Male order

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2005, 12:00am

Asian women have a struggle on their hands and the leaders of groups representing their interests know it. Today, on the 30th anniversary of the first International Women's Day, the list of unrealised aspirations and rolled-back gains seems as long as the successes.

Instead of a celebration of achievements, the talk at meetings of women's rights groups across the region will be of drawing up new battle plans and enacting strategies.

Their enemies are right-wing governments, fundamentalists and liberal capitalism. For many, increasing the participation of women in government will go a long way towards winning and strengthening objectives.

The statistics speak for themselves - apart from a few exceptions, Asia's women are falling behind their sisters in most other parts of the world when it comes to running their countries and getting gender-based issues on the agenda. Gains are being made, but not as quickly as in developing nations in Africa, Latin America and eastern Europe.

China's Vice-Premier Wu Yi and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may be near or at the top of their governments, but they are far from representative.

The situation was lamented by the executive director of the Manila-based Centre for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics, Sylvia Ordonez, who said that having a woman leader was an advantage, but still only the start.

'Mrs Arroyo is trying to be gender-aware,' Ms Ordonez said. 'But she could do more. Instead of just appointing one, two or three more women to positions such as in the cabinet, she should start advocating more equality on wages, working hours and so on. It's easy if you're the president already to start pushing policies or implementing them at all levels.'

Mrs Arroyo is the Philippines' second woman president elected since the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, but female representation in Congress has slipped rather than increased. The dominance of men in politics was seen by activists in the Philippines and elsewhere as being the reason that, although laws had been passed protecting the rights of women, they were in many cases not being upheld. Violence and harassment against women remained widespread.

'In the Philippines, just like most Asia-Pacific countries, we still do not have a strong representation in practically all levels of government,' Ms Ordonez said. Through teaching skills, such as how to negotiate, and training in areas including gender-responsive governance, the centre and similar non-government groups in the region are preparing a new generation for politics.

Data collected by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organisation of parliaments of sovereign states, reveals the scale of their task. The highest number of women legislators was in Rwanda with 48.8 per cent, followed by Sweden with 45.3 per cent and Norway with 38.2 per cent. Of the 185 nations examined, Vietnam ranks highest among Asian countries at 21st with 27.3 per cent, with East Timor three notches lower with 22 of its 87 lawmakers - 25.3 per cent - women.

Laos ranks 30th with women comprising 22.9 per cent of its legislature, Pakistan 38th with 21.3 per cent, China 43rd with 20.2 per cent and North Korea 44th with 20.1 per cent. The Asian list falls rapidly away - Singapore 67th, the Philippines 70th, South Korea 82nd, Indonesia 98th, Cambodia 114th, Malaysia 122nd, Bhutan 125th, India 130th, Thailand 134th, Japan 136th, Mongolia 139th, Nepal 146th, Sri Lanka 153rd and Bangladesh 167th.

There are 11 women among the 60 members of Hong Kong's legislative Council, which would place the Special Administrative Region at 58th, equal with the dictator-ruled African nation of Equatorial Guinea. Taiwan, with 22.2 per cent female representation in its legislatures, would be positioned at 34th, behind Mexico, but ahead of Eritrea. Just because a nation is considered economically and politically developed does not mean its women have a greater say. While Germany ranks 13th, New Zealand 19th, Australia 27th and Canada 39th, Britain is lagging considerably at 57th, the US is 71st and France is 86th.

Such numbers are, for some women, indicators that the struggle for equality with men has a long way to go. For others, such as in Rwanda and the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, the challenge is more of making alliances with like-minded men to push laws and policies through parliaments.

The gains of women in African and Latin American countries have impressed University of Stockholm political scientist Drude Dahlerup, an expert on female representation in politics who is researching the use of legal and political party quotas to get women into government.

'It's really outside the western world where things are moving,' Professor Dahlerup said on Sunday from her home in the Swedish capital. 'About 40 countries now have gender quotas for women inscribed in their constitution or electoral law and that has happened in the past 10 years.

'If the distinction is made between legal quotas and voluntary party ones, where the parties themselves have quotas to have a percentage of women on their electoral lists, then it's up to 100 countries.'

The professor said that of European countries, only France and Belgium had laws stipulating a minimum number of women in government, and that the developing world was most enthusiastically embracing the idea. In the lead were Rwanda and Uganda, Latin America and local-level governments in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where the number of women was between 30 and 40 per cent.

Professor Dahlerup said the example of Rwanda had changed her view on how women could enter government. Previously she believed that social and economic development would empower women and improve their standing in society to the point that they would be on equal terms with men.

But the genocide of Rwanda in 1994 had led to a redrawing of the country's constitution and the putting in place of a quota system dictating a minimum number of women in parliament.

'You should not believe that equality comes with development,' she said. 'This is the old-fashioned approach. The fast-track policy realises that this is not the way it is. More radical measures such as quotas are needed to get things moving.'

Whatever the method, activists agree that women's rights are being rolled back. The measures agreed at the 4th United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 had mostly not been implemented and were in danger of being sidestepped by some governments, they argued.

University of Hong Kong social scientist Vivienne Wee pointed to attempts by the US at sessions on the UN Commission on the Status of Women to overturn agreements on the right to an abortion.

'The religious right in the US in the past 10 years and fundamentalist groups in the Islamic world have become stronger,' Dr Wee suggested. 'Women are caught between two forces.'

Another force was liberal capitalism, under which governments were increasingly giving up state responsibilities - such as providing child care and help for the elderly - and handing them to families. Dr Wee said women, already in the workforce, were often landed with the extra tasks.

Those pressures are as evident in Asia and in developed countries. Pressure is especially great in China, where the bulk of the workforce in factories is women. Those jobs are among the lowest-paid, with the longest hours and the worst working conditions.

Dr Wee believed that the mainland's economic growth had meant a loss of power for women.

'Under Mao Zedong's socialist regime, there was the slogan that woman held up half the sky,' she said. 'But since the economic reforms, the relationship of the government and women has changed - and not just women, but also that of vulnerable groups in society. Such issues are now uncertain.'

In an article last month, the China Daily indicated otherwise, reporting the appointment of the country's only woman provincial governor, Song Xiuyan, of Qinghai. Apart from Ms Wu, it listed other women holding high positions as He Luli, vice-chairwoman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Liu Yandong and Hao Jianxiu, both vice-chairwomen of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and Chen Zhili, a State Councillor. In addition to these seven there were 16 women ministers or vice-ministers in central government and 45 top officials in provincial governments.

But for the world's women, whether in China, elsewhere in Asia or the rest of the world, the outlook 30 years after the first International Women's Day and 10 years after the landmark Beijing conference, the picture was not rosy.

'I've got a bleak outlook,' Dr Wee said. 'Much more needs to be done than has so far been achieved.'