ANOTHER possible bench mark of women’s progress is the level of female literacy and secondary school enrolment. Improved access to education will enable women to obtain higher paying jobs and assume positions of greater responsibility. Further down the road, women will be better positioned to improve their economic and political clout.
In terms of literacy, women in Asia-Pacific countries have achieved near parity with men. Female literacy rates in the five major Asean countries range between a high of 99.8% for Singapore and a very respectable low of 97.6% for Indonesia.
Except for Singapore’s literacy ratio, which remained unchanged from 1995 to 2002, all the other Asean countries showed a marked improvement in their literacy ratio. In Malaysia’s case, its female literacy ratio has improved from 96.3% in 1995 to the present ratio of 98%.
Another indicator is enrolment in secondary schools. With 93% net enrolment in secondary schools, Malaysia is the second-best performer after South Korea’s 94%, as statistics from Progress of the World’s Women 2002 show.
However, the same report shows that among East Asian countries in general, and the five major Asean countries in particular, the gender gap in secondary school enrolment has been bridged.
In Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, female enrolment in secondary schools is on par with that of their male counterparts while in Thailand and Indonesia, the ratio of female secondary school enrolment compared with that of men was 99%.
Despite near gender-equality in terms of literacy and secondary school enrolment, in most East Asian countries including Malaysia, the problem is the gender gap begins to widen after women leave school or university and join the work force.
This is partly due to two factors. First, women are under-represented in the work force. Malaysia is a case in point. Although women comprise 49.1% of the country’s population, they account for only 45.4% of the Malaysian work force. This means there is a smaller pool of women with potential for promotion to management levels.
Second, large numbers of women may be trapped in low-paying jobs in agriculture or the more informal services sector. A more accurate indicator of earnings potential, therefore, is the proportion of wo-men working in the non-agricultural sector.
On this score, the figure for Malaysia is a cause for considerable concern. Women in this country comprise only 36% of employment in the non-agricultural sector, the lowest among the five major Asean countries, figures from the Progress of the World’s Women 2002 reveal.
Among the Asean five, at 47% share, Thailand has the highest proportion of women employed in the non-agricultural sector. Singapore, with a 45% share, was a close second followed by the Philippines (41%) and Indonesia (38%).
Some reasons for this disparity include the fact that more women work in the informal sector. Women working as domestic servants or are self-employed may not be captured in official employment statistics.
In Malaysia’s case, one possible explanation may be the large proportion of women working in rubber and oil palm plantations.
Despite the low proportion of women working in the non-agricultural sector, a few Malaysian women have made a significant impact in the corporate sector. Women as chief executive officers (CEOs) are no longer a novelty, for example. In the corporate sector, women trailblazers include:
·Datuk Khatijah Ahmad, executive director of KAF-Seagroatt & Campbell, who set up one of the first Malaysian-owned money-market firms;
·Theresa Fong, a factory girl who created her own label for undergarments called “Caely Girl” and is now a major shareholder of a Second Board company called Caely Holdings with turnover exceeding RM60mil;
·Julia Chong, managing director of the Malaysia and Singapore unit of the world’s biggest household cleaning products company, Reckitt Benckiser.
·Tan Sri Dr Ng Lay Swee, president of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman and possibly the first Malaysian woman to head a university.
More worrying is the plight of women employed in the informal sector who enjoy little legal protection in terms of their working environment, safety, security and quantum of payment.
Although data is patchy, a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) titled Women and Men in the Informal Economy, underscores the fact that countries like India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have a huge informal sector.
Significantly, a higher proportion of women in Thailand work in the informal non-agricultural sector compared with their male counterparts – 54% for women while the comparable ratio for men is a much lower 49%.
More pertinent, women’s pay packets in developing countries in general and the Asia-Pacific countries in particular are still much slimmer than that of their male counterparts and women are under-represented in the upper echelons of management.
Two reasons explain the disparity in pay packets. According to Progress of the World’s Women 2002, this is partly because gender discrimination pervades the labour market in most countries and partly because women spend more time providing the unpaid care work that supports their families than men do.
Moreover, women usually take time off to have children and this could cause a significant hiccup in their careers. Conversely, men do not suffer from such handicaps.
Data on employment, although a useful bench mark of women’s progress, has one major limitation – it is a snapshot of the current status quo and thus it is not necessarily an indicator of the potential for change in the future.
Again, Malaysia provides a useful pointer. Two indicators suggest Malaysian women have the potential to transform this country’s economic, social and political landscape. The first indicator is the fact that women comprise 70% of student enrolment in public universities.
If this trend is replicated in private universities where student enrolment exceeds that in public universities, this suggests there will be a far bigger pool of women than men available for promotion to the ranks of management or to assume positions of responsibility and authority.
Another potentially seismic development is the fact that Malaysian women account for 52% of voters in this country. If women organise themselves and vote as a single bloc, “women’s issues” will be taken far more seriously and given greater weight by political parties.
Even though Malaysian women voters have yet to institutionalise themselves – by forming a single umbrella organisation for political purposes, possibly comparable in scope and clout to the National Organisation of Women (NOW) in the United States, for example – the impact of handbag power in this country is already discernible.
A case in point: several years ago, PAS announced women would not be permitted to contest the general elections, partly because of the fear that this could require them to campaign among men to solicit electoral support.
Puteri Umno’s success in mobilising young Malay women voters in several by-elections prompted PAS to reverse its stance.
Although PAS’ women candidates are likely to be few in number in the country’s next general election, this change marks a realisation that political parties cannot afford to ignore (Muslim) women voters.
It is also an acknowledgement that how Malaysian women vote in the forthcoming general election may well be decisive for all political parties, including PAS.
To me, that is the best indicator of women’s progress: that Malaysian women, a political constituency previously ignored by most political parties, are now being actively courted by all politicians.
Although Malaysian women today enjoy some political clout, more needs to be done.
In particular, more women should register themselves and their friends as voters. And steps should be taken to enhance women’s political awareness.
Instead of relying on male support to implement a 30% quota for women in Parliament, the ability to bring about change lies in feminine hands. Unity, determination and astute positioning could see women becoming an active participant of change rather than a mere bystander.
o Tan Siok Choo is a Visiting Fellow at ISIS Malaysia. E-mail: email@example.com