Assorted measures needed to empower women


Five years away from 2020, Malaysia still showcases a dismally low number of women in positions of power. To improve this figure seriously, it is perhaps time to consider implementing gender quotas in politics.

Sixty years ago, history was made on several fronts with Malaya’s first general election. Voters were allowed to choose representatives to the Federal Legislative Council, and the Federation of Malaya elected its first Chief Minister and its first Cabinet in preparation for Independence.

Another first was the election of Halimahton binti Abdul Majid, the sole woman Umno candidate, to represent the constituency of Hulu Selangor1. At the time, Halimahton was the only woman among the 52 legislators, placing women’s representation in top-level politics at a measly two per cent.

Over the years, the number of women elected to public office has improved – but very slowly and very painfully. Only in 1999 – a good 40 years and seven general elections later – did the proportion of women in the Lower House (Dewan Rakyat) reach 10.4% (20 out of 193).

Fast forward to the 2013 General Election and the percentage of women MPs – believe it or not – remains stuck at 10.4%, essentially unchanged over three elections and 15 years. Things are no better at the State Assembly (Dewan Undangan Negeri) and Local Council (Pihak Berkuasa Tempatan) level, with 65 out of 511 state assemblypersons (11.3%) and 437 out of 3,338 local councillors (13.1%) being women2.

On a regional and global scale, Malaysia lags badly behind its counterparts. In the World Economic Forum’s recently released Global Gender Gap Report 2014, Malaysia’s ranking in the Political Empowerment Sub-Index is a dismal 132 out of 142 countries – and second to last in Asean – partly due to the trifling number of women in its Parliament5. As of January 2014, almost all Asean countries had surpassed Malaysia in this regard. The only exceptions are Myanmar, which is emerging from dictatorship, and Brunei, which does not even hold elections.

Stagnation in women representation

In Malaysia, there is no shortage of politically active women. Women party members are often visible at the grassroots level – as programme organisers, community workers and election campaigners. Unfortunately,numbers alone are not enough to elevate them into positions of power.

Dr Cecilia Ng, a director of the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), notes, “In reality, the nature of competitive politics translates into a ‘winner-take-all system’ which bases candidate selection on ‘who can deliver the most votes’ – not necessarily on the principles of representation, diversity or inclusiveness.”

Penang Women's Development Corporation's Councillor Training Workshop on November 22, 2014.

That being the case, Ng thinks the likelihood of a woman being picked as a candidate, and her subsequent electoral success, is undermined by a number of powerful factors:

a) Patriarchal social conditioning, which leads people to more easily accept, support and encourage men in leadership roles, instead of women;

b) The ability to raise campaign finances, which is heavily boosted by deep personal pockets, charisma and professional status, and may not come easily to women;

c) Rural constituencies especially remote and inaccessible ones with exacting needs, or which are patriarchal in outlook and seen as unwinnable by women;

d) Male-dominated local party machineries, which are crucial to campaign and outreach success, but which may not easily accept women candidates;

e) Male-dominated local politics, meaning a higher profile and likelihood of their selection as candidates; and

f) Male-dominated power structures, which make men the final arbiter in any main party contest, even when candidates are women.

Nurul Izzah, MP for Lembah Pantai. During the 2013 General Election, the percentage of women MPs was 10.4% – essentially unchanged over three elections and 15 years.

As a result of these obstacles, the pool of women political candidates and representatives in political parties is a small one. This, in turn, reinforces the obstacles faced by women, and entrenches a vicious cycle.

Will gender quotas work?

To overcome these obstacles, some have suggested gender quotas as the most effective way to catapult women into elected government and into positions of political influence.

Gender quotas are indeed used worldwide – in fact in as many as 118 countries and territories as of 2014. In the past, Malaysian parties across the political spectrum including PKR, DAP and Umno did consider some form of quota or other. In November 2014, DAP was said to be considering a change to its party constitution to reserve 30% of positions in its Central Executive Committee for women.

Notably, as of late 2013, 30 out of 37 countries (or 81%) which have 30% or more women in the lower houses of parliament do practice some form of gender quota. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International Idea), three major quota types are:

a) Legislated candidate quotas – These regulate the gender composition of the candidate lists and are binding by law for all political parties in the election. They are mandated either through national constitutions or by electoral legislation (see Table 3).

b) Legislated “reserved seats” – These regulate by law the gender composition of elected bodies, by reserving a certain number or percentage of seats for women members, mandated through national constitutions or by electoral legislation and implemented through special electoral procedures (see Table 4).

c) Party quotas (also called voluntary party quotas) – These are adopted by individual parties for candidate lists, and are usually enshrined in party statutes and rules (see Table 5).

