TOPICS : Women’s quotas: No magic formula, but a start

Setting quotas designed to have more women in politics and government may not have been the magic formula for more balanced political representation in many countries, but it has certainly been a key first step in many cases. This was the common thread that ran through a workshop this month that reviewed the experience of different Asian countries with quotas for women in politics.

“We need to build a strong support system for women. Politics is a most cruel occupation and you need enough resources and good negotiating power,” said Pusadee Tamthai, executive director of Thailand’s Democrat Party. At present, more than 30 countries have quotas allotting a certain percentage or number of slots for women in political offices and agencies, administration and the judiciary.

Likewise, more than 100 political parties in more than 60 countries have quotas for nominating women political candidates, according to data from the German-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Thailand, which organised the seminar along with the Gender and Development Research Institute (GDRI) in Bangkok. But according to FES, women’s representation in national politics, still often a male arena, remains way below the so-called ‘critical mass’ of 30% of positions.

In South-east Asia, socialist Vietnam has the highest figure of women in government with 27.3%, followed by Laos with 25.2%. Singapore has 24.5%, the Philippines 15.3%, Indonesia has 11.3%, Cambodia has 9.8%, Malaysia 9.1% and Thailand, 8.7%. But having more women in politics does not automatically translate into more gender-sensitive laws or politics, highlighting the fact that the key in more balanced representation lies in changing prevailing attitudes that see politics, leadership and management as spaces mainly for men.

There are also differing views on the utility of quotas. “Women can’t seem to agree on different issues within the quota system. The men, meanwhile, tend to agree with the idea of the quota system (only) in private. I just don’t know why they don’t publicly endorse it afterwards,” said Susheela Kaushik, president, Centre for Development Studies and Action, New Delhi.

Kaushik, who has been fighting for women’s quotas for 25 years, is also worried that the younger generation of women is not as keen about pursuing the hotly-debated political issue. “They don’t seem to be interested much in political representation. They would rather go corporate than lobby for quota system in politics.” All of this point to the need to view legislative quotas for women against the backdrop of the larger society — and within the context of greater political representation of women as a democratic value and a human right.

“We should remember that quota is a temporary tool to achieve gender equality,” said Andrea Fleschenberg of Germany’s University of Duisberg. “We need to take a holistic approach and get good quota provision to make it work, whether it’s getting the reserved seats or winning direct seats in elections.” — IPS