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WOMEN-MALAYSIA: Top of the Class, Nowhere in Politics

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Aug 26 2009 (IPS) - Yet another by-election is over in Malaysia.

Women take the backseat at a campaign meeting for the Aug. 25 byelection  Credit: Anil Netto/IPS

Women take the backseat at a campaign meeting for the Aug. 25 byelection Credit: Anil Netto/IPS

Tuesday night, a candidate from the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance or PR) defeated a candidate from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in a semi-rural constituency on mainland Penang. That brought the by-election tally to 7-1 in favour of the PR since the last general election in March 2008.

These by-elections are important barometres of public opinion. The opposition Alliance is hoping the by-election momentum will catapult it to victory in the next general election after it deprived the BN, which has ruled the country for 52 years, of its coveted two-thirds majority in Parliament last year.

But there is one glaring statistic: in each of these eight by-elections, neither of the main political coalitions has fielded a woman candidate.

Women did stand as independents in a couple of by-elections but did not make much headway against candidates from the established parties. The failure of these parties to put up women candidates, however, is puzzling.

Affirmative Action

It is a global trend that women are facing more barriers in politics, notes Chong Eng, a member of parliament from the DAP and deputy chair of the Women's Parliamentary Caucus, set up last July. The caucus, which is made up of 23 women parliamentarians from both sides of the political divide, is calling for 30 percent female representation in political and administrative decision-making bodies.

Only around 20 countries have achieved the 30 percent target for women in positions of decision making – but these countries adopted certain mechanisms, says Chong Eng. ''It cannot happen naturally,'' she says. ''We need to make the parties and government realise that if they are serious about this, they have to adopt an affirmative action mechanism.''

These mechanisms could include a system of proportional representation (for instance, for every three names on a list of candidates, at least one should be a woman), quotas for women, and reserved seats in the legislatures and local councils, she suggests.

There's nothing that cannot be achieved, she asserts; it is a question of political will: "It's not just for women, it's for the good of democracy, society and humankind. Democracy means you need the views of all groups and women are definitely a group. We can't rely or depend on the views of men alone to achieve sustainable development."

"Women and men are like the wings of a bird; if one side is strong and the other weak, the bird won't be able to soar,'' says Eng.

It's not as if women are not interested in the ele ctoral contests or politics. Both coalitions are made up of political parties with active women's wings. A record number of women – many of them first-timers – were fielded in the 2008 general election with some of them, especially from the PR, successfully entering Parliament and the state assemblies.

One possible reason for their absence in the by-elections is the sheer intensity of these local contests. ''These by elections are fierce, nasty fights,'' observes political analyst Bridget Welsh, editor of the book 'The Mahathir Years'. "There is also this paternalistic approach of wanting to protect the women."

Moreover, she points out, the substance of by-elections – which tend to focus on material development and personal attacks – often do not strike a chord with the interests and issues that matter for many women.

Still, women have come some way in politics. In the 1999 general election, a Woman's Candidacy Initiative (WCI) fielded a trailblazer, the late Zaitun Mohamed Kasim as an independent candidate – the first to contest on a gender equality platform in a general election.

Although she lost, she slashed the BN's previous winning majority, capturing 46 per cent of the popular vote. The WCI has been campaigning for women to make up 30 percent of election candidates.

There's a paradox of sorts at work as well. Malaysians girls are outperforming their male counterparts in schools and universities; nearly two thirds of undergraduates are female.

And yet women remain a small minority in Parliament and the state assemblies. They hold about 10 percent of the 222 seats in the lower house of Parliament and just 8 percent in the various state assemblies – lower than the global average of 16 percent.

Strong traditional cultural barriers and conditioning, a lack of resources and unequal sharing of household responsibilities prevent many women from running for office whether in electoral contests or for party leadership positions.

Cultural conditioning could include the thinking that women have to play second fiddle to men in public life, especially politics.

"Girls are doing much better until the tertiary level with a higher career path," observes Maria Chin Abdullah, the executive director of Empower, a public awareness group. In 2004, the ratio of girls in tertiary education to that of boys stood at 1.31, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

But, in her studies with rural schools, Maria discovered a prevailing attitude which accepted that boys would be the head prefects and class monitors – unlike the thinking in more urban areas. This acceptance of boys as the heads is then reinforced in families. ''The perception is that we expect the males to be the head of the families with bread winner responsibilities,'' she added.

In the current government Cabinet at the federal level, only a couple of women are full ministers, marginally down from the three in the previous administration.

The PR has come up with a 30 percent quota target for women in leadership positions. On the other side of the political divide, the government is also committed to achieving a 30 percent target for women in decision-making positions in the public sector.

In 1995, Malaysia signed (with reservations) the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which contains a 30 percent quota for women's representation.

Such quotas and affirmative action policies are seen as a necessary first step towards realising gender equality in political participation.

But even that could be easier said than done, as nearly all major political parties are male-dominated, especially in their key leadership positions and party election structures. In the 2008 Global Gender Gap Report, Malaysia slipped to 96th spot from 92nd a year earlier and 72nd the in 2006.

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