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To better represent women, Indonesia should borrow a page from East Timor

East Timorese woman voter

An East Timorese woman casts her ballot at a polling center in Dili in last year’s general election. Image: Romeo Gacad/Jakarta Globe/AFP

Pacific Scoop:
Commentary – By Arif Nurdiansah and Hindijani Novita in Jakarta

Indonesia is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified in Law No. 7 of 1984. But almost 25 years later, how well are we honouring this commitment, especially the participation of women in the political realm?

Both when it comes to getting women elected and in getting their concerns onto the political agenda, there is much room for improvement.

Indonesia’s women make up 49.83 percent of the population, according to Central Statistics Agency (BPS) data from 2010. So women are our largest minority ¬ and yet we seem unable to meet the legally mandated quota of 30 percent women in the House of Representatives, as stipulated in Election Law No. 12 of 2003.

Let’s look at some figures since the end of the Suharto era. After the 1999 election we had 46 female MPs (9 percent), after the 2004 election we had 61 (11 percent) and in 2009 this rose to 103 members, or 18 percent. Although this increase is encouraging, we are still far below the ideal minimum of 30 percent.

Given that the number of women in Indonesia is slightly lower than that of men, it should not be difficult for Indonesians to make sure there is a larger proportion of women representatives in Parliament. However, in reality, women are still far from being properly represented in Senayan. Why is that?

The existing regulations are not fully supported by many political parties, and these parties hold key positions in the democratic system. Political parties have resisted accommodating women, and have changed only when challenged by women activists and the mass media.

The legal quota is often used to increase party electability by recruiting female celebrities or the relatives of senior political power brokers. Because of this, the current female members have largely failed to champion policies to promote gender equality.

Discriminatory bylaws
According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), Indonesia has 207 discriminative bylaws, including discriminatory articles in the Marriage Law (1974) and the Penal Code (1915).

Due to recent corruption cases and a number of indecent videos involving women lawmakers, public trust of female lawmakers is low.

However, this should not be used as a reason to distrust women who participate in the 2014 election, or be used to provide legitimacy for men to keep dominating the House of Representatives. Because only in the House can  women fight directly for their rights.

Women shouldn’t wait for political parties to change, but should unite to change parties from the inside. But beyond the moribund mindset of party officials, there are other factors hampering women’s participation in politics, especially economics.

Most women in Indonesia are not financially independent and are still expected to take care of domestic affairs as their primary task.

Although there are women’s movements at the grassroots level, these tend to have a strong focus on development and to avoid politics, which is considered by many as a dirty job unsuitable for women.

Women’s groups in the area of political empowerment have so far failed to engage people at the grassroots level.

Political dynasties
To give an example, the Family Welfare Movement (PKK) is used by political parties to sustain political dynasties. PKK executives are mostly the wives of public officials in the respective regions who later become parliamentary candidates.

According to the academic Judith Squires, there are three strategies to increase women’s representation. The first is the emergence of women’s policy agencies to fight for gender-sensitive regulations. Secondly, gender-equity policies should be pursued to ensure gender-mainstreaming principles are integrated in each phase of policy-making.

Third, as Squires argues in her 2007 book The New Politics of Gender Equality, quotas are needed to ensure representative decision-making institutions.

Our neighbor, East Timor, can show us what happens with better gender representation in parliament.

East Timor is the only country in Southeast Asia where women make up more than 30 percent of lawmakers. No less than 21 of East Timor’s 65 members of parliament are women. And with this caucus they have passed a number of gender-sensitive laws, like the Law on Domestic Violence.

This is quite an achievement for a country that only recently gained independence. The women’s caucus has also amended the Elections Law to strengthen the position of women, calling for a 3:1 ratio of male candidates to female candidates.

Indonesia, the largest democratic nation in Southeast Asia, should aspire to do even better than East Timor in terms of women’s representation in politics.

Arif Nurdiansah and Hindijani Novita work for the Partnership for Governance Reform, but the views expressed here are their own.

Source: Jakarta Globe