Politics and peril for Asian women

Politics and peril for Asian women

The political landscape in Asia has been very dynamic lately, but it is a disappointment to me personally that events have not been kind to women.

Filipinos on Monday picked Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the late dictator, as their next president. Known as "Bongbong" in the Philippines, the 64-year-old secured around 60% of the vote, the strongest mandate since his father's rule. He will be inaugurated in June together with his vice-presidential running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte.

Mr Marcos's nearest challenger in the May 9 election was Vice President Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer and economist. According to the anti-disinformation site tsek.ph, Ms Robredo was a major target of false and negative narratives online. Her outspokenness against Mr Duterte's brutal war on drugs attracted much criticism -- even accusations that she supports communist rebels.

The online disinformation about Mr Marcos side, by contrast, was mostly positive and served to whitewash the disgraceful history of his family.

South Korea, meanwhile, last Tuesday inaugurated Yoon Suk-yeol, a self-styled crusader for justice, as its new president. During the election campaign, the 61-year-old made anti-women remarks, pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and even blamed the country's low birthrate on feminism.

Mr Yoon takes the helm of a country where the gender equality index languishes near the bottom among developed nations. The percentage of women parliamentarians in South Korea is just 19% compared to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 32%. South Korea ranks 123rd out of 156 countries in women's economic participation and opportunity.

South Korea is also notorious for digital sex crimes, the vast majority of them against women, which was 7.5 times higher last year than in 2003. Rape and sexual assault rates increased by 1.6 times during the same period.

In Hong Kong, John Lee was anointed as chief executive in a one-candidate "election" by 1,500 Chinese Communist Party loyalists. The 64-year-old former police officer will replace Carrie Lam on July 1.

I was not enthusiastic about Ms Lam, who was also handpicked by Beijing, but the 64-year-old former civil servant is among the very few female leaders in Asia, along with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. After overseeing a turbulent period in which massive pro-democracy protests led to stifling Chinese control in Hong Kong, Ms Lam decided not to seek a second term.

In Myanmar, meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi's reputation may have been greatly tarnished for her government's treatment of the Rohingya, but she still enjoys great popular support. Now under house arrest since the military coup in February last year, the 76-year-old former Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been on trial for about a dozen cases that carry maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.

Also gone from the ranks of female leaders is Park Geun-hye, who served as president of South Korea from 2013-17. The first woman to hold the post, she was impeached in December 2016 on corruption charges and ousted in March 2017.

For many, the impeachment of Ms Park, the daughter of a former dictator, was an excuse to say that women are not capable leaders. The scandal could deter voters from electing another woman -- a problem we rarely see when men are involved in scandals. The Philippines' Mr Macos is a convicted tax evader, among other things.

Obviously, women in South Korea will be looking to their new president to drastically change his ways. For a start, Mr Yoon must acknowledge that his country faces multiple obstacles to achieving gender equality because of discrimination and stereotyping.

He must show that he firmly believes the empowerment of women contributes to the development of a free and just society -- something he has so far failed to do.

Like their peers in western democracies, female politicians in Asia face bias and double standards. For example, when Ms Tsai ran for Taiwan's presidency in 2016, some in her own party questioned her ability to be a president and commander-in-chief because she is a woman.

As women have played important roles in democratic transitions in Asia, such as the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, we hope they will continue to engage in public affairs and influence the advance of the quality of democracy.

Perhaps most urgently, given the wide discrepancy between women's political and social status in Asia, reducing such gaps may benefit women and lead to more comprehensive gender equality.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Do you like the content of this article?