I was a panellist at a conference of young corporate women recently, speaking on the cultural determinants of women’s advancement (or not), and the usual question came up: when will Malaysia ever have a woman prime minister?
Now, I do not like to depress people by being pessimistic about the future but in this case, I had to be frank. “Not in my lifetime,” was my answer.
I understand why so many people are asking this question. They are simply tired of the current testosterone-driven style of governing we have now, which seems uncaring, not compassionate about the weakest in our society and often veers towards the violent. People want a gentler, kinder style of government, one that listens to them, and they think that a female head of government would be better able to do that.
But the odds are stacked against women ever getting to the top of the political ladder. In our Westminster-style parliamentary system, the prime minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in government and thus assumed to have the biggest mandate to lead. Thus, for a woman to become prime minister, she first has to lead her party.
On either side, the Barisan Nasional or opposition, this possibility is remote. No political party has shown any real inclination to put women into leadership positions, at least not seriously. At election time, only 10% of candidates are women, resulting in no more than 10% of Parliamentarians being female. At the state assembly level, the numbers are even poorer, at 8%. The Cabinet has only three female ministers, none of whom seem inclined to do much for women, even when one holds the women, family and community development portfolio.
Thus, when people ask me why we can’t have a woman prime minister, I always talk about two realities. One is that our political system is structured in such a way that women don’t really have a chance. As long as we do not have direct elections for the leader of the country, we will not get a look-in. And while women are kept to the playpens known as women’s wings, they will always remain on the sidelines of power.
The other reality is that for too long, Malaysian women have been complacent about this state of affairs, even while they keep complaining about their situation. Why do we not get angry about only being represented by 10% of parliament? Why is it that the women’s wings of the major political parties, without whom elections cannot run, do not use their power to get what they want? All they have to do is say they are not going to mobilise their members at the next election and everything will come to a standstill. Instead, they are content to do all the work and get scraps in return.
This marginalisation of women when it comes to power is not an issue just for women but also for our entire society. More than 70% of our university graduates are female, yet only just over 50% of women are in the workforce. To become a developed country, we need 70% of women to be in regular paid work, not in low-paying, irregular or informal work. Women at work generate many social benefits: their incomes go towards bettering their families’ living standards and their children’s education and health.
But when government economic policies cause prices to go up, they harm women, and their families, most. Women already earn far less than men but now have to pay more for household essentials because of GST (Goods and Services Tax) and the withdrawal of subsidies. They then have less money to pay for their children’s schooling extras and healthcare. When there is only so much to pay for doctor’s bills and medicines, women have the lowest priority in the family.
Of course, men too are finding it hard to feed their families. But given equal qualifications, men are more likely to find work than women. Furthermore, by looking at various population censuses in the country, there are more than 800,000 female-headed households, most of which are living in poverty with many mouths to feed. Most of these women have been widowed, divorced or abandoned by their husbands, or their husbands have been incapacitated and they are left to manage their households alone. For those who are aged 40 and above, finding jobs is near-impossible because of the lack of skills. Many have to resort to informal income-earning activities such as selling nasi lemak or kuih.
Predictably enough, the majority of these women are Malays. Despite the New Economic Policy and various pro-bumiputera economic policies, many women have not really benefited from them. Divorced women have not always been able to obtain court-ordered maintenance from their husbands for their children because implementation of these court orders is poor. Those seeking a divorce are forced to wait a long time to obtain their freedom if their husbands are unwilling to let them go. New amendments to Muslim family laws threaten to take away whatever basic rights to property that women have. In the meantime, popular media continues to promote polygamy and child marriage as the solutions to women’s problems when in reality, they create even more complications to women’s already difficult lives.
What can be done to change the situation? First, in poverty-alleviation programmes, which should be accessible by all those who need them, special attention must be paid to women so that they are not penalised, for instance, for being married in name only while their husbands are AWOL or incapacitated.
Second, it has to be recognised that not all women are cut out for entrepreneurial activities. Those with many young children to care for may not have the time nor the capacity to set up small businesses, unless someone in the community sets up a daycare facility for the children while their mothers work.
Third, women’s health issues, including mental health, must be taken seriously. These include support for those facing domestic violence and those who need to fulfil their unmet need for contraception. And finally, women need to know that they have rights, and that they have the right to demand them. They need to understand that they are all full citizens under the Federal Constitution with no more and no less rights than any other citizen.
Until Malaysian women comprehend all these, they will continue to suffer and be sidelined in every aspect of Malaysia’s development.
Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir is a writer, blogger and activist