On March 23, Georgian MPs voted down the so-called Gender Quotas Bill. The bill obtained 66 votes from Georgian Dream while 14 representatives of the party voted against it. The initiative failed to gather the necessary 76 votes to pass the legislative threshold. MPs from the European Georgia and the Alliance of Patriots did not attend the voting. Two of the six United National Movement legislators (four were absent) voted in favor of the bill.
The bill is a new grand project decisively promoted by various well-respected Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), supposedly aimed at pushing Georgian society to more gender equality. There were probably no doubts that, backed by Georgia’s strategic partners, these CSOs would have persuaded the government to accept a gender quotation mechanism; but, contradictory to expectations, the bill did not gain the respective support. This failure raises some important questions about Georgian society and the non-governmental sector and the nature of their affairs.
The Gender Quota Bill
In June 2017, a group of 118 Tbilisi-based and regional CSOs, in collaboration with international women’s rights organizations, introduced a new bill – the Gender Quota Mechanism. According to the initiative, women are highly underrepresented in the country’s political life. The statement is based on the 2016 Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum that ranks Georgia 114th out of 144 in terms of women’s participation in politics. The bill proposed to oblige political parties and self-governments to balance the number of their male and female representatives. In case of absence of gender parity, political parties would be denied registration for elections. If approved, it would have resulted in at least 38 female lawmakers in the next parliament and at least 75 (half of the legislative body) female lawmakers from 2024. In theory, the mechanism is perceived as a ‘temporary’ means to empower women’s participation in politics and an increase in their role in the decision-making process in general.
This legislative initiative was warmly received by senior lawmakers from three parliamentary parties of Georgia, including the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, the European Georgia part and the United National Movement. Georgia’s Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, also supported it, arguing that it would promote gender equality and push forward the democratization process. Finally, it got a green light from the Ambassadorial Working Group, which unites the diplomatic corps accredited in Georgia.
Arguably, it is the first case in the last decade when, despite strong support from senior officials and the country’s strategic partners, local CSOs failed to pass the project.
While the government immediately pointed out a lack of political consensus on the matter among its members and promised to continue pushing forward the bill, members of CSOs were highly frustrated and angered. As previously mentioned, there were no doubts that the bill would be accepted. They offer two main narratives for this fact.
The most popular is to argue the retrograde nature of Georgian society which does not move with the times or with the so-called “civilized world”. The second argument was voiced by prominent local women’s rights activist, Baia Pataraia. Pataraia argued that by taking down the initiative, parliament members once again proved that Georgian men are generally afraid to empower women because this can potentially break down the strict patriarchal order currently prevailing on the ground. “Men are not willing to engage with women in direct and fair competition due to fears to be simply outmaneuvered by female counterparts,” she says.
Yet there is a large group of people, including a significant number of women, who were skeptical about the bill from the get-go and thus, had no reaction at all. They argued that quotas will not lead to strengthening the role of women in the decision-making process but rather, once again, break the meritocracy principle. Women in Georgia need more space for self-development, education and career promotion rather than artificially allocated seats in the legislative body. Women should be more involved in the decision-making process based on their professionalism and education rather than gender.
What went wrong?
What is intriguing in this case is that there was no serious outcry on the issue from regular civilians; no harsh debates on social media or other platforms. Just quick and aggressive tweets from CSO representatives and their supporters; that’s all. Why?
Not ready, not interested
According to a poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2014, 64% of respondents argued that there was no gender equality in the country. Additionally, approximately 70% believed that the number of women MPs should be increased. But, it seems that readiness to involve women in the decision-making process does not mean, by default, readiness to delegate these powers for free, based only on gender belonging. The reason probably lies in the poor reality on the ground. There is a challenge with the so-called “merit-based system” in Georgia. The system which, in theory, should ensure that only those people occupy senior positions who are worthy (education, work experience) – the meritocracy principle. Undoubtedly, this practice is rarely applied on the ground. So far, we may argue that Georgian society, and its men, are simply not ready to replace male MPs/senior officials frequently appointed or elected for no reason at all, with women MPs/senior officials with only their gender behind them.
Contradictory to Pataraia’s position, we can argue that Georgian MPs are not afraid of women but rather of every single individual who may challenge their power and social status. Hence, local society and men are simply not interested in modifying the existing system to a more gender neutral one where gender parity is still based on nepotism, loyalty to the existing government and other questionable “merits”. But rather, there is interest in promoting meritocracy, creating a basis for a fair, competitive environment where both male and female individuals will be able to reflect their knowledge, skills and professionalism in general to be hired for real achievements and merits rather than belonging to particular families, groups, institutions or gender classes.
Failure to push forward the Gender Quota Bill proves something that representatives of various groups are aware of but are not willing to recognize – there is a growing gap between the non-governmental sector and Georgian society. This gap appeared due to various processes, but one of the most important is the evolution of local NGOs from purely social movements (late 90s and the beginning of 2000s) to very active political actors nowadays. There is an increasing feeling that, like every political actor, local NGOs have their own social, economic and political agenda which is frequently not in harmony with the demands of the masses on the ground. Far worse, the more this sector is involved in the politics, the less credible it becomes for the Georgian electorate.
This discontent had led to a situation where society was not ready or interested in accepting the bill, but CSOs were still pushing for it due to strong external support. The ruling party got stuck between two lines of fire. On the one hand, Georgian Dream is definitely willing to please the CSOs and strategic partners to score more political points but, on the other hand, it realizes that voting for projects that are not well-received among its electorate may lead to dramatic consequences during the next elections. As a result, the bill failed to pass the parliamentary vote but the Chairmen, Irakli Kobakhidze, promised CSOs and Georgia’s strategic partners to continue working on it.
The Gender Quota Bill is an interesting initiative that may or may not lead to more gender equality. But its failure to pass parliamentary voting shows that regular citizens are more interested in establishing a fair, competitive environment in the country in general to ensure that individuals are hired based on their achievements and merits rather than their belonging to various groups, institutions and/or gender classes. Georgian society is ready to involve women in the decision-making process due to their professionalism, and not in connection with their gender. At the same time, there is a strong feeling among regular citizens that local CSOs have their own political, social and economic agenda that frequently does fails to match the demands existing on the ground. This leads to a growing discontent between Georgian society and CSOs; CSOs that, in theory, should represent Georgian society and its interests.