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Do quotas for women work?

(Silhouettes by Ervin Bachik and Faakhir Rizvi /

PARTI Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s 30% quota for women in leadership positions is the first of its kind in any Malaysian political party. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s also 14 years late.

Malaysia signed the Beijing Declaration and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) in 1995. One of the commitments in these declarations was the 30% quota for women’s representation.

Today, Malaysia still has a long way to go before it meets this goal.

Cecilia Ng, an academic and women’s rights activist, cites to The Nut Graph statistics from the New Straits Times on 10 April to demonstrate this point. Women occupy about 11% of seats in the lower house of Parliament, and only 8% of seats in state assemblies. Women fare better in the federal senate, with 27% representation, but senators in Malaysia are appointed and not elected.

Malaysian women’s rights advocates have been lobbying for political parties to meet their Cedaw commitments for years, but have consistently run into a lack of political will. Simranjit Kaur Gill, who lobbies for more women in positions of leadership with the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI), tells The Nut Graph that the push for gender quotas in politics has its roots in years of hard work.

“The stand of the WCI has always been that women should form at least 30% of the candidates in any elections. It’s good to note that the DAP and PKR have taken heed and made a stand to take action to hit their target or quota of 30% women candidates in the next elections,” she says in a phone interview.

Shahrizat (Pic courtesy of theSun)
The DAP, PKR and Umno have all recently proposed quotas to get more women into positions of power. But quotas to get more women into politics are hardly a new idea, which is why PKR Wanita chief Zuraida Kamaruddin balked at Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil‘s claim to inventing it.

In 2006, the quota was integrated into the Ninth Malaysia Plan. The Women’s Caucus in Parliament proposed a similar quota be applied to the private sector in November 2008.

It is true, though, that gender quotas in political parties are a more recent phenomenon in Malaysia. For example, only in April 2009 did the DAP set a goal of at least 30% women as party members, delegates, candidates and leaders by 2015. Shahrizat has said Umno Wanita will lobby for their party to adopt a similar policy.

Even if quotas are successfully implemented, it would only be the beginning of the road to political equality for women, says Simranjit. Ideally, one day the quota could be removed, and women would be able to compete politically with men.

A long way to go

Nevertheless, Ng says the quotas being proposed by PKR and Umno are a positive step. They speed up the rate of women’s participation in politics, she says. At the current pace, it would take 40 years for women to achieve equal political representation.

But the problem is not one of numbers alone. The women who are in politics tend to have less important roles than men. There are only two female cabinet ministers today, and there have never been more than three since 1957.

And quotas won’t change the gender structures ingrained in Malaysian political parties. Women’s wings mean men and women work their way up the party ranks separately. But not all parties with separate women’s wings operate in the same way.

For example, PKR gives everyone in the party the right to vote for its leadership. This, coupled with its 30% quota for women in leadership positions, provides a better practical and structural opportunity for women to become party leaders at the highest levels.

Ng and Simranjit (Pics courtesy of Cecilia Ng and
Simranjit Kaur Gill)
Umno, however, has a structure in which the women’s wing is of the same status as the youth wing. In addition to this, Umno’s leaders are chosen not by direct elections, but by a delegate system. In this system, instead of one individual having one vote, a division of up to 60,000 individual members has only one vote in elections for the party’s leadership. For a party that does not have gender balance to begin with, this system does little to increase leadership opportunities for women.

“There’s a general consensus that no woman will be elected to lead the party with the delegate system as it is,” Simranjit says.

And so, while it is not structurally impossible for a woman to be voted in as Umno president, it becomes practically impossible. And this, by extension, is why Malaysia will probably never see a woman prime minister as long as Umno leads the ruling coalition. Unless, of course, Umno changes its constitution to build the capacities and opportunities of women to access leadership positions.

In this sense, women’s wings are useful for helping women break into politics, but should be abolished once they reach a critical mass, Ng says. She also recommends that all parties adopt an equitable voting system like PKR.

Global models

There are a number of countries that have surpassed the 30% female representation target that Malaysia can look to as models.

The biggest success story is Rwanda. After the 1994 genocide, Rwandan women played an important role in developing a new constitution. They included a number of aggressive and complex gender quotas that reserved 24 out of 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies for women.

These requirements helped women enter politics. The number of female politicians eventually surpassed the quotas. Rwanda is now the only country in the world where women outnumber men in politics.

Rwandan woman (Pic by Shared Interest / Flickr)
The Australian Labour Party has also successfully met a 40% quota for women. Norway was able to raise the percentage of women serving on company boards of directors from 3% in 1992 to 40% in 2008 through quota legislation.

The quotas functioned in different ways. Rwanda’s was legislated in the constitution, while the Australian Labour Party adopted it voluntarily. But all successful models had firm political and societal wills to take the targets seriously.

Why have quotas anyway?

Quotas can’t change the societal structures that lead to women being poorly represented in politics. Simranjit lists a number of reasons why this is the case. Women are traditionally expected to take on more responsibilities for caring for children and the elderly. This means women, on average, have less time and money than men — two necessary elements for running a political campaign.

It’s also important to remember that just because a politician is a woman doesn’t mean she will be an advocate for women’s rights, says Ng. Shahrizat’s gender does not seem to have influenced her to push for the speedy release of a report investigating widespread sexual assaults against Penan women and girls, for example.

Still, quotas are a useful tool for making changes that could take an unacceptably long time without them, Simranjit says.

“There are more than enough competent women out there. It’s just a question of identifying them, and enabling them to be candidates,” she says.

See also: PKR’s plan for women

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4 Responses to “Do quotas for women work?”

  1. Why do we need quotas? Can’t we hire people based on merit alone? This whole quota thing gets abused ALL the time.

  2. chong eng says:

    Please publish more articles on gender equality issues.

  3. Readers interested in practical tips for increasing the number of women who work in government may be interested in the publication “Strategies for Policymakers: Bringing Women into Government”: from The Institute for Inclusive Security. It discusses both quotas and other options drawing on case studies from Rwanda, Cambodia, and Afghanistan.

  4. Hanan says:

    How do you practise Ke(adil)an when you start with a quota? Sheer malpractice — adil does not start with tidak adil.

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