The gender disparity of political representation in ASEAN and Australia

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

Half of ASEAN’s population consists of women, yet the average percentage of women in parliamentary seats in the Southeast Asian region was just 20% in 2018. On a ministerial level, an average of 10% of such positions were given to women in 2017. These statistics illustrate the lack of women’s political representation in the ASEAN region. Although certain ASEAN countries have seen a growth in female political leaders since the early 2000s, collectively as a whole, ASEAN countries need to take the initiative in alleviating this issue. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing the erosion of democracy and a rise in gender-based violence in the region, there is a possibility that the previous growth of female representatives might decrease. 

Having female representatives is important because it would accurately reflect a country’s population, and having a gender diverse cabinet could allow varying approaches and perspectives regarding a particular issue. Not only that,  the impact of representation to young women paves the way for more female representation in the future. Young girls seeing other women as political leaders encourages them to take the step into leadership because they see someone of the same gender as them having an important position in national leadership. In addition, having women in positions of power can help bring awareness to issues faced specifically by women to a national level, such as gender-based violence, the gender wage gap and abortion laws.

The main factors surrounding the low female participation in politics are deeply rooted cultural gender roles. These gender roles proclaim that men are natural born leaders, whereas a woman’s role in society is to be a nurturing homemaker that merely supports the leader. It can also be observed that many female leaders in ASEAN have faced biases, double standards and even openly blatant discrimination due to this cultural belief. This problem poses an additional hurdle to women in public spheres. They are subjected to much more scrutiny than their male counterparts. A real life example of such discrimination towards female leaders can be seen in one incident involving Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian female politician, who experienced sexist remarks regarding her apparel during a Facebook Live interview session in 2018. 

Not only do socio-cultural factors affect women’s participation, but economic factors also have a role in this subject. In some ASEAN states (namely Malaysia), only 44% of women participate in the workforce. According to research conducted by True et al. (2012), there is a significant connection between the participation of women in the workforce and female political participation. Women are more likely to take up a career in politics if they are interested in pursuing a career as a whole. 

Despite all the barriers women face participating in politics, many solutions can be implemented to counter this problem. Many researchers and policy-makers have advocated for gender quotas in the political system. However, the implementation of quotas seems very unlikely to occur in national governments in the near future, especially in the current democratic regression in ASEAN member states. 

An increasingly popular alternative solution in Malaysia has provided a feasible first step to alleviate the ongoing gender disparity in the political sphere. Many civil society organisations have established an outlet on social media platforms to encourage more young women to participate in politics. These pages are quite well known by the urban population of Malaysians but are slowly starting to reach rural areas l. 

These civil society organisations include young women in political discussions, including those usually excluded,  such as disabled and indigenous women. Some notable initiatives that are on Instagram include The 111 Initiative (@111initiative), Parlimen Wanita Muda (@parlimenwanitamuda) and Parliwomen (@parliwomen), and Project Girls 4 Girls Malaysia (girls4girlsmalaysia). These initiatives have conducted workshops, panel discussions, and capacity-building programmes for young women and advocated for female political participation. The most recent programme about to be conducted by the 111 Initiative is Sirikandi, a capacity building programme that introduces young women to the current Malaysian political landscape. Programmes like this allow for young girls to be more politically literate and can help them explore politics in a conducive environment free from sexist biases.

These initiatives are important because of their possible impacts to young women in Malaysia and because the events that are organised take place online. This means that even during a worldwide pandemic, programmes that highlight female political participation can still take place. 

Most of these organisations are still relatively new, so whether it has made a significant national impact on female political participation has yet to be determined. Nonetheless, it is important that these initiatives continue to empower young women to be equipped with the necessary skills and experiences to become leaders in the future. 

This article was written by Yasmin Kamel Raquq, edited by Nabila Aisyah, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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