2018 should be the year to increase women’s representation

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Women marching in Chiang Mai, Thailand to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day - Photo courtesy of Mizzima

Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM) wishes all the women in Malaysia a Happy International Women’s Day (IWD).

The IWD is a day to commemorate women’s struggle for change and to celebrate the progress. It is celebrated every year on 8 March. The theme for the 2018 celebration as declared by the United Nations is #PressforProgress as a strong call to motivate and unite friends, colleagues, politicians, activists and the whole community to think, act, change and be gender inclusive.

Coincidentally, 8 March 2018 is also the 10th anniversary of the “political tsunami”, referring to the result of the 8 March 2008 general election, which was a watershed moment for our country.

On this occasion, it is essential to ask, how far has women’s rights in Malaysia progressed in the decade following the 8 March ‘tsunami’?

In terms of political representation, Malaysians are still lagging behind with only 10% of members of Parliament being women despite the vast change in our political landscape pver the last 10 years.

The problem with the lack of women representation in leadership positions is certainly not limited to representation in Parliament. However, the issue is often less discussed than other form of underrepresentation of women, such as underrepresentation in the board rooms in corporate and public sectors, in which the government has set a minimum 30% for women to fill up decision-making positions. Regrettably, the intended result has not yet been achieved.

READ MORE:  Malaysian women to the fore

The government had set the 30% target to be achieved by 2016; and now 2020 has been reset as the new due date to achieve the 30% target. The constantly shifting due date in achieving the 30% representation is symptomatic of the failure of the current policy and programmes. We urge the government to review its lackadaisical work and instil itself with the political will to make real progress for women.

With regard to women’s representation in Parliament or legislative bodies, the most proactive promise given by the government so far was the pledge by Prime Minister Najib Razak last year that the government would amend the Federal Constitution to impose a 30% quota for women in the Dewan Negara, which is the unelected, largely ceremonial upper house of Parliament if the Barisan Nasional is given a strong mandate in the coming general election.

We note that while the prime minister is promising to take policy action to address the imbalance of gender representation in the political sphere, it is disappointing that the promise of action is targeted at the less impactful branch of government and is contingent on his party winning the next election.

The prime minister’s party is currently in power and it would not be difficult to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Federal Constitution with the support of opposition parties on this issue. We fear that the prime minister’s promise is a mere political gimmick for the coming general election.

Rather than wait until the conclusion of the general election, political parties, governing and opposition, should instead use the election as an opportunity to increase the representation of women in the Dewan Rakyat and state assemblies. The major political parties should put effort in fielding more qualified women candidates to address the imbalance.

READ MORE:  Fulfil promise for 30% women's representation in all government decision-making levels

As the major political parties are largely supportive of the target of 30% women in leadership position, they should set an example by fielding the same percentage of women candidates in the coming election. It would be hypocritical for them to talk about having 30% women representation yet fail to pursue it in their own sphere.

The increase in women’s representation in legislative assemblies will escalate the debate and policy change of pressing issues concerning women such as violence against women, harassment, workplace discrimination, equal pay, childcare, gender equality and women’s empowerment at the grassroots level.

It will also hopefully help to address the problem of our lawmakers making sexist remarks during sittings. Despite an amendment made to the rule of conduct of MPs in 2012 to bar MPs from making sexist remarks, offensive remarks against women MPs persist.

Llast year alone, several incidents have occurred including a remark by Kinabatangan MP Bung Mokhtar, who commented that a beautiful woman would still look attractive even if she wears a headscarf but a woman who is not pretty would not be wanted by anyone even if she was naked; and a remark by Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, who made a tasteless pun on the surname of Seputeh MP Teresa Kok.

Gender equality remains a challenging task in Malaysia. Though women are capable of being equal partners in nation building and in the economic and political spheres, their full potential has not yet been fully realised in Malaysia. With a general election looming and many issues plaguing our nation at this critical junction, women’s empowerment should not be relegated to the backburner.

READ MORE:  Why is there a different yardstick of measurement for women leaders?

Let’s press for progress for the nation, for the women!

Zaid Kamaruddin is chair of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia. This statement was issued on behalf of the executive council of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia.

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