Home 2010: 7 Political solutions to the gender gap

Political solutions to the gender gap

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Gender equality is about both women and men. It is not a women’s agenda but a social justice agenda, says Chong Eng, adding that political solutions are needed to narrow the gender gap.

Chong Eng addressing the 3Gs conference in Penang

In 1995, Malaysia ratified the United Nations Convention On the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and in the same year also adopted the Beijing Platform For Action. Both documents essentially emphasised increasing women’s participation in all areas of public and private lives, especially at the levels of decision-making. In the year 2000, Malaysia joined the global community to participate in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, the third goal being “to promote gender equality and empower women”.

A decade after the Wanita DAP Tanjong Declaration of 1992, which, among others, called for the establishment of a Women’s Affairs Ministry within the Cabinet, the government finally set up the Ministry in January 2001. By 2004, with the expansion of the Ministry’s role, it was renamed the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

This brief history of the development of the Women’s Agenda in Malaysia serves as a background for our present discussion.

Today, 15 years after CEDAW and 10 years after the setting up of the Women Affairs Ministry, women’s participation in public life, especially as decision-makers is still very low.

According to Professor Dr Cecilia Ng of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Kanita, the number of women MPs in the Dewan Rakyat has been hovering around 10 per cent for the last three terms: 10.4 per cent in 1999, 10 per cent in 2004 and 10.8 per cent in 2008. There are more women in the Upper House, where members are appointed rather than elected. In 2004, the percentage of women senators reached as high as 33.3 per cent and in 2008, there were 16 women out of a total of 60 senators, or 26.7 per cent.

In the cabinet, the number of female ministers has never exceeded three at any one time since Independence. Currently, there are two women out of 30 ministers in the cabinet.

The percentage of women elected into the State Assemblies has never been more than 10 per cent, with 4.8 per cent in 1999 and 8.0 per cent in 2008.

In the civil service, women made up an average of only 14 per cent at upper echelon as secretary generals, director generals and chief executives.

The women labour force participation rate (LFPR) has basically remained stagnant the last 20 years. In 1970, the women LFPR was 37.2 per cent. Twenty years later, in 1990, the women LFPR had increased to 46.7 per cent. In 2008, after almost another 20 years, the women LFPR is about 45.7 per cent.

The point I am trying to make is that while Malaysia has in place all sorts of international conventions and an excellent National Women Policy with a women-focused Ministry to ensure the implementation of the Women’s Agenda, women in Malaysia are still lagging behind in many aspects of public life.

Overall, Malaysia’s ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index (GGI) has fallen from 92 in 2007, to 96 in 2008, to 101 in 2010. In a report by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry in 2009, the Malaysia GGI showed that while Malaysia scored well in the sub-indexes of education and health, the gender gap in the political and economic empowerment sub-index remained high at 0.58 in 2007 (on a scale of 0 to 1, wherein 0 indicates no gender inequality, and 1 indicates maximum gender inequality).

Hence, as is often observed, equality in opportunities, such as accessibility to education and better health care do not necessarily translate into equality in results.

Importance of increasing women’s participation

The need to empower women to participate in decision making is not merely an abstract human rights agenda. At the most fundamental level, to utilise the presently silent half of the population whether in the political arena or in the economy is to tap into a vast and powerful pool of human resource to drive our country’s growth.

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Ultimately, empowering women to enter and participate actively in the public sphere will benefit everyone, men and women.

Women not only bring with them new talents and skills but also a fresh perspective especially in politics. Women who traditionally are care-givers at home have a better understanding of the issues of family life including health, children and education.

We ask different questions when it comes to looking at challenges the country faces and usually, women place more weight on ground-level solutions. In other words, women are more sensitive to the social dynamics of a policy or a government decision, especially when it can affect women, children, the family and society.

Women also adopt different approaches in politics and governance as compared to our male counterparts. We are less likely to be confrontational and more likely to use diplomacy to achieve our targets. Often, women prefer negotiation and finding common ground. At a time when people are often frustrated with partisan politicking in the country, women leadership can indeed facilitate a political breakthrough especially when we are in need of bi-partisan reform in key areas of administration.

