Where are All the Women?

A blog by Theresa W. Devasahayam, SI UN Representative for Bangkok and Past President, Soroptimist International of Singapore (SIS)

“According to the Global Gender Gap Report, the world has closed 68 percent of its gender gap.1 The 21st century has seen women making significant headway especially in the areas of education and health. But stark gaps continue to endure in the areas of leadership in electoral politics and employment. Politics in particular continues to be a domain largely controlled by men. Worldwide, the numbers of women in leadership roles are far fewer compared to men in spite of women constituting half the world! According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the world average in terms of women’s representation in politics stands at 24.3 percent.2 In Asia, the figure is much less at 19.6 percent.3 Nevertheless, there have been a handful of women who have risen the ranks in electoral politics.

One such woman from Asia is Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. In 2018, Malaysia welcomed its first woman Deputy Prime Minister in Dr Azizah, shoring up the topic of women in politics once again. Known to have been one of the star performers in Malaysian politics and a symbol of the country’s reformasi opposition movement, she has been said to have inspired her female colleagues with her grit and strength to deflect political attacks and her warm personality. Her rise to the second highest position in political office is yet another indication that women are making a positive headway in the Asian region.

She, however, has not been the only woman making headlines in the country: last year, Ms Yeo Bee Yin, was sworn in as Minister of Energy, Green Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment on 2 July, along with 12 other ministers and 23 deputy ministers of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Cabinet. Increasingly women who hold high-level government positions in most sectors except for Education, Health and Community and Social Development tend to be men. Hence Ms Yeo was breaking the glass ceiling when she was appointed to helm the ministry dealing with energy, climate change and the environment—sectors often associated with men.

Women leaders who hold the highest office in the country are not a novel feature of politics in Asia. In the past, the region has seen several women occupying the highest office in electoral politics, the list of which includes Megawati Soekarnoputri from Indonesia; Gloria Arroyo and Corazon Aquino from the Philippines; Yingluck Shinawatra from Thailand; Aung San Sui Kyi from Myanmar; Indira Gandhi from India; Benazir Bhutto from Pakistan; Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka; and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed from Bangladesh. What is revealing about these women is that they are mostly from political elite families and who stepped into the shoes of the head of state because a male relative, whether father or brother, did not want to take the position up. For this reason, these women continue to operate within patriarchal structures laid down by a system controlled by men rather than structures created by them.

It is not surprising then that in these countries, women’s representation in politics continues to lag behind men’s even though these countries are all bound by the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which obligates state members to grant equal opportunity to women to hold public office positions and participate in decision-making and policy formulation.

In the Asian region, the persistent presence of formal and informal barriers has blocked women’s full participation in Parliament in spite of the gradual but incremental trend towards democratic governments in some countries. By extension, eliminating these barriers would get more women to be nominated into elected office positions. Among the range of barriers are the election system itself; lack of access to funds to run campaigns; weaker professional networks; and family responsibilities.

The book: Women and Politics in Southeast Asia: Navigating a Man’s World edited by Theresa W. Devasahayam and published by Sussex Academic Press (2019) aims to contribute to the discourse on women and politics in Southeast Asia by asking the question: where are all the women? The main assertion is that women’s representation in the political realm is significantly lower than that of men’s for several reasons. First, the different dimensions of women’s lives cannot be seen to be separate from other realms of women’s lives since women are caught in multiple realms of power contestations with men—whether in the home, workplace, nation, and/or global level. The book also highlights how women’s struggles in the realm of politics are a result of having to operate within power structures created by men, thereby preventing them from entering the domain, on the one hand, and increasing their numbers and widening their sphere of influence, on the other.

The book covers the countries of Singapore, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar. In Singapore, there has been a lack of a palpable shift in women entering the political domain in spite of women’s representation in politics hovering above the world average at 23 percent.4 In this case, it was found that women’s familial demands have made it difficult for women to choose a political path. In Timor-Leste, gender stereotypes continue to influence women’s role in the political domain, re-inscribing the domain to be that of men’s in spite of the gradual rise in the presence of women in the arena in response to the quota system. An investigation into Islam and how it has impacted on women’s foray into politics is also discussed in the book. Although she maintains that there are instances where Islam has deterred or prevented women’s political participation, as in Aceh where a version of Syariah law has been enacted, such cases have usually galvanised other Muslims (and occasionally non-Muslims) into strong reaction. But while some women and men have been found to campaign for more egalitarian interpretations of their religion, others have been more insistent on employing their power in ensuring domination over women and thereby exercising a more exclusionary gender politics. In the Philippines, a masculine or male-dominated culture persists and placing limits on women’s participation in politics in spite of the country having achieved more than the average number of women in the political domain compared with many other countries in the world. The country has also done significantly well in closing gender gaps in the arenas of education, health and employment, propelling itself to the list of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of achieving gender parity. The case study of Aung San Suu Kyi in the book throws light on how one woman managed to enter and manoeuvre relatively successfully into the sphere of public politics because of her socioeconomic status and her political pedigree. The discussion shows that while she did not enter the political arena on a feminist agenda, Aung San Suu Kyi did to a significant degree challenge the military’s (patriarchal) hegemonic definition and claim to power.

Worldwide, as in Southeast Asia, the political arena is an unequal playing field for the sexes. To counteract these barriers, governments might resort to educative measures to increase women’s political leadership although this has not been seen in Southeast Asia except for Timor-Leste. It must be remembered that since educative measures do not directly translate into seats for women in Parliament, there is a need for quota systems. In the tiny country of Timor-Leste, the quota system has led to 38 percent of its Parliamentarians being women; although this achievement was a by-product of a law promulgated in 2006 requiring that all political parties nominate at least one woman for every group of four candidates at national elections.5 While quotas make a significant difference in raising women’s numbers in electoral politics, the CEDAW Committee has advised combining quotas with the current efforts of the government to promote equal representation of men and women in Parliament. Nonetheless it must be highlighted that when quotas are adopted voluntarily by a party, this not only expresses a liberal and progressive party culture, but it gives the party a chance to show their electorate in practice that the party is committed to gender equality, as compared with other parties.

There have been diverse views on the use of quotas to ensure women’s participation in politics. Those for the quota system have argued that it is the most effective way of achieving gender balance. In fact, the most successful equal representation of women and men in politics has been when quotas have been employed. The biggest success story in this case is Rwanda. In addition, quotas have been found to push political party members to identify and train suitable women candidates instead of nominate men already known to those in office. Quotas, however, have not always received praise. Those against it have said that it robs qualified men of positions they could have occupied and instead puts token women in positions of power. In spite of the accusations hurled against the quota system, quotas are a valuable tool in bringing about change in areas that without them would take a long time. 

Engaging women in politics means that women bring a range of experiences completely different from men’s to Parliament. Whether women’s issues will be addressed because of the presence of women Parliamentarians cannot be assumed. But on a positive note, a quota system indicates that talented women cannot be dismissed and the country is serious about making progress especially in the area of gender parity in electoral politics”.

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