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RIGHTS-ASIA: Women’s Quotas – No Magic Formula But a Start

Lynette Lee Corporal

BANGKOK, Jun 20 2007 (IPS) - Setting quotas designed to have more women in politics and government may not have been the magic formula for more balanced political representation in many countries, but it has certainly been a key first step in many cases.

This was the common thread that ran through a workshop this month that reviewed the experience of different Asian countries with quotas for women in politics.

“We need to build a strong support system for women. Politics is a most cruel occupation and you need enough resources and good negotiating power,” said Pusadee Tamthai, executive director of Thailand’s Democrat Party.

At present, more than 30 countries have quotas allotting a certain percentage or number of slots for women in political offices and agencies, administration and the judiciary.

Likewise, more than 100 political parties in move than 60 countries have quotas for nominating women political candidates, according to data from the German-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Thailand, which organised the seminar along with the Gender and Development Research Institute (GDRI).

But according to FES, women’s representation in national politics, still often a male arena, remains way below the so-called ‘critical mass’ of 30 percent of positions.

In South-east Asia, socialist Vietnam has the highest figure of women in government with 27.3 percent, followed by Laos with 25.2 percent. Singapore has 24.5 percent, the Philippines 15.3 percent, Indonesia has 11.3 percent, Cambodia has 9.8 percent, Malaysia 9.1 percent and Thailand, 8.7 percent.

In countries like Thailand where there is no quota requirement set by the law, experts say some progress has been in getting women in key political positions over the years.

“But still, it’s still not enough. (It’s) not that we didn’t try hard enough, but cultural norms and attitudes are still dominant that prevented us from pushing for the quota system in some areas,” said Dr Suteera Vichitranond of the Gender Development Research Institute.

As Thailand’s new – and 18th – Constitution is being drafted at present, Pusadee sees says this is an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of having more women in decision-making positions. At least on the local election level, proponents of women’s rights are asking that the charter drafters include a clause stipulating that men and women be give appropriate representation.

But having more women in politics does not automatically translate into more gender-sensitive laws or politics, highlighting the fact that the key in more balanced representation lies in changing prevailing attitudes that see politics, leadership and management as spaces mainly for men.

There are also differing views on the utility of quotas. “There are several problems we are facing here, among which are that women can’t seem to agree on different issues within the quota system. The men, meanwhile, tend to agree with the idea of the quota system (only) in private. I just don’t know why they don’t publicly endorse it afterwards,” Susheela Kaushik, president of the New Delhi-based Centre for Development Studies and Action, told IPS.

Puseeda concurred: “We need more research studies and education to change people’s perceptions about the issue. We always have to look for opportunities to discuss it.”

Kaushik adds that it is risky to assume that having quotas and more women in government means the campaign to recognise women’s rights has been accomplished, or that the women in power would necessarily push policies that are gender-friendly.

“One of the things to watch out for is for the quota system becoming a maximum ceiling rather than a minimum. The men will start thinking that, with the 33 percent quota for women, they need to protect the 66 percent and that women shouldn’t go beyond the 33 percent allotted them,” she pointed out.

“Don’t underestimate the patriarchal system. In my country, for instance (India), we have received a lot of backlash from men,” she said.

Quantity by itself is also not the goal here. “These women that get elected should also be qualified to attend to the goals of gender equity and to help change the mainstream attitude to reflect gender equality,” Kaushik pointed out. “We need all the help we can get from different sectors to reach this goal.”

Kaushik, who has been fighting for women’s quotas for 25 years, is worried that the younger generation of women is not as keen about pursuing the issue. “They don’t seem to be interested much in political representation. They would rather go corporate than lobby for quota system in politics.”

All of this point to the need to view legislative quotas for women against the backdrop of the larger society – and within the context of greater political representation of women as a democratic value and a human right.

“Education and democratic values are very crucial if you want the quota system to be firmly in place,” said Munyi Song, a gender and development studies from South Korea who was at the seminar.

“We should remember that quota is merely a temporary tool to achieve gender equality,” explained Andrea Fleschenberg of Germany’s University of Duisberg. We need to take a holistic approach and get good quota provision to make it work, whether it’s getting the reserved seats or winning direct seats in elections.”

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