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Women in politics: How far has Asia come?

July 10, 2024

Women in Asia have made strides in politics, especially in national parliaments with gender quotas. But is the continent approaching gender parity?

Indian lawmakers attending a session of the lower house of India's parliament
In 2023, India passed a bill to set aside 33% of seats for women in the lower house of the national parliament as well as in state assemblies, but the quota wasn't implemented for this year's general election.Image: AP Photo/picture alliance

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, the first woman to lead Japan's capital, clinched a third term on Sunday to extend her time in office running one of the populous cities in the world.

Dozens of candidates were competing to unseat her, with female opposition lawmaker Renho Murata one of the main challengers — a rarity in Japan's male-dominated political scene.

In the country's 47 prefectures, only two governors are women. At the national level, the ratio is similar — only about 11% of members in the lower house of parliament are female. Japan does not currently have mandated gender quotas for politicians.

According to Mikiko Eto, a political science professor at Hosei University, such law would be "the most important point" to address the disbalance.

Have gender quotas worked? 

Unlike Japan, many political systems around the world have implemented gender quotas to increase the number of women in politics.

In Taiwan, where there are reserved seats for women and candidate quotas in place, women now make up 41.6% of parliament — the highest percentage of female lawmakers in Asia.

In Indonesia, women's representation in parliament was quite low before the 30% candidate gender quota was introduced. In 1999, fewer than one in 10 lawmakers was female. Two decades later, that number had risen to one in five.

"In countries where women's descriptive representation is still very low, affirmative actions like gender quotas seem to be the first step to take," Nankyung Choi, a scholar who specializes in women and politics in Southeast Asia, told DW.

In 2023, India passed a bill to set aside 33% of seats for women in the lower house of the national parliament as well as in state assemblies.

But the quota wasn't implemented for this year's general election. So out of the 543 lawmakers elected, only 74 were women — about 14%.

Elsewhere in the region, 50 seats are reserved for women in Bangladesh's 350-member parliament. But only around 5% of the candidates vying for the other seats in the election earlier this year were women, according to data collected by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Some countries in Asia have managed to increase the number of women legislators without gender quotas, "but it is not clearly associated with democratic development," said Choi.

In Singapore, for example, around 30% of members of parliament are women, but that figure is a result of "the People's Action Party-led government's decision to appoint more women to parliament to boost its weak democratic and inclusive credentials," she added.

Beyond the numbers

While gender quotas might have led to more women in politics, Choi states that the profile of those who "have made their way to decision-making positions" also needs to be discussed. 

Some comparative studies show that "the majority of women parliamentarians in Asia are middle-aged, educated and professional women" while "young and working-class women are largely absent," said Choi.

Moreover, she warns that having more women in parliament is one issue, while assessing if this "has translated into any meaningful progress in gender equality" is a different question.

In the case of Taiwan, even with more than 40% of parliamentarians being women, MPs' efforts to represent women's interests are "important but insufficient" as "the attitude of the executive branch of the government remains the key," according to Chang-Ling Huang, a political science professor at the National Taiwan University.

In her article, "Substantive representation of women in Taiwan: Why is 42% not enough?," Huang argues that "a more active pro-women or pro-gender equality Cabinet is needed" if women's interests are to be effectively addressed in parliament.

Underrepresented at the top

Despite recent strides in the number of women in parliament, their presence in senior positions is still lacking.

The share of female Cabinet ministers in Central and South Asia is 9.5% — the lowest ranked region, according to the UN Women's report "Women Political Leaders 2024."

Currently, Bangladesh only has two women heading ministries — one of them is the prime minister herself. In Pakistan's new Cabinet after the February elections, there is only one woman.

In Japan, the ratio is higher, with women now making up a quarter of Cabinet members after the reshuffle in 2023.

In contrast, there were 26 state ministers and 28 parliamentary vice ministers appointed in the same reshuffle — all of them male. Previously, women occupied around 20% of these lower-level posts.

Meanwhile in China, the share of women in the country's rubber-stamp parliament — the National People's Congress — has risen steadily in the past two decades, since the body adopted a form of gender quota in which the proportion of female members "should not be lower" than that of the previous term.

Nevertheless, no woman has ever served on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the country's top ruling body, since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.

Currently, there are no women in the wider Politburo's 24 seats and only six women have ever been full members — three of them were wives of senior party leaders.

Few women leaders

The lack of female leadership stems from "the prevailing patriarchal culture and the growth of conservative counter movements" in the region, said Choi.

Most Asian women who have emerged as presidents or prime ministers have prominent political ties — from Indira Gandhi in India to South Korea's Park Geun-hye and Corazon Aquino in the Philippines.

But in recent years, there have been some positive developments — Taiwan's first female President Tsai Ing-Wen, for instance, doesn't come from a political dynasty.

The same applies to current Indian President Draupadi Murmu — the first tribal woman to serve as head of state of the world's largest democracy.

Despite Japan never having a female prime minister, many people there believe that women and men make equally good political leaders, revealed a 2023 Pew Research Center study.

For now, Eto says it a positive sign that Japan's ruling party is actively appointing women as ministers, despite some analysts questioning whether Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is just trying to boost his approval ratings.

Whatever Kishida's reasons for raising the number of female ministers from two to a record five, "increasing women in higher or leading positions encourages women to improve their status in politics, economy and society," said Eto.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Emmy Sasipornkarn Srimingkwanchai
Emmy Sasipornkarn Multimedia journalist covering Thailand and Southeast Asia