In a nutshell, quotas aim to place the burden of candidate recruitment not on the individual woman, but on those who control the recruitment process. Quotas are also meant to be temporary – subject to removal once gender representation has reached satisfactory levels.

The case of Indonesia

Indonesia is no stranger to gender quotas. Following democratisation in 1999 and years of lobbying from women’s groups and activists, a minimum 30% women candidates quota for national, provincial and district-level elections was introduced through Article 61(1) of the 2003 Electoral Law. Although a noncompulsory quota at first, it was later amended through Article 55 of the 2008 Electoral Law, which stipulated that at least one in every three candidates on a political party’s list must be a woman.

Besides the minimum 30% quota, other supporting provisions were put in place. For Indonesia’s 2009 election, a “zipper system” was introduced to require parties to place men and women candidates in an alternating fashion on the ballot paper – instead of ranking women lower on the party lists. In the 2014 elections, the General Election Commission (KPU) actually disqualified 77 candidates from five parties in seven electoral districts because they did not meet the 30% threshold. Because of the KPU’s strong enforcement, the minimum 30% quota was upheld in nearly all electoral districts across Indonesia.

Since then, the number of women candidates in Indonesian elections has risen considerably from 30% in 2009 to 37% in 2014 (or 2,467 out of 6,619 candidates). However, this was also accompanied by mixed gains in the number of women representatives, from 8.8% in 1999 to 11% in 2004, then to a historic 18.2% in 2008 before dropping to 14% in 2014 despite the increase in candidates.

Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, candidate for DAP during the 2014 Teluk Intan byelection. In November last year, DAP was said to be considering a change to its party constitution to reserve 30% of positions in its Central Executive Committee for women.

There are also further caveats. Time Magazine noted that even with the minimum 30% quota, “political parties choose to pick women with little experience in politics or public service: wives, daughters or female relatives of established politicians, and famous celebrities – dangdut singers, swimsuit models and actresses. Heavyweight politicians may prefer to recruit littleexperienced celebrities and family members because they can be steered easily8.” Moreover, women candidates in the past have been disproportionately placed in unwinnable constituencies.

In the case of Indonesia, it appears that political parties have been vying to recruit women simply to meet quota requirements, rather than investing in and supporting qualified female candidates. Although gender quotas may help boost candidate numbers, they do not guarantee electability – or even the political empowerment of women.

Women from the Malaysian Armed Forces during the 13th General Election in 2013. In spite of gains made by women in education and the workplace, gendered norms are still rampant locally, with women being seen or regularly referred to as the “weaker sex”.

Quotas plus positive measures

According to International Idea, women’s alleged lack of adequate qualifications globally is not the key reason for their lack of political representation. Rather, their lack of access to political decision-making is influenced by dominant gender norms, attitudes and stereotypes9.

In Malaysia, gendered norms are still rampant, with women being seen or regularly referred to as the “weaker sex”, primarily responsible for the welfare of their families and their homes, and not to be taken seriously as leaders or decisionmakers. This is in spite of gains made by women in education and the workplace. A shift in mindsets is needed to level the playing field.

Some argue that over time, attitudes towards women in politics will improve – given the emergence of a younger, perhaps more gender-progressive generation of voters. However, the question is: how much longer Malaysia will have to wait to see substantial change happen?

In the interim, other forms of positive action are clearly needed. This may include training and capacity-building to heighten public and political party members’ awareness of gender discrimination and the importance of gender balance in a democracy, supporting institutions focused on gender equality, and support structures for up-and-coming political candidates. Of course, male allies are crucial in the effort to eradicate unfair patriarchal norms. As such, outreach efforts must target men as much as women, in public and political life.

If irreversible progress is to come towards gender equality and women’s political citizenship, a multi-pronged approach is what we need. Malaysia_Azizah.pdf
Statistics on Women, Family and Community in Malaysia, 2013 (published by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development).
Adapted from: Wan Azizah, “Women in Politics: Reflections from Malaysia”, International Idea, 2002. URL: upload/CS_Malaysia_Azizah.pdf en.pdf pdf Quotas_3.pdf
Ibid. plenty-of-women-but-respect-in-shortsupply/ quotas/upload/Atlas-on-Electoral- Gender-Quotas_3.pdf
10 Ibid.

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