A welcome change for us in Malaysia is that women are less likely to be involved in corruption. In 2001, a World Bank Report showed that corruption cases are lower in the fields administered by women.

Finally, a report by the Organ-isation for Economic Co-Operation And Development (OECD) showed that achieving gender equality has positive effects on the performance of the economy. It not only generates an increase in the productivity of the workforce in OECD countries; it also facilitates more sustainable growth in non-OECD countries.

Political will: The missing ingredient

As we discussed earlier, the low participation of women in the work force and in politics in Malaysia is not due to the lack of government policies and awareness.

The question then is, why is there no real breakthrough towards gender equality in Malaysia?

While we have all the excellent instruments and policies, what is lacking is the ‘political will’, especially within the ruling party. A 2008 report from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) observed that ‘electoral arrangements, together with political will, are among the most important factors which affect women’s access to Parliament.

What is meant by political will?

It means that the government must be deliberate in considering the gender implications of its actions, in every area, for both men and women. To do this requires a paradigm shift! The Government must look into the existing system and work towards removing obstacles once and for all. It may involve structural change and often this will agitate the status quo.

Unless we act now to introduce a ‘gender quota’ or other affirmative action schemes, we in Malaysia must be willing to wait for another 50 years to see the ground being levelled for women. How else can be build a new generation of women leaders?

Alas, in Malaysia, the term ‘quota’ is often looked upon as a ‘bad word’. This is due to the ruling party’s abuse of the affirmative action policy, which has enriched cronies instead of empowering the needy.

To hasten the rise of women to decision-making positions, affirmative actions such as gender quotas or proportional representation of women in the electoral system should be introduced. However, any form of affirmative action should be temporary in nature and should be complemented with programmes which empower the target group, to allow them to compete in the long run when the affirmative action policy has expired.

To illustrate the effectiveness of affirmative action in promoting women to decision-making positions, out of the top 10 countries with the most women Members of Parliament in 2009, eight of them have legislated some form of gender quota. The other two countries have used a proportional representation electoral system to push for more women participation in politics.

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In 2008, as reflected in the electoral results in Parliament throughout the world reported by the IPU, women won an average of 24.5 per cent of seats in parliaments when the proportional representation system is in place. By contrast, women only managed to secure about 18 per cent of the seats in countries using a simple-majority electoral system.

As we can observe from the examples given above, gender quotas and affirmative action policies work to fast-track the representation of women at decision making levels.

That said, it is a chicken-and-egg puzzle for us to determine whether the empowerment of women or the participation of women, comes first.

On my part, I strongly believe if we can increase women’s participation in public life, especially at the decision-making level, we will soon experience a ripple effect of a more gender-balanced perspective in the decisions and policies of our country, which would ultimately benefit more women as well as men.

Global experience

Gender equality and the empowerment of women are global trends. Today, all over the world, people are advocating and promoting equality as the basis of human relationships. In most democracies in the world, equality is the rule rather than the exception.

Therefore, even as we in Malaysia pride ourselves to be part of global society and aspire to move towards becoming a First World nation, we must position ourselves together with the great global movement towards gender equality.

More than 100 countries in the world have some kind of mechanism to accelerate and facilitate participation of women in Parliament. Sweden, which is currently ranked second in the global top ten list of countries with the most women MPs, saw ‘sustained pressure by political parties and women’s groups within parties and in society” for some four decades before it emerged with 47 per cent women in Parliament. Nowadays, Swedish political parties have self-imposed gender quotas to satisfy the strong demand of the electorate to have a more balanced gender representation in Parliament. Indeed, it is on account of such public pressure and special measures that women hold an average of 21 per cent of all parliamentary seats in European countries.

In African countries such as Rwanda, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa, post-conflict reconstruction of their political systems has opened up new opportunities to introduce measures to enhance wider women’s participation in politics. Rwanda, with 56.3 per cent of its lower house being women members, tops the list of countries with the most number of women MPs in the world. Meanwhile, Angola (37.3 per cent), Mozambique (34.8 per cent) and South Africa (33 per cent) have all reached the target of 30 per cent women representation in their respective parliaments.

