Additional women representatives must make real impact

But it may be difficult for the extra women leaders to respond to critical gender issues if they're expected to toe the party line

Photograph: Patrizia Kramer/Flickr

As an organisation which upholds gender equality and social justice, the Women’s Centre for Change welcomes the Penang chief minister’s recent announcement of its “top-up women-only additional seats” for the state legislative assembly, the first of its kind in the country.

While Malaysia has acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) since1995, progress for women in political decision-making has been slow. For 25 years, we have never achieved the minimum 30% representation of women in Parliament, let alone in any state legislative assembly.

Without special measures such as this top-up seats scheme, it will take decades, if not a lifetime, before gender balance is achieved. We are proud that Penang has taken this bold and long overdue step forward, demonstrating its practical commitment to gender equality.

The 30% is merely a minimum threshold, a means to an end and not an end in itself. Ultimately, in line with its gender -inclusiveness policy, the Penang state government should continue to strive for its targeted 40 [men]:40 [women]:20 [capable persons, irrespective of gender] for  balance in gender representation at decision-making levels, including by fielding more women candidates for election in winnable seats.

Numbers alone are not enough. Though important, simply having more women state assembly members does not necessarily translate to better representation on gender issues. Because top-up representatives will be nominated based on the proportion won by each political party in the state assembly, it may be difficult for these additional women leaders to respond to critical gender issues if they are expected to toe the party line should there be a conflict in views. A woman leader whose party sees sexual harassment as the fault of the victim, for example, may not be in a position to speak up openly against such forms of violence. If that is the case, little real change can be expected.

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Selected women leaders [under the top-up scheme] must be gender sensitive and be able to speak up, act and make a practical difference for women in the state. For instance, violence against women and children, including domestic and sexual violence, is a serious and longstanding concern which requires concerted action from all quarters.

In the long run, not only our electoral system but also our political culture needs to shift towards a more mature democracy, where partisan politics can finally give way to debates and action on issues of substance – at policy, planning and implementation levels.

WCC welcomes such affirmative action such as the top-up women-only additional seats, to accelerate the equal representation of women in decision-making not only at the Penang state level but also at the federal government level.

Source: Women’s Centre for Change

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