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Gender and sexuality in Asia today

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In Brief

The rapid economic change in Asia challenges the traditional division of labour between women working in the private, family domain and men in commerce and politics. Greater participation by women in politics, while uneven in different countries across the region, has reshaped agendas for social change.


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The dynamism that we observe in contemporary Asia, among other things, has a deep gender dimension.

But it’s not only the roles of men and women that are being redefined. The seemingly immutable images of masculinity and femininity are also in flux, accelerated by the commercialisation of popular culture and the new technologies that have made its spread unstoppable. Although the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is still struggling to gain wider acceptance in most countries, it too has made strides in challenging the hegemonic status of heterosexuality.

In the area of body politics, where state and religious groups still exert enormous influence, women have been resisting and even appropriating the debate to put forward their own agenda. The search for employment or new life opportunities has also driven thousands of women to migrate, legally or illegally, within Asia as brides, labourers, traders or sex workers, bringing about a cross-cultural exchange of gender role norms

In the midst of this change, there have been encouraging legal reforms that recognise the rights of women, exemplified in the abolition of various patriarchal laws such as South Korea’s family-head system, the enactment of equal opportunity laws and the lifting of bans on women in the military. The recent amendment to Japan’s civil code, allowing women to remarry immediately after divorcing, marks another move from a major player in the region to ensure equal rights for women under the law. Yet old discriminatory norms and practices persist and are further complicated by regional political and economic developments.

The latest issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly, edited by Hyaeweol Choi and Tessa Morris-Suzuki, brings together prominent scholars of gender studies from various countries and disciplines to explore the diversity and complexity of issues of gender and sexuality in contemporary Asia. The essays touch on major developments that have caused shifts in gender relations. They illustrate the tensions between structural violence against women and women’s own agency in negotiating male-dominated social arrangements.

The main message is that gender politics do not merely reflect societal shifts. They drive the political, economic and cultural changes that are shaping the Asian region today.

Katharine Moon, in her lead essay on women and East Asian politics this week, reckons that there is no coherent pattern to boast or model to export. Economic development is not the silver bullet for women’s political empowerment.

‘East Asians are known for creating wealth nationally and personally but this does not necessarily produce women’s political empowerment or participation’, she observes. ‘One of the poorest countries in the world, Rwanda, sits atop the very wealthy Nordic states, the United States and newly rich Asia with the highest female representation in national politics worldwide’.

In East Asia, the Philippines has the highest representation of women in political institutions, she says. Nearly 30 per cent of the seats in Philippines’ lower house are held by women, with another 25 per cent held in the upper house. In local politics, women also fare well, with 17 out of 80 provinces having voted for female governors in 2013. Since 2010, women have also made up 40–45 per cent of the highest civil service positions.

Of all East Asian societies, the Philippines is also the most advanced in integrating women’s rights and development through legal codes and administrative practices. The Local Government Code of 1991 deepened democratisation by decentralising power and by requiring all local and provincial governments to include women, and other underrepresented groups, in governance.

By contrast, Japan, the wealthiest country in the region, falls far behind, with women holding only 11.5 per cent of nationally elected offices as of April 2016 and a mere 3 per cent of the senior-level positions in central government ministries and agencies as of early 2014, Moon reports. Yet in the last two national elections (2013 and 2014), women made up about 53 per cent of the voters.

It’s not that women aren’t choosing to pursue careers, sometimes at the expense of family, in ever increasing numbers. The low fertility rate in Japan is primary evidence of that. But they are not choosing political careers and their position in the upper hierarchies of the workplace has not improved significantly despite the rhetoric on womenomics. While there is now a broad acceptance that Japan’s economy needs women in the workforce, institutional models and social norms still need to catch up.

There are enormous barriers to women’s making it to the top in Japan in any career, and especially in politics. Childcare remains a sticky issue in a country in which social norms still dictate that women are the primary child carers. So does the ‘one -size-fits-all’ structure and entrenched culture of overtime and social networking in the Japanese workplace. Workplaces that accommodate the diverse needs of their female, and indeed their male, employers such as at Rakuten or Suntory, for example, are the refreshing rarity not yet the norm. This workplace culture is entrenched in the political world which is entered commonly only as a second career move. Academia and entertainment are perhaps the most likely apprenticeships to a political career given the weakness in institutional and cultural support for female participation in the workplace in other careers.

Quotas or targets for women in politics in Asia are rare, although South Korea, as Moon points out, does now have an electoral quota system which requires political parties to include at least 30 per cent of female candidates in their district nominations and 50 per cent of appointed proportional representatives. South Korea’s National Assembly election of April 2016 yielded 49 female members, or 17 per cent of available elected seats — a record high. In China, where the ideology has supported workplace and political participation, the record has become worse. Women form small minorities at all levels of the political system: 21 per cent of the Chinese Communist Party and 23 per cent of national civil service jobs.

As Moon concludes, ‘East Asia, with China at the centre, may be on the rise, [but] it still lags behind in terms of women’s rights and political representation’. And yet the forces for change are ever more powerful, in Japan, South Korea and perhaps soon in China, not because these countries have grown great and rich but because they have grown old and can no longer afford to throw away the untapped productive capacities of the female half of their working population to work through the demographic challenges they face.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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