Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Malaysia Needs More Women in Politics

Many people think that men and women are already equal in Malaysia since women can go to school, go to work and have the right to vote and contest in elections. Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement to close the gender gap in Malaysia.

World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes Global Gender Gap Index Report every year to assess the gender gap by countries, “according to how well they are leveraging their female talent pool, based on economic, educational, health-based and political indicators.” In 2016, the report ranks Malaysia 106 out of 144 countries in the world, putting us behind not only Western countries but even Kazakhstan (51), Azerbajian (86), Tajikistan (93), Bangladesh (72), India (87), China (99) Indonesia (88), Vietnam (65), Thailand (71) and Brunei (103). Despite no apparent formal barrier, direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden barriers prevent women in Malaysia from achieving their full potential in economy and politics.

Gender equality is not only about women’s rights it is about the overall benefits of the country. To quote Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary General of United Nation, “The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goal if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential.”  The WEF report shows clear positive correlations between gender equality index vis-a-vis GDP per capita, Global Competitiveness Index and Human Development Index.  In another words, countries with better gender equality are usually richer, more competitive and are better countries to live in. While correlation is not causality, the trend is consistent with increasing evidence that empowering women leads to more efficient use of a country’s human capital and that reducing gender gap enhances economic growth and development. 
Malaysia needs to put serious work on gender equality to close the gender gap. I believe that one of the most important things to do in women empowerment is to have meaningful female representation in the legislatures and cabinets because women empowerment requires policy and legislative reform.
Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) has reported that the world average women representation was 11.7 per cent in January 1997 and it merely rose to 20.9 per cent by July 2013. Malaysia achieved even worse results. Our women representation in politics has not risen significantly for the past decade and we lag behind the already-low world average by half - 1 in 10 of our wakil rakyat is female compared to world average at 1 in 5. Except for Selangor, which has women representation of 27 per cent in the state legislature, all other state legislatures and parliament have only 0 per cent to 16 per cent women legislators.  (See the table below). Interestingly, actually more women voted than men in the 13th General Election.
Although it seems that women has come to more prominence in politics in the recent years with the election of the first female Speaker in Selangor Legislature, Hannah Yeoh after the 13th General Election, the road ahead is still long and winding. All political parties must work towards attracting more women into the parties by breaking the existing cultural and structural barriers. We also need more women, who are willing to break the traditional stereotype of women’s role in the society, to join politics. 
Women voices deserve to be heard in the legislatures and in public.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, let both men and women recognize that as we empower women, we empower the nation.