Women in Politics in Southeast Asia: Same same but different?

This post is written by Eng Sokha, Project Assistant at CCHR, and Juliette Rousselot, Consultant at CCHR.

Earlier this week, we had the honor of representing CCHR at a conference – “Women in Political Leadership in Southeast Asia 2014: Experiences, Challenges and Strategies” – held in Indonesia by CCHR’s partner organization, Kemitraan, where we discussed the state of women’s political leadership in Southeast Asia in 2014. The focus was on the experiences of women in politics, the challenges to increase that representation and the strategies we can use to increase that representation. We were accompanied by Ms. Sonket Sereyleak, Education and Gender Coordinator at COMFREL, and Ms. Keth Mardy, the Director of Legal Protection Department of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Cambodia, who both spoke on panels during the conference on the issue of increasing women’s political representation in Cambodia.

Participants from Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor Leste

Participants from Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor Leste

For the past 2 years, CCHR has been working as a part of a regional program – which includes other organizations from Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor Leste, and the Philippines – to increase women’s representation in politics throughout Southeast Asia. With just women constituting just 20% of Cambodia’s National Assembly, we are still far away from achieving true gender equity in politics.

However, the problem is not unique to Cambodia but present throughout all of Southeast Asia, where women seeking to participate in the political life of the nation – a right guaranteed under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – are denied this right because of discriminatory laws and policies, cultural and traditional barriers, and socio-economic factors. In fact, Asia has one of the lowest average percentages of women’s representation in national parliaments of all the world’s regions, at just 18.4%.

One of the key purposes of the conference was to launch and discuss a new publication produced under this regional program, “The success and the barriers to women’s representation in Southeast Asia: Between state policies, political parties and women’s movement,” which highlights many of the challenges faced by women throughout the region in exercising their right to participate in political life. The report concludes by noting that:

The challenges for women when participating in politics in general are similar in Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste. [The challenges] need to be addressed by a synergy of the government’s political decisions, political parties, and civil society movements – especially the women movement. Disharmony between these three elements will serve as fundamental obstacles for substantive women’s representation.

Representatives of the 5 NGOs read out the Declaration

Representatives of the 5 NGOs read out the Declaration

Most importantly though, participants signed on to a Declaration, pledging to work towards transforming women’s political participation in Southeast Asia. Here are some excerpts from the Declaration:

We, the undersigned Members of Parliament, Civil Society Organisations, Public Servants, affirm that women’s political participation is fundamental to the holistic promotion of gender equality, freedoms, human rights and democracy, and is essential in achieving sustainable development and peace. […]

We emphasize that the exclusion of women from government and politics will inevitably intersect with gender inequalities which span across poverty, access to education, healthcare and livelihoods, to name a few. […]

We are deeply concerned with the continuous and systematic exclusion of women from all policy and decision-making processes. This is often a result of discriminatory policies, laws, customs, practices, attitudes, bias by political parties, inadequate women’s representation and institutionalized and systemic unfairness which affect women both de jure and de facto in the SEA region. […]

We, hereby highlight the essential contributions of women in SEA in their continued struggle to fully realize women’s human rights; to the promotion of sustainable development; and to the eradication of poverty, hunger, and diseases.

The Declaration commits signatories to work towards increasing women’s access to policy and decision-making institutions and processes through various mechanisms and strategies; to eliminate discriminatory barriers faced by women; to involve men as part of the change; and to support and capacity-build women as agents of change, amongst other commitments.

Read more about women’s political representation and participation in Cambodia here.

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