Malaysian women want greater political participation | Asia Pacific

Malaysian women want greater political participation

Malaysian women want greater political participation

Updated 15 April 2013, 21:59 AEST

As Malaysia's political parties finalise their candidate lists for Nomination Day next weekend, a mothers' group has unveiled its own election 'manifesto'.

Calling themselves 'Mama Bersih' the group is linked to the Bersih (Clean) movement for free and fair elections.

Key issues raised today in Kuala Lumpur included the role of women in government and the economy, equal education opportunities, press freedom and more women MPs.

Maria Chin Abdullah, who attended the launch, is a lawyer and executive director of women's advocacy group, Empower Malaysia.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Maria Chin Abdullah, lawyer and executive director of the women's advocacy group, Empower Women Malaysia; also a steering committee member, Bersih 2.0

CHIN ABDULLAH: We have about eight demands. They include eliminating all laws that discriminate against women, reforming all the repressive laws, including having the ICCMC - to set up a police commission to review all laws related to the police force, and also reform of the education policy in Malaysia. It also looks into health, where the privatisation health services has resulted in some women not being able to have access to health services, because they now have to pay for it much more.

So, they call themselves 'Mama Bersih' and they have their own programme, educating, particularly the public on some of the issues that they're concerned about, in the main, about a better environment. A better green environment - they started off with the green agenda.

LAM: The green movement in Malaysia is heavily supported by the Opposition - are you concerned that Mama Bersih might be seen as an Opposition NGO?

CHIN ABDULLAH: No, I don't think so. Actually, it's a wrong perception of the green movement, if you're talking about Himpunan Hijau, which is the green coalition - the money they raised are from the people. Nothing comes from the political parties. They do invite the political parties. Of course, the opposition tends to attend more, as compared to Barisan Nasional.

LAM: And Maria Chin, you are from the NGO Empower for Change, and you're very much concerned about female participation in Malaysian politics. In the lead up to Nomination Day this weekend, are there signs that pre-selection in the various parties, are fielding more women candidates?

CHIN ABDULLAH: Well, to be honest, none of the parties have put up their candidate list, which is rather unfortunate. To date, we don't really know how many (women) have been fielded.

LAM: But are there signs that the various parties are hearing this call for greater women's participation in politics?

CHIN ABDULLAH: Well, in a sense, Yes, because both of the coalitions - Barisan Nasional and also Pakatan Rakyat - both of them have actually included thirty percent women's political participation, into their manifesto. We do need the critical mass, in order that women's concerns get raised in parliament, and also state assemblies. But of course, we also want women who understand women's issues, because we do have women now in parliament - they haven't been so effective in raising women's issues either. So it comes with critical mass and after that, it also comes with an awareness that they need to raise women's issues.

LAM: It was surprised to learn that only ten percent of sitting MPs in the last parliament were women. Malaysia is by and large quite progressive in its treatment of women, so why do you think the parties are so reticent or so backward in fielding women candidates?

CHIN ABDULLAH: Well, I think it's also the way in which women are being treated here in Malaysia. While we have progressed quite a lot, the statistics don't seem to show that the policies are supportive of women. For instance, we have a high tertiary turnout - sixty-eight percent are women, who actually graduate. But if you look at the workforce, it's only at 46 percent. And we have been at forty-six to forty-eight percent for the past twenty odd years. So it means that women tend not to pursue anymore at a certain - between 30 to 45 - the age when they get married. It's cultural but I feel that the government could have come to give much more support - like for example, child care, where they (the women) can put their children there, because it's very expensive. Not many people can afford to have a maid.

LAM: The major parties like UMNO and the MCA - the Malaysian Chinese Association - they do have women's wings - UMNO Wanita and MCA Wanita - What's their track record been like in advocating women's issues?

CHIN ABDULLAH: I feel they could have done more, because they have some key women in the parliament and also in the state assemblies, but they haven't done enough, to promote women, to be able to see beyond just taking care of the family and they also have not promoted among the men, that it's also important for women to have that choice - whether they wish to stay at home, or to work. I don't think they have done that much.

There are qualified women candidates but there is still this whole notion that the men take more prority over the women - that's how I feel. Particularly, if you take a party like Keadilan (the opposition Justice Party), I think they have more than enough women, but it's whether the people who decide put the women in seats that will ensure whether they win or not.

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