Data Brief: Taking a Closer Look at Women's Political Participation in Southeast Asia

At a glance, women in the Southeast Asian region seem relatively well-represented and powerful in terms of national political leadership. To date, more than half of the countries in the region have had at least one female head of state, with powerful women such as Indonesia’s finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati wielding substantial power both nationally and in the region. Yet when delving deeper, a vastly different picture emerges for Southeast Asian women in politics.

Data shows that women are largely underrepresented in parliament in this region. Thailand, which was represented by its first female Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011, boasts a dismally low 4.8% representation for women in parliament and only 11.1% for women in ministerial positions. What accounts for this discrepancy in which a woman can lead the country but women on the whole are not represented in political leadership? One explanation may lie in the recruitment mechanism of political parties, where elite women become political leaders through family political dynasties. Of the seven women who have served or are currently serving as female heads of state in Southeast Asian countries, five were either the wife, daughter, or sister of a previous male president or prime minister. In a study on female representation in the 2009 Indonesian election, where women comprised 18% of Parliamentary seats, it was found that 41.7% of them were inheriting a political dynasty.

The young nation of Timor Leste, offers up another interesting example of this discrepancy in female political leadership. Though the country has yet to have a female head of state, Timor Leste ranks 34th in the world for female representation in Parliament, higher than both Switzerland and Germany, with 33.8% of seats in Parliament filled by women. However, in local level politics women are still largely excluded from leadership, with men comprising 98% of suco or aldeia chiefs in 2009.

It is not enough for politics to only be accessible to elite and well-connected women on a national level. Gender equality can only be achieved when all women are represented across all sectors and levels of public service. With Southeast Asia home to more than 320 million women, it is critical that women feel they can be political participants at all levels of government. The outward projection of strong female leaders holds little weight when subnational politics is still solely a man’s domain. It is evident that more work and research needs to be done in order to pave the pathway and pipeline to leadership for the coming generations of politically-minded women in Southeast Asia.