By P. Parameswaran
Washington: Women are assuming greater political leadership and business ownership in Asia but remain under-represented in national level government, says a US group with deep roots in the region.
In an assessment ahead of International Women’s Day on Thursday, the Asia Foundation noted “important progress” in reform of laws and policies concerning women in the region as a result of global pressure as well as actions by Asian women groups themselves.
“The good news is, despite their underrepresentation in national level government, women are nonetheless becoming a significant political force in many countries and are gaining ground — particularly at the local level,” Carol Yost, director of the foundation’s women’s empowerment program, told AFP.
“While there is still a long way to go to achieve parity, the overall trend in women’s full and equal participation in political processes and public life is positive,” Yost said.
Across Asia, women hold an average of only 16.4% of parliamentary seats and own about 30% of small and medium enterprises, according to statistics culled by the non-profit foundation.
There have been several notable government or opposition women leaders in Asia. Among the current lot are Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and India’s ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.
But Asian countries have seen a significant increase in women’s political participation in provincial government via quota systems or legislation, the Asia Foundation said.
India and Pakistan now have quotas ensuring women more than 30% of seats in local government while Indonesia has enacted laws encouraging a similar percentage of candidates in political party lists, Yost said.
In many countries in the region, voter education programs targeted at women before elections have been “remarkably successful” in increasing the number of women casting votes, said the Asia Foundation, which has carried out development and reform programs in the region for the last 50 years.
In Afghanistan, where women rights were harshly curtailed under the extremist Taliban group during its five-year rule up to 2001, 50% of respondents of a recent poll conducted by the foundation thought that political leadership should be for both men and women.
Afghan women now hold 68 seats in the 249 seat lower house of parliament.
Training programmes for women candidates also have increased the number of women standing for and winning elections in Asia, the foundation said, citing Cambodia as an example.
In some Asian countries women are putting pressure on political parties to include more women on party lists, it said.
Women are also demanding that political parties state their platform for addressing women’s priority concerns.
In Thailand, for example, since the fall of the democratically elected government to the military in September 2006, women are attempting to ensure that their rights are protected in a new constitution being drafted, the foundation said.
Yost said that the lack of progress in women’s participation in formal elected bodies at the national level suggested that “women in Asia are still not perceived as legitimate political actors on par with men.”
This, she said, “is disappointing.”
On the business side, increasingly Asian women across the region, and particularly on a local level, are re-shaping themselves as entrepreneurs, the Asia Foundation said.
Although it is difficult to get accurate information on women’s economic contributions as entrepreneurs in Asia, it is estimated that 30% of small and medium enterprises are owned by women, it said.
“This is good news both for women and for Asian countries because small medium enterprises constitute one of the fastest growing segments of Asian economies today and are an important engine for economic growth overall,” Yost said.
But the foundation noted that women workers in many countries were still paid less than men for the same work, faced harassment and physical abuse in the workplace, and were not well-equipped to protect their rights as workers.
In some countries, women are barred from registering a business in their own name or getting a loan without the approval of their husband.
Legal restrictions on a woman’s right to own or inherit property or sign contracts deters access to credit and hinders independence as an entrepreneur. And women have yet to organize to form women’s business associations.
Currently, women business owners are barely represented in trade negotiations, nor are their particular concerns woven into trade-related policies.