Mon, Mar 07, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Despite progress, gender gap in Asian politics persists

BIG PICTURE Although the region boasts some high-profile female heads of state, most are connected to political dynasties, and women still lack voices in parliaments


In the 21st century world the number of national leaders who are women remains extremely small, but with four female presidents and prime ministers currently in office Asia appears to be doing more than most regions for gender equality.

This picture of political power, however, is misleading since it does not so much reflect increasing female empowerment and grass roots representation as it does the region's enthrallment with dynastic politics, analysts and activists say.

While strides have been made in female political involvement since the first International Women's Day 30 years ago, the lesser-represented sex remains heavily in the minority in parliaments across Asia, recent figures show.

Asia has four women leaders: Prime Minister Helen Clark in New Zealand; President Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines; President Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka and; Prime Minister Khalida Zia in Bangladesh.

Until last October Megawati Sukarnoputri was Indonesian president, while India last year elected Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party into power, though she declined the premiership.

Pakistan too has had a female prime minister in the not too distant past, while in the cases of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and New Zealand the current leaders are not the first women to head their nation.

Yet in all but the case of New Zealand the women concerned have been the widows or daughters of former rulers and founding fathers, some of whose families have maintained a grip on power off and on over several decades.

"There is strong legacy of family politics in South Asia, where family background takes precedence over gender," Pakistani women's rights activist Kamila Hayat told reporters.

"But this leadership by women does not translate into empowerment of women in their countries, where levels of female education and social, political and economic development remain low."

In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was prime minister from 1988-1990 and again from 1993-1996 before she was forced out of power on corruption charges and left the country to live in self-imposed exile.

Her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan's first elected prime minister, but was executed by military leader Zia-ul Haq in 1978.

Hayat points to similar situations throughout South Asia, with Italian-born Sonia Gandhi hailing from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty in India, and Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga being the daughter of an assassinated prime minister.

Across Asia, no parliament has more than a third of its legislators as women, according to a survey released Thursday by the International Parliamentary Union (IPU).

The region lags behind Europe and the Americas and hovers just below the world average of 15.7 percent representation at the beginning of 2005, the survey found.

New Zealand fares best in the region with almost 30 percent of parliamentary seats occupied by women. It also has a female Governor-General and top judge.

Despite long histories of women leaders, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka rank worst in the region for female MPs, with 2.0 percent and 4.9 percent respectively, according to the IPU survey, while India does not fare much better with 8.3 percent.

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