The role of Women Democrats

Chong Wai Fung

Many countries observe International Women’s Day on 8th March. However, the way that this day is commemorated depends on the challenges that women in each country face.

(Photo: Members of SDP's Women Democrats - from left: Grace Tan, Yeo Poh Hong, Chee Siok Chin, Jaslyn Go)

Women around the world continue to face repression at home and at work. Getting a proper education is but a diminishing hope for many young girls across the globe. Gender equality is but a dream for many women in the workforce.

In Singapore, it would appear that women have been breaking down barriers for equal access to education and jobs, as well as shattering glass ceilings while climbing the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, if we look a little deeper, we can hardly celebrate these "successes”.

Women continue to be subjected to abuse in their own homes. They earn less than men for doing the same jobs. There are badly-crafted policies that disadvantage foreign-born women who are married to Singaporean men, where their stay in Singapore is totally dependent on their spouse. More needs to be done to change this.

It is a fact that women have been and continue to be under-represented in Parliament. Of the 87 elected Members of Parliaments, there are only 19 women, a dismal 22%. Although news of the first women Speaker of Parliament was celebrated, it must be noted that it took 47 years since independence to achieve this. It was a small step towards recognizing women as equally capable, but that step took a long time in coming.

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We were supposed to be a first world country where women have more freedom and rights than countries such as Pakistan, India or Rwanda. Yet, these countries have had women as Prime Ministers, freely elected by their people. One wonders when, if ever, this will happen in Singapore.

While the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme was purported to ensure representation of minority race in Parliament, one wonders why no attempts have been made to ensure better representation of women who formed half the population. This is something that the electorate has little control over, as candidates are decided by political parties, not the voters. All but three of the women Parliamentarians were voted in as part of a GRC.

Women need to have a louder voice in the Parliament to ensure that they are not disadvantaged as a result of unintended consequences. For example, there are concerns the additional maternity benefits for women may lower their chances of getting a job in the first place. 

In a recent interview with Today, well-known women’s rights activist, Marina Mahathir, said that women wings in political parties are "really old-fashioned” and this is one of the many structures that prevented women from assuming bigger roles in politics. This jolted me a little, as it was something that the Women Democrats have discussed.

While I agree that women wings may be "old-fashioned”, it is a necessary evil because as a society, we are still rather old-fashioned when it comes to gender roles, especially in politics. There are many women in political parties, though not anywhere near the proportion of women in society. Most women I know prefer to stay out of the limelight, quietly working for the advancement of a cause that they believed in.

Margaret Thatcher once said, "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”. In resource-starved political parties, meaning most non-PAP parties, members and volunteers do everything to keep the party machinery moving. Women are good at getting things done - from organizing events to ensuring that all members and volunteers are well-fed. There is no time for rhetoric - that will come later when the time is right.

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In the rough and tumble world of politics, women prefer to bring about changes behind the scenes. Again, quoting from Margaret Thatcher, "It is the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lay the eggs”. There are prominent women leaders in political parties, and I salute them, and hope that they will continue to be role models for the next generation of women. Ideally, there should be more of them.

Here is where women’s wings have a role to play. Sure, the power lies with the main party, but within the "safety” of an all-women group, women are able to hone their skills and make contributions that they may otherwise not make, whether out of fear of embarrassment or out of humility.

Women’s wings typically organize activities that serve to inform women of their rights, including their rights to personal time and to love themselves, educate them on social and political issues, equip them with the skills to tackle the challenges in their lives, and much more.

In a supportive and nurturing environment, women groups can flourish and become a springboard for greater participation in many areas in society. Eventually, some of these women will mature politically, grow wings and step into the main arena. Thus, we have a group of more confident and self-assured women who are able to stand their ground and speak up on behalf of others. Women can bring about changes only when they have a voice in crafting policies.

Leaders of political parties have to acknowledge that if women are under-represented in Parliament, it is partly their fault. Voters have no problems electing a woman as MP in Single Member Constituencies, as shown in the recent by-election. It is up to the parties to field women candidates. If the party is not able to attract women into its ranks, then surely something is amiss within that party. Can the party do more to encourage and guide women, and include them into their ranks? A party has to be more inclusive if it wants to truly represent the people.

The road for greater participation of women in politics is a long one and the playing field is not level. Women are already expected to be good employees or bosses, caregivers and super-mums, sometimes all rolled into one. Not many people want to take the risk of incurring the wrath of employers or face rejection by family members by joining opposition parties.

There is nothing wrong with having women’s wings in political parties. There is a role for women’s wings in Singapore to nurture and develop the next generation of women political leaders. The party leadership just has to learn how to share power with the women and listen to the women’s voices.

Chong Wai Fung is a research analyst and a member of Women Democrats.
Women Democrats Wednesday, 20 March 2013 speakup2 Print

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