Asia needs more of the 'fair sex' on political front

Asia needs more of the 'fair sex' on political front

As we honour International Women's Day tomorrow, we are reminded why the political empowerment of women is so important. Globally, women perform two-thirds of the world's work, but earn just 10% of the income. South Asia alone is home to 844 million people who live in extreme poverty, and well over half of them are women.

The might of ‘‘soft power’’: PM Yingluck Shinawatra is thronged by admirers. For a nation to achieve well-rounded development, the political empowerment of women is vital.

The political empowerment of women is critical to human development and to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Worldwide, women continue to be under-represented in national parliaments, occupying less than 20% of seats and accounting for just 18% of government ministers. A recent United Nations Development Programme report noted that the Asia-Pacific region has the lowest percentages of women in national legislatures of any region outside of the Arab states _ 18.2% in Asia and in the Pacific just over 15%. However, if you exclude Australia and New Zealand, it drops to just 5%.

In Thailand, women continue to be under-represented at all levels. Out of nearly 7,000 sub-district leadership positions, only 300 are held by women.

Just 16% of the Thai parliament is represented by women, even although women make up more than half of Thailand's population.

The winds of change though are blowing. The Asia-Pacific region is growing fast and more people are reaping the rewards of development. The gender gap in school enrolments is closing and there are many examples of women outnumbering men entering university.

More than a million young Thai women are enrolled _ 200,000 more of them than men.

But what good does education do when it is not met with opportunity?

Last year, Thailand made history by electing Yingluck Shinawatra as its first female prime minister. While her election has given Thai women a new goal to aspire to, it is just the beginning.

To achieve political equality, we must give women the support they need to develop their full potential. In order to put cracks in the proverbial "glass ceiling" that has often held women back, we must empower women to see themselves as leaders.

Social, political, economic and legal barriers have hindered participation at all levels of government. To make gender equality a political reality, governments need to craft policies and programmes that build the economic power of women, promote a greater political voice and advance legal rights.

A recent Asia-Pacific UNDP Human Development report says that the introduction of a gender quota system could be a possible political solution. Where introduced elsewhere in Asia, they have dramatically helped increase female representation. Quotas could be considered for elected offices, civil service, the judiciary and other critical public leadership positions.

Gender quotas are already a part of constitutions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Gender quotas have proved globally to be the single most effective strategy for increasing the number of women in national parliaments.

Gender equality, like any goal, is a process. Thailand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region have come a long way in recent decades through the development of its political systems and the advancement of human development.

But it can go much farther if more women were equally represented. We must enable and support women in the Asia-Pacific region to stand for elected office and take part in the decisions that affect the lives of their families and communities.

Not addressing gender inequality ignores the potential of millions of women and puts MDG progress at risk.

Ajay Chhibber is UN Assistant Secretary-General and the Director of the UN Development Programme's Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

Ajay Chhibber

UN assistant secretary general, UNDP assistant adm

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