By PISA Program Assistant, Jinhyang Kang
“Women hold up half the sky” is a Chinese proverb representing women’s equal contribution. Gender equality has come far, yet gender balance in politics in Asia still needs quite a bit of work. Recently, a small number of women have held high level positions of political leadership including Tsai Ing-Wen, President of Taiwan, Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, Park Geun-Hye, President of South Korea, and Pratibha Patil, former President of India. They certainly are a hopeful precedent for the future; however, the actual extent of representation of women in politics is still very low in Asia.
Despite the fact that there are many countries with strong advanced industrial economies in Asia including Japan and South Korea, an advanced economy does not necessarily mean equal representation of women in politics. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, recently announced a policy of “Womenomics” which targeted the positioning women in high level management and national bureaucratic roles to empower women in the society. Although this was an effort to place more women in decision making positions, the outcome has yet to make any significant difference. The Japan Times reports that in 1946 in the first postwar Lower House election women won 36 seats (8.4%). Today, they hold only 9.5% of the seats in the Lower House, while in the Upper House, women hold 38 seats (16%). Despite its rapid and successful economic development, Japan has made very little progress in gender balancing within politics. South Korea is not much different. The Ministry of Personnel Management of the Republic of Korea states that women accounted for 49.4% of civil servants last year. However, the large majority work for the Ministry of Education, meaning that they are mostly state public school teachers. Excluding those civil servants working for the Ministry of Education, women working in public service are only at 23%. Even though the current president of South Korea is a female, women in South Korea rarely hold senior positions in the bureaucratic and political realms.
The gender imbalance in politics in Southeast Asia is much greater compared to the rest of the world. It is more complex due to the region’s diverse religions, traditions, and cultural norms regarding perceived gender roles within societies. Although Southeast Asia has had impressive female leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, as well as Chandrika Kumaratunga, former President of Sri Lanka, many are associated with men who had already held leading political positions within their respective countries. In fact, this seems quite common not only in Southeast Asia but across Asia in general. Many female political leaders in Asia either owe their prominence to fathers, husbands, brothers, or they are the replacements for assassinated leaders or those removed through a military coup. These women are certainly positive indicators of progress for women’s empowerment, yet their influence through family ties to male leaders reflect the ongoing limitations of women’s representation in politics.
Despite governmental efforts as well as that of social movements to empower women’s representation in the administrative and political realm, women’s political representation in Asia is still very low. In order to improve the quantity and quality of female representation in bureaucracy and politics an institutional strategy is essential. It is necessary to upgrade education and economic engagement to ensure women’s political empowerment. Although several factors that hinder women from participating in politics, such as religion, philosophy, tradition, and cultural norms are difficult to change, it is also necessary to change the perception that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. In addition, electoral and quota systems are worth considering as a form of affirmative action to improve women’s participation in bureaucracy and politics. These are all important, not just for the sake of fairness. The more women sitting in decision making positions, the better the representation of women’s needs including parental leave, child care, and equal pay. And ultimately this will produce growth as well as a reduction of poverty and despair, not to mention a breakdown of the historical, cultural, and normative barriers for future generations of women.