Our neighbor in Indonesia has enacted laws to encourage party-based gender quotas since 2003, with a further amendment in 2008 to strengthen such mechanism. Although the Indonesian gender quota laws have been criticised for being relatively weak and apparently do not impose any real sanction on parties which do not comply, the introduction of such laws has resulted in increases in women’s representation in Indonesia’s Parliament. In 1999, before the introduction of the laws, women made up 8 per cent of the Lower House. After enactment of the laws in 2003, women’s membership in the Lower House increased to 11.3 per cent in 2004 and to 16.8 per cent in 2009.

Gender agenda as an election demand

To ensure that our government commits itself towards gender equality, the electorate must make the Gender Agenda an election demand.

This was one of the reasons why 3Gs is actively organising our Introducing Gender Equality workshops. It is part of our gender sensitisation project, which aims to create public awareness, especially among women, on the importance of advocating for gender issues.

Today, everywhere in the world, even here in Malaysia, we hear calls for political change. We hear calls to change from a narrow ideology to more inclusive and progressive ones, from autocratic to an accountable government, from an oppressive regime to one which respects human rights and rule of law.

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I hope Malaysians will begin to see that our call for inclusiveness, for accountability, for justice and human rights will be inconsistent if we neglect the call to empower half of the population, our sisters, the women of Malaysia.

Recently, in the Atlantic Magazine, there was an article which analysed the current trend in America, where there is a gradual but steady reversal of social roles between men and women. The article had an eerie title, “The End of Men”. Among others, it observed:

‘…woman…now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools – for every 2 men who will receive a B.A. this year, 3 women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but 2 are occupied primarily by women…Men dominate just 2 of the 15: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else…’

While the article described the trend in the United States, some leaders in Malaysia are worried as well. And there is a basis for their fear. After all, according to the Higher Education Ministry, women in Malaysia made up 62.3 per cent of the undergraduates in public universities and 53.3 per cent of the students in private higher learning institutions during 2007-2008. Women are also fast catching up at post-graduate level, with women comprising 52.7 per cent of Masters’ students in public universities.

Leaders are worried about social dynamics and the family structure that some feel are being threatened by the pursuit of gender equality. But we must understand that gender equality is not the battle of the sexes. It is not about pitting women against men. We are not striving to replace the dominance of one gender with another.


Gender equality is about both women and men. It is not a women’s agenda, but a social justice agenda. If there is indeed a natural social evolution towards a more female-friendly public life and marketplace, then men should realise that having a gender policy is important not only for women but for men as well. A gender policy is to achieve balance and fairness for both men and women.

The aspiration towards gender equality therefore is not a new thing; if we contemplate further; it is part of the whole package in the struggle for equal human rights. We are essentially standing in the shadows of equal rights advocates such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela.

The proclamation for gender equality is one that is as old as our first cry for social equality. But this call is now being renewed globally because, as the world struggles for equality, it is convenient to forget about mothers, sisters and wives. We are forgotten and passed-over because we were silent. I urge you, sisters and brothers, break your silence because without gender equality, there is no social equality. Make the demand for gender equality a political demand.

YB Chong Eng is MP for Bukit Mertajam and Deputy Secretary General of the DAP.

Some of the references used in this article are:

Cecelia Ng (forthcoming), Gender and Rights: Analysis for Action, Penang: KANITA, Universiti Sains Malaysia; Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, Malaysia’s Gender Gap Index (MGGI), http://www.kpwkm.gov.my/uploadpdf/02mggi.pdf;  M L Krook (2007), Gender Quota Laws In Global Perspective (Paper submitted for the conference “Women in the Americas: Paths to Political Power); and Drude Dahlerup and Lenita Friendenwall (2008), Electoral Gender Quota Systems and Their Implementation in Europe (Paper commissioned by the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality).

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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