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PKR’s plan for women


(Silhouettes by Ervin Bachik and Faakhir Rizvi / sxc.hu)

IN early June 2009, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) announced it would be amending its constitution to include, among others, a 30% quota for women leaders at all levels. PKR’s move likely made it the first party from either the Pakatan Rakyat or the Barisan Nasional to make a concrete commitment towards including more women in politics.

Women’s rights advocates agree that PKR’s new quota for women in leadership positions is a step in the right direction. The party has clearly absorbed many points women’s advocacy groups have been making for years about gender equality.

But how effective will PKR’s gender quota be, and how exactly will it be put into place?

Women of substance

Wanita PKR deputy chief Rodziah Ismail stresses one point repeatedly: the women who fill her party’s new quota must be able to make a substantial contribution, not just fill seats.

“If we pick you as a candidate, it’s not because you are beautiful, or you are nice to others. You must go on this line: you are capable, you are giving the best performance, people are seeing you as a leader. If not, sorry,” she tells The Nut Graph in an interview at her office in Shah Alam.


Zuraida Kamaruddin
But both Rodziah and Wanita PKR chief Zuraida Kamaruddin have expressed concerns about a lack of qualified women to fill top positions. Indeed, if women are traditionally kept out of leadership positions, what will ensure that qualified women actually make it to top posts in a party or organisation?

PKR is addressing the lack of qualified female candidates by implementing training programmes, which would focus on skill and confidence building, Rodziah said. The most promising participants in these programmes could be fast-tracked into leadership positions. Most of the efforts to implement the quota are currently concentrated on developing and implementing such programmes, she said.

A strategy focused on fast-track training programmes is also in line with recommendations from women’s groups, says Dr Cecilia Ng, an academic and women’s rights activist, in a phone interview.


Ng (Courtesy of Cecilia Ng)
Ng, who is visiting professor at the Women’s Development Research Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia, notes that training programmes like these are essential to ensure that women are qualified to do substantial work. “You have to do a lot more groundwork, and identify potential leaders, identify the younger leaders, [and] together go through trainings [and] empowerment programmes,” she said.

What does it mean?

Skills training aside, PKR’s constitutional amendment could be defined in any number of ways. But Rodziah explained that the 30% quota would be incorporated at every level.

For example, in a branch with 15 seats, five should be held by women. If five of those 15 seats are decision-making positions, at least one should be held by a woman, Rodziah says. The same principle would apply at the federal level.

Still, 30% of women in leadership positions does not necessarily translate into 30% of women as elected representatives.

Rodziah said the party would meet in July 2009 to plot a two-year plan for increasing the number of female candidates in the next elections. However, she did not indicate what that plan would consist of, just as she was short on detailing the party’s training programmes or what the party’s deadline was to achieve its 30% quota.

“We have our strategy but I can’t expose it,” she says.

Racial barriers

Rodziah also expressed barriers to women’s participation in Malaysian politics in racial terms, revealing that gender discrimination is just one of many issues female politicians have to deal with.

When asked what the biggest barriers are to Malaysian women’s participation in politics, she divided them along racial lines. “Chinese women are good in giving ideas, projecting themselves. But some Malay women are a bit slow in that.”


Rodziah (Courtesy of Rodziah
Ismail)
In other words, despite the fact that PKR is multiracial, party members still face racial prejudice from their peers about how they will perform.

Political parties can’t achieve equality among their members by considering gender alone, Ng notes. They also have to tackle discrimination based on age and race.

“The 30% quota has to represent the different ethnic groups, different age groups, and geographical locations,” she argues.

Preventing ghettos

These issues aside, Simranjit Kaur Gill, who lobbies for more women in positions of power with the Women’s Candidacy Initiative, says applying the quota could address the problem of women being ghettoised in certain positions. 

“Society considers women as only being relevant to consider women’s issues, like family and healthcare,” she said. “And if you look at the political system in Malaysia, with the exception of (Tan Sri) Rafidah Aziz, the usual cabinet positions given to women relate to social welfare, national unity, sports, youth, women, family and community.”


