July 10, 2010

Democratising Women

Posted in Malaysia, Selangor, Tricia's Writings at 3:16 pm by egalitaria

The July edition of the Penang Economic Monthly is out! This time I co-author a piece with gender expert Dr. Cecilia Ng on the issue of Democratising Women. Gender and politics in Malaysia is changing rapidly with the Pakatan Rakyat having a significant number of women representatives. What have the Selangor and Penang state governments done to advance the gender reform agenda?

Democratising Women

Tricia Yeoh and Cecilia Ng

Part of the excitement associated with the post-political tsunami of March 8th 2008 when Pakatan Rakyat (PR) took over four (now three) state governments was that it signalled a greater democratisation of the country’s polity. This process certainly includes the transition towards making the practice of deeply entrenched public power more transparent and accountable, the debates of which have indeed since flourished at both Federal and State levels. Today, we have both the Barisan Nasional and PR component parties championing the labels of transparency and accountability in a political market competition of sorts, the evaluation of which is at the public’s disposal, and the results of which are tabulated at elections – or so the process ought to be.

That said, another fundamental aspect of this process of ‘greater democratisation’ is that of inclusive citizenship, where all individuals in society should be empowered to contribute to the formation and practice of public policy – the drawing upon private citizens into public spheres so to speak. Academics have argued that although democracy is premised on the idea of universal citizenship where everyone has the right to be treated equally under the law, it tends to reflect the male and heterosexual citizen. The redefinition of politics is therefore necessary to challenge the practice of it being essentially male-dominated and heteronormative.

And Malaysia?

The same is true of Malaysia, whose male-dominant political representation has resulted in gender-skewed policies and practices. Who can forget, for example, one Parliamentarian’s brash remarks referring to a fellow woman Member of Parliament’s menstrual cycle in utterly distasteful humour? More serious, however, are the impacts of such similar strains of thought upon the laws that govern the country, and in turn, the implications of those on women. One of the solutions has been through a model of ‘fast-tracking’ to redress the historic exclusion of women, where more and more countries are adopting quotas, as temporary measures, for increased political representation for women. The goal is to ensure both descriptive and substantive representation of women in the political arena.

There are 13.9 million women in the country, making up % of the national population. The participation rate of women in the Malaysian labour force increased from 44.7% in 1995 to 46.4% in 2009, which is relatively low compared to neighbouring countries like Thailand (70%), Singapore (60.2%) and Indonesia (51.8%). In positions of decision-making, the number of female Members of Parliament increased from 5.3% to 10.4% between 1990 and 2009. Women now account for 30.5% of top public sector management positions in 2010, a rise from 6.9% in 1995. However, in the private sector women only make up 6.1% of Malaysia’s corporate directors.

The Tenth Malaysia Plan (2010-2015) announced recently addresses this by announcing a policy of at least 30 percent women in decision making positions in the country (the original target over the Ninth Malaysia Plan period) but this has not yet been legislated for. In addition, the 2007 Malaysian Gender Gap Index conducted by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) revealed that women were still far behind in economic and political development despite having better educational opportunities and improved health status. Although women may have equivalent educational qualifications – enrolment of women surpasses that of men at local universities  – this does not therefore necessarily translate to decision-making positions in society both private and public.

Women in State Politics

The 12th General Elections in 2008 resulted in an increase of women as elected representatives, both within the Federal Parliament as well as the respective State Legislative Assemblies. What have been the experiences of these women politicians in this democratisation process as well as challenges therein within the two new state governments of Selangor and Penang?

Selangor has 51 state assembly persons of which eight (15.6 percent) are women, while Penang has 40 state assembly persons of which three (7.5 percent) are women. Each state has 10 Executive Committee (Exco) members who are basically the state cabinet representing various portfolios. They make executive decisions at the state level. Selangor has a woman Exco in charge of Welfare, Women’s Affairs, Technology and Innovation while the counterpart in Penang is the Exco portfolio of Youth and Sports, Women, Family and Community Development. There are 12 local councils in Selangor with a total of more than 288 councillors out of which about 10 per cent are women, while in Penang there are two local councils with eight women (16.6 per cent) out of a total of 48 councillors.

