Sometimes autocrats strengthen their power by expanding women’s rights. Here’s how that works.

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Last month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had appointed a new cabinet — and that half of its ministers were female. Particularly noteworthy are the appointments of Aisha Mohammed as minister of defense and Muferiat Kamil as the first minister of peace, prestigious ministries at a time when Ethiopia is beginning to soften relations with neighboring Eritrea.

Two days after Abiy’s announcement, Rwanda’s leader, Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, announced that his country’s cabinet would also be 50 percent female; its members of parliament have been majority female since the genocide.

Some observers have argued that dictators undertake high-profile gender reforms such as these to improve their country’s image, hoping investors and lenders will look more favorably on a “modernizing autocrat.” But our research, published at Comparative Political Studies, shows that these reforms can also bolster domestic political stability. Certain kinds of autocracies more actively invest in gender reforms — because by doing so, they win a larger base of support that helps them stay in power.

What kinds of dictatorships solidify their power with gender-balanced cabinets?

These are dictatorships governed by a party with a deep reach into society, embedded at every level of government, from the local to the national. The party also often has close ties with, or control over, nongovernmental organizations and civil society movements. Both Ethiopia and Rwanda have this kind of arrangement. While most autocrats create some kind of political party or movement to cloak their power, only in a minority of cases do these parties have organizational strength that’s independent of the ruler. One test of this is whether the party can change leaders and still hold on to power; the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) did this in both 2012 and 2018.

[Why was Ethiopia in upheaval this year? This brief history explains a lot.]

How is an autocratic ruling party strengthened by women’s rights and women’s political power?

Unlike countries governed by a military junta or a monarch, which rely on a small elite for political survival, countries governed by parties need broader support in society to survive. These parties are more likely to provide goods and rights to at least some of their citizens, since doing so helps the party stay in power. Supporting gender equality — or at least seeming to — can help the party win women’s support.

Ethiopia’s rulers have been shaken by two years of anti-government unrest. The new prime minister, Abiy, has promised sweeping political and economic overhauls to ensure his regime’s survival. Expanding women’s cabinet representation is one of his first moves. Presumably, Abiy recognizes that women’s political support will help solidify his hold on power.

Abiy can appoint a gender-balanced cabinet because the EPRDF has long cultivated female leaders. Our research indicates that dictatorships with strong ruling parties often have dedicated women’s wings or ties with the women’s movement. These help spread the regime’s policies and vision for the country to the people. At the same time, they supply loyal female politicians to fill parliamentary and cabinet posts.

In Ethiopia, the EPRDF’s Women’s League has served these functions. The new minister of peace has held numerous party-appointed positions, including as minister of women’s affairs and as speaker of Parliament.

Autocratic ruling parties also foster women’s support through gender quotas for legislatures. In 2004, the EPRDF introduced a 30 percent gender quota, meaning that at least 30 percent of the candidates running for office on a party’s ticket must be female. Women fill 39 percent of the national legislature’s seats.

Rwanda is known for having the world’s highest proportion of women in its national legislature, at 61 percent. The ruling party introduced a mandatory 30 percent reserved-seats quota at the local, regional and national levels of government in 2003. This means that women have a guaranteed 30 percent of seats in the legislature at each level of government — a benchmark that is greatly exceeded in the national assembly. In Rwanda, the legacy of the 1994 genocide has contributed to the transformation of women’s political roles, which helps explain the county’s exceptional performance compared with other countries.

[So Ethiopia’s new prime minister wants real democracy? Here’s what would have to change first.]

Ruling parties such as those in Ethiopia and Rwanda benefit politically from gender quotas. When they gain an image of supporting women’s rights, it can help the party mobilize voters. During the 2015 election campaign, for example, the chairwoman of Ethiopia’s Women’s League argued that voting for the EPRDF was the only way to maintain women’s participation in government.

So why don’t other kinds of autocracies benefit from gender reforms?

By contrast, in autocracies in which a single ruler or small clique holds power, gender reforms risk destabilizing the regime because leaders of the women’s movement tend to be regime ‘outsiders’ who seek to alter the political status quo. To forestall that, autocracies may accompany any move toward women’s rights with repression. This helps explain why Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s moves to increase women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia have been paired with a fierce clampdown of the women’s movement.

[Saudi women can now drive. Why are feminists there still labeled traitors?]

So will other autocratic regimes move to whitewash their international reputations by putting women in more positions of power? That will depend on whether a strong party is there to absorb the benefits of having women’s support.

Daniela Donno is associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh and works on democracy and human rights.

Anne-Kathrin Kreft is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Gothenburg, where she specializes in gender and armed conflict.