Elected Local Governments in Asia - pacific Offer Women Chance for Political Participation but Leadership Roles Still Lacking

07 May 2011

New Delhi - More countries in Asia and the Pacific than ever before have elected local governments and national parliaments, yet stronger action is needed to ensure women are elected to local representative and leadership positions, says a new report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The report, Women’s Representation in Local Government in Asia and the Pacific, quantifies and analyzes for the first time women’s representation at rural, urban, district and provincial levels across the region. It emphasizes that local governments offer one of the most important arenas for women’s political participation and can have a more direct impact on people’s lives and livelihoods than national parliaments. “Women’s representation in local councils is critical. Bold steps are needed to significantly increase the numbers,” said Nicholas Rosellini, UNDP Deputy Regional Director for Asia‐Pacific. “For most poor people in Asia‐Pacific, local governments are the most important political arena. They also have an important role in encouraging women’s political participation.” More emphasis must be placed on having women elected into leadership positions, according to the report.

Across the different levels of sub‐national government it is the countries with quotas such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, or other affirmative action policies such as Viet Nam which have the largest [rates of women’s representation. However this does not translate into women’s election to leadership positions such as council chairs or heads. “Women’s active participation makes politics civilized and violence free,” says Rashadea Akhter, Vice Chair in Chouddygram Upazila Parishad (district council) in Comilla, Bangladesh.

One of the main obstacles to women’s representation is the process of candidate selection in political parties. Women find it more difficult to be nominated as candidates in political parties where offices are traditionally held by men, says the report. In the Pacific, which has one of the lowest percentages of women in national politics of any region in the world, customary notion about women's role in society may be the biggest impediment to their political participation.

Representation of women in politics at the national level has made slight progress since commitments were made by most governments at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 to achieve an international target of 30 percent. Then global representation of women in parliament was only around 11 percent, while in 2009 that number had shifted to 18.4 percent. In Asia and the Pacific the picture is even worse, with Asia (18.2 percent) and the Pacific (15.2 percent) ranking as the second and third worst regions for women’s representation in parliament in the world. At the rural council level, the percentage of women elected has a wide distribution.

India leads at more than 35 percent, Pakistan just over 30 percent and Bangladesh at nearly 25 percent, while Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tonga all have less than 10 percent of women elected at the rural council level. Sri Lanka has the second lowest representation recorded at just 1.6 percent. Despite the relatively high percentages of women representatives in rural councils in Bangladesh and Pakistan, both countries show some of the lowest percentages of women as heads of rural councils with only 0.17 percent and 0.36 percent respectively.
The highest levels of women’s representation in urban councils were China, 48.2 percent, Australia, 24.65 , Bangladesh, 28.4 percent and the Republic of Korea, 21.78 percent. However, with the exception of Australia (21.6 percent) and Philippines (20.5 percent) women are unlikely to be elected into leadership positions. Bangladesh has only 1.37 percent of women elected to these higher positions. The report notes that there is a general lack of data on women at the lowest levels of sub‐national government up to the district level. Where countries have district councils and data is available there is overall a better rate of women’s representation than in rural and urban councils.

Bangladesh, India and Pakistan all have women’s representation of over 30 percent with quotas, while Viet Nam has affirmative action policies in place and a women’s representation rate of 23 percent. The exception is Mongolia, which despite a lack of quotas and a national women’s representation in Parliament rate of 3.9 percent elected 28.4 percent of its intermediary or district representatives as women. Provincial and regional assemblies are the highest tier of sub‐national government, and out of the countries in the Asia Pacific with this level of representation Afghanistan (30 percent), Australia (27.8 percent), India (37 percent), New Zealand (29.4 percent) and Viet Nam (23.88 percent) have the highest levels of women’s representation. Compared to the other levels of sub‐national government, provincial and regional assemblies have a larger number of women at senior positions within elected bodies. Afghanistan has 15 percent. However, apart from the Philippines (19.8 percent) and New Zealand (16 percent) women at leadership levels in elected sub‐national bodies still languishes below 10 percent with the Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka and Indonesia having zero women as heads of chairs of provincial and regional assemblies. The report notes that sub‐national governments on average in Asia and the Pacific have a higher representation of women in elected and appointed decision‐making positions than at the national level.

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