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Politics

Once a world leader, Asia now trails in women lawmakers

Philippines, Laos and China among best in terms of females in parliament

A woman shows her finger after voting in national elections in the Philippines. The Southeast Asian nation ranks above the global average in women in parliament.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Back in 1995, Asia was at the forefront of breaking the political glass ceiling for women. Twenty-three years later, the region has fallen behind the world average.

Asia's average proportion of women in parliament -- lower and upper houses combined -- stood at 18.6% in 2017, behind the Americas' 28.4%, Europe's 27.1% and sub-Saharan Africa's 23.6%, according to a report by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Pacific countries, at 17.9%, and Arab states, at 17.5%, came in just behind Asia. The world average was 23.4%.

Female participation in parliament in Asia has improved by only 5.4 percentage points since 1995, when the region led the world alongside Europe, with 13.2% each. Other regions have all made gains of more than 10 points.

"Gender norms continue to work against women's entry into politics, as societies lay a stronger emphasis on women's role in the unpaid, domestic sphere," the Inter-Parliamentary Union said.

Such tendencies have been evident in Japan. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledge in 2012 to make Japan a place where "all women can shine," only 8% of candidates fielded by his Liberal Democratic Party in last year's general election were female. Japan ended up with a parliament where women occupy only 10.1% of the seats, significantly below averages for the world or even Asia.

Thailand at 4.8%, Myanmar at 10.2%, Malaysia at 10.4%, India at 11.8%, North Korea at 16.3%, and South Korea at 17% also trailed the regional average.

The Philippines, Laos and China were bright spots for Asia, scoring above the world average at 29.5%, 27.5% and 24.2%, respectively.

On the business front, Indonesia and the Philippines ranked among the countries with the highest rates of female participation in senior management, at 46% and 40%, according to a 2016 survey by accounting group Grant Thornton. Although the survey was limited to 35 countries, the data is more up to date than that from other institutions such as the International Labor Organization.

Emerging markets generally outperformed developed ones by this measure. Other countries with strong showings included Russia, Estonia, Poland, and Lithuania -- all in Eastern Europe.

Japan had the lowest proportion -- only 7%. Better but still lagging nations included Argentina, at 15%, and India, at 17%. Germany, at 18%, and the U.K., at 19%, were also toward the bottom.

In developed Asia-Pacific countries, women held only 13% of senior management roles. For countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the figure reached 39%.

"Although firms may be doing better, change is slow and uneven," Grant Thornton pointed out.

The world celebrates International Women's Day on Thursday. With movements like the #MeToo backlash against sexual harassment and abuse gathering attention, the international community is more aware than ever of the importance of defending women's rights.

There are signs of hope. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force on Tuesday named its first woman to command a destroyer group, Ryoko Azuma. Pakistan elected its first lower-caste Hindu woman senator, Krishna Kumari, last weekend. And Thai motorcyclist Muklada Sarapuech became the first woman to win the Asia Road Racing Championship on Sunday, beating 24 male rivals.

But the fact that these female achievers stand out is proof that barriers to their advancement remain. The statistics suggest there is still much room for improvement before women will truly break through the glass ceiling.

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