Simranjit (Courtesy of
Simranjit Kaur Gill)
This limitation on the acceptable roles that women can play in public office is yet another barrier for Malaysian women in politics, Simranjit adds. “We are ready for the ministries of defence, finance and, yes — even to be prime minister.”

But it remains unclear if PKR’s women’s wing is on the same page as women’s rights advocates.

“[Women] can’t only be championing women’s issues,” Rodziah says, for example. “Women’s issues should be on par with other issues.”

In other words, women should not be emphasising women’s issues more than other issues. But that argument presupposes that women’s issues are already given the same level of importance as others, and that male politicians would address and promote women’s concerns in the absence of female counterparts.

The lack of clarity aside on the issues involved in gender equality, PKR should be commended. While other politicians and political parties have merely announced objectives for increasing female representation, PKR has enshrined a women’s quota in their constitution, setting a benchmark for others to follow.

Equally important, it means other political parties and civil society can hold them accountable if they fail to achieve what they promise they would do.

Tomorrow:
Do quotas for women work?

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6 Responses to “PKR’s plan for women”

  1. Nicholas Aw says:

    Feminism, quota for women and equality have been issues for the last two centuries.

    There are pro and cons of having a 30% quota for women leaders in PKR at all levels. Although it allows a more active role for women, the drawback is that in the event of not having suitable and capable women, the quota may be filled up by half-baked, inefficient women. Please don’t get me wrong. We also have many men who are not capable but yet hold senior executive positions by virtue of their “connections”.

    I am of the opinion that PKR or for that matter any other organisation should practise a policy of gender equality. Key positions should be filled in by people with the right qualifications and experience and not for any other reason.

    Generally in Malaysia and many other countries in this part of the world there is still much to be done for gender equality. Perhaps we can learn from the west where even linguistic registers such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ are avoided and a neutral word ‘they’ is instead used.

    Of course there are other factors such as culture and religion which inhibit the growth of gender equality to a certain extent. Therefore, until the population are receptive of women’s roles towards the community and society, gender equality has a long way to go.

  2. Eskay says:

    It has been proved again and again that any programme to be achieved through the quota system will never have a perfect ending.

    We are now in the 21st century. Every human being should be equal, male or female.
    A person in politics should be fighting for the rights and taking up issues of everyone. Is there a need for a woman to bring up only women’s issues? If there are enough capable and committed women in a party, what’s wrong having all of them as leaders?.

  3. t says:

    Unfortunately, affirmative action (also regarded here as quotas) have been construed in a different light in Malaysia due to the NEP. Affirmative action can work if it is implemented fairly and reviewed regularly. It is often necessary in a temporal manner to address inequality in society.

    Of course a quota system without proper practice would be futile. If PKR wants to include more women into leadership positions, they should also look into programmes that empower women to step up and speak up. When perceptions and mindsets change, real change will occur naturally.

  4. t says:

    This slipped my mind. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the committee for the UN Convention which Malaysia has ratified and is obligated to, has recommended quota systems as one of the ways in which Malaysia can improve women participation in political leadership.

    CEDAW Concluding Observation 2006:

    18. The Committee encourages the State party to take sustained measures, including temporary special measures … and to establish concrete goals and timetables so as to accelerate the increase in the representation of women, in elected and appointed bodies in all areas of public life, including at the international level. The Committee invites the State party to also encourage political parties to use quotas. It recommends that the State party conduct training programmes on leadership and negotiation skills for current and future women leaders. It also encourages the State party to take measures that will lead to an increase in the number of women at the decision making level in private sector organizations. It further urges the State party to undertake awareness-raising about the importance of women’s participation in decision-making processes at all levels of society.

  5. SpeakUp says:

    Seriously, are women still being prejudiced? In my industry women outnumber men! I thought women are at par with me in Malaysia …

  6. Naoko says:

    I’m pleased to see that not only are PKR taking the lead in giving themselves a concrete goal and aim, but they are also training these women, and are sensitive to the age/gender divide.

    There seems to be far more thought and care given to the idea. If nothing else, they are true trailblazers in this department.


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