Table 1: Women’s representation in Selangor and Penang State Governments

State MPs (all) MPs (women) State Assembly State Assembly (women) Councillors (all) Councillors (women)
Selangor 22 4 (18.1%) 56 8 (14.2%) 288+ 10%
Penang 13 1 (7.7%) 40 3 (7.5%) 48 8 (16.6%)

With the coming in of more activist-oriented women in the two state legislatures, significant achievements were installed under the new state governments in both Selangor and Penang. For example, International Women’s Day was celebrated in style by both governments in 2009 and 2010. In Selangor, one of the “Merakyatkan Ekonomi Selangor” or people-based economy programmes launched in 2008 was its One Stop Crisis Centres (OSCC), which provides support for victims of violent and sexual crimes. Its second phase now includes public education on household violence, child and sexual abuse, and protection of women through infrastructure, counselling and legal aid. Women civil servants in Selangor are now entitled to 90 days maternity leave and men are given 14 days paternity leave. Women whose husbands pass away also obtain 30 days leave compared with three days emergency leave under previous policy.

The Penang government with civil society groups organised the first state-level Women’s Day Carnival in 2009. The State exco for women is currently being advised by a women’s council comprising a mix of women’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which is unique as it is the first time NGOs are part of the state’s decision-making process. A women’s centre and childcare centre have been set up, while various gender equality trainings have been conducted through such collaborations with women’s NGOs. A major conference on gender mainstreaming will be organised towards the end of July 2010.

Although there is no clear gender policy outlined in either state, some progress has ensued. The Selangor government sponsored a women’s leadership convention of 2000 women in community and grassroot organisations in January 2010, and there has been a soft launch of the Selangor Women’s Welfare Agenda, an action plan for women’s development and empowerment. Penang conducted a similar programme during its month-long International Women’s Day celebration. Apart from these, the Selangor Menteri Besar announced its target of at least 30 percent women in decision-making in the state administration, whilst Penang has had its first woman leading a local authority in the country.

Personal Voices

In an attempt to examine women’s experiences in the democratisation process, Cecilia Ng (co-author of this piece) conducted primary qualitative research of elected women representatives in Selangor and Penang through the use of semi-structured interviews. More specifically, the objective of the study included understanding their desires, challenges and obstacles faced as women especially in the areas of gender equality. These states were deliberately chosen as these were the places where civil society actors including women activists won at state and parliamentary elections, or appointed as local councillors through application or under recommendation by civil society or political parties.

Most of those interviewed said they had entered the political arena in order to contribute to the country and do the right thing to that end. However, major obstacles stood in their way to accomplish these goals, primary of which were in relation to the unfriendly Federal-state relationship. For example, where the relevant ministries previously provided financial and logistical support to state programmes, those resources were no longer readily available. Fiscal federalism therefore has an impact on the efficacy of state programmes being rolled out – including those targeted at women’s communities and school children. Some councillors, however, felt there were administrative improvements such as open tenders, public consultation and revamping of procedures, which helped in their ability to get their jobs done.

One barrier consistently faced by especially the younger women representatives was the condescending view of others with respect to their age and gender. Women felt like they had to fight harder to prove their significance and worth in a male dominated governance structure. One woman councillor experienced strong resistance regarding women’s representation “as they think it’s funny that there is a women’s agenda”. Although in general most did not feel they were directly discriminated against, it was obvious that there lies a need for holistic gender-streaming into all policies and programmes initiated by the state and local governments. (To read this study’s findings in detail, please visit http://www.ari.nus.edu.sg/docs/wps/wps10_136.pdf)

Other studies have shown evidence that a high number of women in public office leads to increased gains for women in the areas of employment and access to social services and benefits, to name a few. Interestingly, a United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) report shows that women in government and low levels of corruption are linked with liberal democracy, lending weight to the hypothesis that having more women in government would perhaps increase transparency.

Whilst both PR state governments in Selangor and Penang have made significant strides in advancing gender equality, more could be done by having a clear gender policy and action plan for each. However, these efforts would come to nought if the BN government continues to stultify state programmes to gain political mileage. For example, the national efforts are commendable, such as the commitment – as outlined in the 10th Malaysia Plan – by the Government to incorporate principles on combating gender discrimination outlined by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Beijing Platform for Action, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and National Women Policy 2009. If the Federal government and its corresponding Women’s Ministry were therefore serious about women’s empowerment as they claim to be, then surely co-ordinated efforts between Federal and State governments on women’s issues is the way forward. Till then, these PR state governments will continue to be forced to independently craft its policies and implement them in ways they consider best for women in Selangor and Penang.

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