Asia: Women far from critical mass to change political scene

by Johanna Son

Phitsanulok, Thailand, 19 Jun 2001 (IPS) - Women in Asia’s local governments are making their mark with distinct styles of leadership, but have a long way to go to reach the critical mass needed to level a political playing field that remains much easier for men to take part in.

This was a common theme at the opening Tuesday of the Asia-Pacific Summit of Women Mayors and Councilors in this northern Thai city, where some 120 women local leaders and about 100 activists and experts are discussing how to make political systems more gender-friendly.

“Why are we still begging at the tables of the patriarchs? Because we are not at the table,” said Remedios Rikken, of the Manila-based Centre for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics (CAPWIP).

Premrudee Charmpoonod, mayor of Phitsanulok municipality in the province of the same name and one of seven local officials cited for their achievements Tuesday, knows exactly how difficult it was to make her way to that table.

“The work I have as mayor is not so difficult - the difficulty came before being elected,” she recounted. She cited a belief in many parts of Asia that ‘we trust in men more than women’.

Indeed, experts and activists say that while the four-day summit shows the gains that women have made in local politics, it also confirms that special effort is needed to remove cultural and societal obstacles that lie in their way.

“What a great pity that we have to have a summit of women leaders before we can get the kind of participation of women of this kind in local government,” remarked Lorraine Corner, regional representative of the United Nations’ Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

The percentage of women holding local government seats in the Asia-Pacific ranges from 2% to 33%, says a study commissioned by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific (ESCAP) and released at the summit.

The gender balance figures vary among Asian countries - Sri Lanka has only 2% of women in local government, while India has 33% because of legal quotas setting aside one-third of village and other local seats to women.

In East Asia, Vietnam and China have 26.6% and 21.8% of women in local government seats respectively. The Philippines has 16.5% of women in local government and Japan, only 6.2%.

The figures show that women remain under-represented in local governments across Asia, even though they make up more than half its population and even if lower-level governments are considered easier for them to penetrate than national politics.

Some countries show wide gaps between women’s presence in local governments and in the central government. While India has a third of local posts allotted for women, only 7.9% of its women are in central government. The Philippines and China, however, have little disparities between the percentage of women holding local and national posts.

“It has become clear that while a small number of women have attained the highest political positions in their countries, a critical mass of women is still to be elected and there is no place in which women hold the same number of seats as men,” said Jean Drage of the Victoria University in New Zealand, author of the ESCAP report.

Activists explains that actually, the issue of more women in politics is not about women against men, but is about making political representation more reflective of everyday reality. “After all, we make up 50% of the population, so we should also be in 50% of the leadership,” Rikken argued in a panel discussion here.

Having more women’s participation comes with genuine democracy, boosts the legitimacy of political systems amid rising public disenchantment with traditional systems, and is a more efficient use of the world’s human resources, she adds.

Rikken says there is today increased consciousness of how a gender-fair political system deepens democracy, but “the numbers (of women leaders) are still not there”.

“Even in countries where opportunities for women’s representation and participation exist, women have not been able to utilise them effectively,” said. Kim Hak-su, executive secretary of ESCAP, the main organiser of the conference.

This is due to factors ranging from patriarchal social systems, cultural prejudices, women’s lack of financial independence and the high cost of seeking public office.

But while numbers are important, the lopsidedness in women’s political representation goes beyond figures.

Kim suggested that having effective women leaders may well be a resource that Asia would find useful as it copes with rapid urbanisation and its woes - health, crime and environment problems.

This challenge will continue as the number of Asians living in cities is expected to rise from 37% today to 55% by 2025, Kim says, so there is a need for new ways to work toward livable cities. This, he adds, is an area where women’s leadership priorities usually lie.

“Women leaders often focus more on the environment, human development and building sustaining communities,” he added. “Moreover, they are often more consensus-oriented and inclusive in their styles of governance.”

Drage’s study for ESCAP notes that while much research on women and politics has often focused on their numbers, this has been shifting beyond numbers to the impact women have on political institutions, agendas and ways of governance.

While in terms of numbers, women lag behind the men, “it is also clear that many of the women who have succeeded have transformed the way in which politics is practised and they have the political agenda to include issues that improve women’s lives,” she wrote.

Her study, gleaned from a survey of 13 Asian countries, shows that women in local governments tend to have a greater sense of social issues, encourage participation, use mediation skills well, are more inclusive and tolerant of different viewpoints.

The study cited respondents that showed “differences in the interests of female and male councilors in that women’s interests focused on environmental issues, child care, education and caring while men are more interested in construction, maintenance and planning for water supplies, sewerage, roads and urban development,” Drage added.

Women also give importance to “issues that men find trivial, such as family and marriage disputes and dowry problems,” she said.

Indeed, a local official from New Zealand said she disputes the perception that local governments are “inferior” to national posts. “More women are needed in local governments because this level (of government) is most relevant to the lives that women and families lead,” she stressed.

Rikken puts it another way, saying that the world is changing in that disenchanted voters are looking for characteristics that are “traditionally found in women”. But that because of legal, social or everyday constraints, “women have not been encouraged to use their natural leadership styles,” she added.

She says pressure to improve the gender fairness of political systems must come both from the state, in the form of laws or quotas or voting systems that are more accessible to women, and from activists working with women and voters themselves.

Meantime, Corner adds that having women in decision-making positions is not the entire goal and that the real aim is to have “transformative leadership” by women in a system that is equally open to both men and women.

Saying the quality of women’s leadership is as important as their presence, Corner defines “transformative leadership” as one in which women leaders promote gender equality, human rights and women rights, are transparent and accountable to their constituencies and have linkages to the people they are supposed to serve.

“People not only need to support their women local leaders, but hold them to account as well,” she added. – SUNS4919

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SUNS 4919, 21 Jun 2001