In The News

The Ongoing Struggle for Women’s Political Participation

March 11, 2009

March 8 is celebrated around the world as International Women’s Day. This historic day reminds us that the long struggle of the women’s movement for equal rights has not been easy and, in fact, is not yet over. In Indonesia, the theme for the 2009 International Women’s Day was “Supporting Women Candidates for Parliament.”  Indeed, as the country will conduct legislative elections on April 9th, electing representatives for national, provincial, and district level legislatures, this theme is very timely and appropriate.

In the Indonesian context, the theme is highly relevant. Women are still extremely under-represented in public and political institutions in Indonesia. At present, Indonesia only has four female ministers out of 34 cabinet members. Out of 33 governors across the country, there is only one elected female governor. Indonesia only has one female Supreme Court judge, and there are only 63 women members in the National Parliament (DPR) out of the total 550 representatives.

One may argue, and many have done so, that the sex of a member of parliament (MP) or a minister is not important. However, the reality on the ground shows that there are very few men who are sensitive to women’s issues and are able to bring the interests of women and marginalized citizens into the center of political discussions at the Parliament or in the cabinet.

An appropriate level of women’s representation is critical for a range of pressing issues, including the ongoing, classical problem of education for girls, as well as the contemporary issue of economic hardship faced by Indonesians, including women, due to the global economic crisis. Indonesia still has the highest maternal mortality rate in Southeast Asia: almost 20,000 women die every year in pregnancy and birth related complications. However, the budget allocated for reproductive health care is woefully inadequate across the country. With only 11 percent of women MPs in the National Parliament, and a third of the local parliaments without even a single female MP, it is unlikely that the budget and policy situation related to this high mortality rate will change.

In 2008, a coalition of women’s activists and politicians successfully pushed the Indonesian Parliament to pass two significant affirmative action steps. First, they adopted a law that requires political parties to allocate a 30 percent quota for women candidates on political party lists. The law also prescribes sanctions to those parties that fail to comply with the provision. Second, the Parliament adopted a “Zipper” system, by which political parties have to alternate between men and women candidates throughout the party lists, with at least one woman for every three candidates. In fact, the majority of Indonesian voters support inclusion of the affirmative action in the election law. [74% of voters support the affirmative action regulations according to the ‘Public Opinion Survey’ by IRI in January 2009.]

However, this affirmative action has been hampered by the recent Constitutional Court ruling stating that the appointment of legislative candidates should be based on the number of votes each candidate receives. This ruling forces women candidates to compete openly with male candidates and negates the hard-fought gains for affirmative action. As women candidates are disadvantaged by several factors, this means they must work extra hard to be elected. Women lack access to funds and control over the political party machineries that would help them in running successful campaigns and ultimately win seats in the Parliament and local legislatures.

In anticipation of the April 2009 elections, the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta is supporting The Asia Foundation with wide-ranging programs to support women’s political participation, especially for women candidates to win seats in the Parliament. The first step of the program was to support electoral law reform and strengthen the capacity of women candidates to build their constituency networks, while helping women candidates develop sharp and focused media and voter education campaigns. Between September 2008 and January 2009, over 400 women candidates in the four provinces of Aceh, East Java, South Sulawesi, and Jakarta participated in trainings on effective campaigns.

Since January this year, these women candidates have launched massive campaigns on radio and in local print media to boost voters’ knowledge about them, their programs and platforms. The Asia Foundation supports a nation-wide media campaign with over 200 radio stations across the country, national newspapers, and magazines promoting women candidates and appealing to the nation to give women candidates a chance to prove their campaign promises.

In less than a month, Indonesia will hold its third general election since the country began its democratization process in 1998. The International Women’s Day campaign is expected to further support public awareness and educate the public on the importance of women’s involvement in the democratic process in Indonesia. Women candidates have to win the highest votes in their electoral district to be able to secure their seat in the parliament. This is a huge challenge. It is our hope that the voters, when they cast their votes on April 9th, will be willing to give those female candidates a chance to represent them in the National Parliament and local legislatures.

Hana Satriyo is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Gender and Women’s Participation in Indonesia. She can be reached at hsatriyo@tafindo.org.

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