Issues in Women’s Political Empowerment
in the Asia-Pacific Region

Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics

Executive Summary (1)

to download the complete document

After the spotlight had faded on the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, gender concerns such as the issues of women’s equal participation in decision-making and their access to power have been conveniently shunted off to the sidelines in a region besieged by economic meltdown, inter-country feuds, natural and human-made disasters and a host of other problems.

Half-a-decade after the Beijing Conference, it is apropos to take stock of the modest advances made by countries in the Asia-Pacific region towards the goal of women’s political empowerment, probe the obstacles, examine the opportunities, and plot future directions. This paper has drawn from the country reports submitted to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP), papers from recent regional and global gatherings on women’s political empowerment, as well as studies undertaken by the network of the Center in Asia-Pacific for Women in Politics (CAPWIP).

Obstacles to women’s empowerment spring from cultural stereotypes and institutional barriers in the public sphere. Resilient gender roles remain a major stumbling block to women’s participation in decision-making on a basis equal with men. These stereotypical views are of two kinds: the first deems women unfit for leadership, the second makes excessive demands on women who aspire to public positions of leadership. On the other hand, the public sphere has built-in barriers to women’s equal participation in decision-making and politics. These include the lack of political will, the lack of a critical mass of women in politics, existence of an "all boys network", and the "winner take all" type of electoral system that effectively rules out minority groups such as women.

The past decade has yielded opportunities for advancing women’s political empowerment starting with cheaper and more efficient telecommunications facilities. This signifies cheaper access to greater information, use of telecommunications to facilitate organizing and networking for concerted action on common issues, and using media to influence values. The second opportunity lies in the heightened interest in advocacy for democratic governance, including the willingness of aid agencies to provide support for initiatives that seek to democratize government and decision-making to include heretofore marginalized groups such as women. The third opportunity is in the call for an alternative leadership paradigm: a critique of the prevailing leadership style of dominance and control identified with male attributes; and a call for a leadership style that is more inclusive, fostering unity between peoples and countries, safeguarding rather than exploiting the environment—which are in greater consonance with female attributes.

Finally the paper poses two challenges in terms of future directions: creating an enabling environment for women’s political empowerment, and political organizing as a strategy for women to gain power. The first goal sets down specific tasks for government; political parties; the business sector, trade unions and cooperatives; and media and educational institutions. The second goal focuses on women’s initiative and autonomy in pursuing their political agenda, the sharing of responsibilities between women and men, and support from NGOs and international aid organizations.

Women’s political empowerment, in the region as elsewhere, is a fundamental challenge for the coming millenium. It will engage half of the world’s population—the women, their organizations and movements. But it will also demand a commitment from government and other social institutions: media, schools, the business sector, trade unions, cooperatives—to help, not hinder, the cause of equality.

This challenge is a play for high stakes: redefining politics, community, relationships, and everything in-between, so that the future will not bring more death, destruction and fragmentation, but will be one of healing, building, wholeness and reconciliation.

(1) This paper was prepared for the High Level Intergovernmental Meeting to review the regional implementation of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, Bangkok, 26-29 October 1999. The full text is available for download either in Word format (152kb) or in Adobe Acrobat format (59kb).

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