Woman Empowerment and Gender Equality in Asia
Beginning in the French Revolution, more than two centuries ago, progressives have pro-actively pushed for greater participation by women in the public sphere. At the heart of the project of modernity, anchored by principles of Enlightenment, was the empowerment of human beings, regardless of gender, race, class or religion.
With women comprising about half (49.6 percent according to the World Bank) of the global population, and in some countries even more, there is no point in discussing democracy, human rights, and freedom without extending civil and political rights to both sexes. Overtime, same principle has been extended not only to the women, but minority genders, specifically the LGBT group, which has gained growing social recognition and legal protection in the past decades.
Yet, more than a century since the advent of First Wave feminism, which successfully advocated for expansion of the right of suffrage to the female population, structures of hierarchy are stubbornly pernicious. Gender bias and discrimination, especially in unofficial terms and in unwritten rules, continues to plague not only traditional, conservative societies, but also advanced democracies. More than two centuries since the founding of America, the world’s oldest modern democracy, the world’s superpower is yet to elect its first female president.
As Rafaela David, a youth activist in the Philippines, writes in this edition the Quarterly, “The female body, especially in many traditional societies in Asia, is a taboo topic.” After all, women empoweremnet, David writes, is about “the recognition that much of the struggle is not limited to improving women's political participation and access to welfare services, but improving women's social and cultural control over her body --- a cultural symbol whose devaluation has allowed poverty and inequality to persist through the years.”
For many observers, misogynistic prejudice has been more than evident during the latest presidential elections -- pitting Hillary Clinton, the first female candidate by the two major political parties, against strongmen candidates like Donald Trump, who have unabashedly tapped into the darkest, illiberal instincts of sections of the electorate. In France, the oldest modern republic, no woman has ever won the presidency yet, though, some polls suggest that the proto-fascist National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, might put an end to such political anomaly, but with potentially disturbing consequences for French democracy and beyond.
Outside the West, in wealthy democracies such Japan, women are woefully underrepresented in both politics and the labor markets (49 percent). Globally, according to the World Bank, female labor force participation has actually declined over the past two decades, from 52.2 percent to less than 50 percent in recent years. It is highest among high-income countries (57 percent) and North America (57 percent), but lowest among low-income countries (39 percent) and Middle East and North Africa (22 percent), where robust structures of hierarchy have prevented the full utilization and nourishment of the vast potentials of the female population.
In South Asia, where major countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have ubiquitously voted women to the highest positions in power, the general female population, especially those at the lowest rung of the society, is still heavily under-represented in the political system and labor market. Female literacy rates are extremely low in traditional democracies like India (65.46%, 2011 estimate). As far as female representation in the legislature is concerned, it seems levels of economic development isn’t a key factor, but instead the overall political culture.
In Sub-Saharan African countries like Rwanda, female representation in the lower house is as high as 63.8 percent, far outstripping the male population. Similarly high numbers are also observed in poor countries like Bolivia (53 percent) and Cuba (48 percent), but also among Scandinavian countries like Sweden (43 percent) and Finland (41 percent). Levels of representation in the lower-house are, however, generally low among Asian countries, including the two biggest democracies, India (12 percent) and Indonesia (17.1 percent). Yet, various studies show that female representation
In the Gender Inequality Index (GII), developed by the United Nations and which measures gender inequalities in three important aspects of human development —reproductive health (e.g., infant mortality), empowerment (e.g., parliamentary representation), and economic status (e.g., labor force participation) – all top 10 countries are European, with heavy representation among Scandinavian countries.
But developing countries like the Philippines have performed well in other indices such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2014, where the South East Asian country ranked ninth in the world. Nicaragua and Rwanda were also among top 10 countries in the list. Gladly, as Nepalese journalist Bhaarati Silawal-Giri writes in the Quarterly, “Today women’s empowerment and gender equality are an intrinsic element of all development interventions and internationally agreed goals.”
In places like Sweden, a Parliamentarian Lawen Redar writes, the government has gone so far as decriminalizing prostitution, while criminalizing its solicitation, thus “allowing women to seek help, economic security or social networking if she wants to leave her life as a prostitute.”Yet, violence against women and institutionalized discrimination is still a daily struggle for vast majority of women in the Philippines and other democratic countries.
Even though various studies show that greater women representation in the public sphere and labor markets contributes heavily to greater national productivity and democratic vigor, obstacles to female empowerment are still entrenched and stubborn.
In the coming year, among the three most powerful Western democracies could very well be led by women -- Germany (Merkel), United Kingdom (May), and Marine Le Pen (France) -- but the struggle for representation and greater female voice in public administration is far from over. So is the struggle to pave the way for greater female participation in the labor market and political institutions, especially in deeply patriarchal societies of Asia.
“There are costs to low women [political and economic] representation”, Syerleena Rashid, Councilor in Malaysian city of Penang writes in the Quarterly, since “women are strongly linked to positive developments in education, infrastructure, health and peace-building.”
In places such as the Philippines, where female representation and gender equality is among the highest in the world, as feminist activist Shamah Bulangis observes in the Quarterly, “Many of the women in power come from political dynasties or have elite backgrounds. The political sphere is still co-opted by the same ‘old boys club’, with their wives rather serving as [temporary] place-holders than real wielders of power.”
In newly created nations such as Timor Leste, meanwhile, where there are progressive laws on gender equality, feminist activist Nurima Ribeiro Alkatiri observes, “strong patriarchal beliefs are entrenched within the Timorese society.”
The Quarterly, brining together insights from leading policy-makers, activists and academics from across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, aims assess the achievements of the feminist movement and corollary efforts at advocating gender equity in recent history, particularly in the context of Asia. The aim is to shed light on a series of policy proposals and advocacies to advance gender equality and women rights across the region beyond.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, policy advisor, and author. He teaches political science and international relations at De La Salle University, and as a specialist on Asian geopolitical and economic affairs he has written for or interviewed by Aljazeera English, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Hufftington Post, among other leading publications.