TO take gender and women’s issues to the forefront of policymaking, it is vital that women are seen to be strongly represented in the political arena. Unfortunately, women only make up a small number of people who make laws and policies that directly impact the public, of which half are women.
Empower, an NGO focusing on women’s political equality, answered with a resounding “NO” when asked if enough is being done to ensure women are being represented in decision-making positions in all spheres.
“In Malaysia, the excuse of culture, tradition and religion is still being used to undermine the lives of girls and women. The opportunities and access to resources by women is largely being curtailed by the patriarchal power-play that we see daily in Malaysia by those in power – whether from political parties, leaders of businesses, religious community leaders, etc, ” says its executive director Dorathy Benjamin in an email interview with Sunday Star.
She explains that while we often hear the excuse that not enough women could be found for decision-making positions, yet this is rarely used for men.
“Let’s look at candidates put up by political parties to run in elections – it is often women who would have had to prove their worth, either via their education levels or years of work, to even be considered. And yet for male candidates, you can have even those with minimal education or years of experience placed as a candidate.
“This indicates the underlying cultural changes that need to happen, ” she adds.
Women and gender are critical issues for any functioning democracy as they usually comprise half the population – Malaysia’s female population stands at 15.84 million out of the total 32.7 million living in the country in 2020. However, they are still left out of the corridors of power in Malaysia, says Benjamin.
We currently have 33 female Members of Parliament, representing only around 14% of the entire Dewan Rakyat. Meanwhile, we can look to other countries that are doing better in women’s representation in parliament: Rwanda at 61%, Sweden at 46% and Costa Rica at 46%.
The Cabinet in Malaysia also lacks gender inclusivity. Previously we had Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as the country’s first female deputy prime minister, now there isn’t any woman in as high a position. And of the 31 ministers, there are currently only five women: Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri (Tourism, Arts & Culture), Zuraida Kamaruddin (Housing and Local Government), Datuk Dr Noraini Ahmad (Higher Education), Datuk Seri Rina Harun (Women, Family and Community Development), and Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique (National Unity). Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said is currently the country’s first female Deputy Dewan Rakyat Speaker.
Canada has an equal number of men and women in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet. Finland’s Sanna Marin, the youngest Prime Minister in the world has a women-led cabinet with 12 female and seven male ministers – the important portfolios of finance, interior, education, and justice are all helmed by women.
The struggles are not just in the area of career progression. Women politicians in Malaysia also face the added burden of becoming targets of sexual harassment, abusive language, incitement of violence, and objectification both from fellow politicians and members of the public.
“It’s 2021 and we still have male leaders making public statements undervaluing women. Women MPs are still being heckled in Parliament and male MPs are still getting away with sexism and misogyny.
Benjamin also points out that though Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1995, it is not honouring its obligations under the convention, one of which is to have a 30% quota for women in decision-making positions.
Benjamin adds that the understanding of political participation needs to be broadened in this new decade of the new millennium.
“It is no longer merely about standing for elections or holding positions in institutions, although this is still important. It is about enabling every single woman living in Malaysia to exercise her agency to the fullest, ” she says.
Dr Shanthi Thambiah, from Universiti Malaya’s Gender Studies programme, sees the current representation of women in Malaysian politics as being “very low”.
Worse still, she says that the pandemic has caused the voices of women political leaders to become even less heard.
“Even in the National Security Council, we hardly have any female representation except for Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood (the Prime Minister’s special advisor on public health). We need female visibility in the messages that are being sent by the government, ” she says.
“Germany and New Zealand have been projected as countries run by women who were able to put in place policies and measures to address the pandemic, and ensuing economic crisis, in a much more balanced and fair manner in terms of making sure they take care of the nation as a whole, not just certain sectors and groups but the nation as a whole.”
Undi18 youth empowerment movement co-founder Qyira Yusri says that it is important for there to be an equal representation of men and women in politics to ensure the views of different segments of the society are heard.
“Due to years of social conditioning that leadership is gender-orientated, women are led to believe that there is no place for them in politics. Women are less likely to pursue political office as they are not encouraged to do so, causing them to underestimate their own abilities, ” she says.
Additionally, she points out that political involvement requires both time and emotional investment.
“Not all women can afford these luxuries. They may have to put their pre-existing responsibilities first, such as their family. According to the International Labour Organisation, women spend 4.1 times more than men in Asia and the Pacific on unpaid care work. This involves household duties such as tending to others and cooking and cleaning. This work is greatly ignored but it contributes at least US$10.8tril (RM46.6tril) a year to the global economy, ” she says, adding that pre-existing commitments that women are responsible for makes it more difficult for them to pursue political activities.
A solution to this problem is to provide women with the confidence and support to become leaders, whether in their own communities, workplace or government, she says.
Qyira points out that while quotas can be established as a shortterm solution, it is more important to ensure systematic change: ie, political parties should have training and mentoring programmes to build the capacity of female politicians.
“Undi18’s campaign, The 111 Initiative, also encourages women to actively participate in politics as we advocate for 50% of women to be in Parliament, to show women that women do have the power to take charge of the direction that their country is going in.”
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