 80 percent of the African population lacks even rudimentary knowledge of information technologies, according to a recent World Bank survey. Though Internet cafes are widespread, providers often cannot afford proper antivirus software, making computers very easy targets for skilled botnet operators and hackers.

Moreover, most African countries (with some exceptions, such as Egypt and South Africa) lack the legal infrastructure they would need to prosecute, let alone stop, the rapid increase in cybercrime. Nor is there much coordination between countries on how to deal with cybersecurity, despite commitments made at a Regional Cybersecurity Forum for Africa and Arab states held in Tunis in 2009. Promises made to develop national cybersecurity strategies and better monitor the crime will likely fall flat on a lack of funding.

There are a few bright spots in this dismal picture. Some African countries really have made headway, at least on a national level. Tunisia, for example, drafted a national cybersecurity strategy and specific legislation for electronic identification, and has been able to create the first national security institute in Africa. Nigeria, home of the infamous "419" scam, so named for the code of law that prohibits it, has developed a national cybersecurity initiative mostly aimed at raising awareness and battling online fraud.

Unfortunately, in cyberspace, the whole is only as strong as its weakest link -- and the majority of African countries are downright frail. That fact won't be lost on skillful cybercriminals operating out of an unregulated Internet café in the slums of Addis Ababa, Lagos, or Maputo. The biggest botnet the world has ever known could be lurking there.