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6 Jul, 2001

First Asia-Pacific Summit of Women Mayors Focusses on Leadership

Cities are the front-lines of global travel & tourism. A comparative analysis of cities in 13 Asia-Pacific countries claims that women can govern them better than men. Agree or disagree, excerpts of the study will certainly make you think.

What do the cities of Jaipur and Aligarh in India, San Fernando and Olangapo in the Philippines, and Kebunen in Indonesia, have in common? They are all run by women mayors. These mayors and about 200 of their counterparts met in the central Thai town of Phitsanulok, itself run by a woman, for the first Asia-Pacific Summit of Women Mayors and Councillors between 19 to 22 June 2001.

At the heart of the summit was a research paper entitled, “Women in local Government in Asia and the Pacific: A Comparative Analysis of 13 Countries.” Prepared for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific, the research set the tone and the theme for the conference discussions which focussed primarily on ways to help women gain a higher profile in local governments.

Funding by New Zealand’s Official Development Assistance programme and UNIFEM, the comparative analysis was compiled by Jean Drage, School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. It was collated from 13 country reports submitted by the following countries:

• South Asia: Sri-Lanka, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh

• South East Asia: Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines

• East Asia and the Pacific: China, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Highlights are excerpted in this dispatch. It makes interesting, and indeed inspiring reading. Men and perhaps some women may think that it paints a somewhat too rosy picture of the female character. We have all come across women as Machiavellian as men. Nevertheless, the report has great relevance to travel & tourism, an industry that is one of the best employers of women and certainly one of the best suited for women to climb rapidly up the professional ladder.

If any of my readers would like to get a full copy of the report, kindly email me at <imtiaz@travel-impact-newswire.com> and I will be happy to dispatch it as an attachment, but not until the first week of August.


Women are under-represented in local government in the Asia-Pacific. Statistics show the percentage of women in local government seats range from a high of 33 percent to a low of 2 percent. There are even fewer women in management positions in local government.

Women in South Asia and the East Asia and Pacific sub-regions have had more electoral success overall than those in South-East Asia. In South Asia this success is directly related to a quota of reserved seats being allocated for women, a measure that, when introduced, instantly changed the level of women’s involvement. In East Asia and the Pacific the numbers reflect the length of time women have been able to vote and stand for election; the overall level of development in most of these countr i es and the social and economic circumstances within which women live, and the long campaigns for changes to increase the numbers.

Women have had more success at gaining access to decision-making positions in local government than to those at central government level. Research has shown that this is due mainly to:

• local government being easier for women to fit into their lives along with family responsibilities and employment;

• local government being more accessible as there are more positions available and less competition for places than in central legislatures;

• reserved seats for women on local authorities (in some countries);

• more acceptance of women in city and community government as it is seen as an extension of women’s involvement in their communities.


These include:

(a) Fundamental Inequality

While women have constitutional rights they are not seen as equal, their roles are closely tied to their reproductive and household activities, and politics and community affairs are seen as unsuitable for them. In many countries women are constrained by obstacles such as culture and tradition (the view that men are superior to women), religion, political turmoil, violence, money, workloads and lack of opportunities. Demographic statistics, particularly in the South Asia sub-region, show low l i teracy rates, poor health rates and poverty, all of which point to a lack of basic rights to such things as education, health care, safety and employment opportunities.

(b) Political and Economic Instability

Political and economic instability affects the development of a political culture with democratic norms. Socio-economic norms and religious interpretations are frequently used for challenging and reinterpreting women’s rights and creating insecurity for women. And while women have equal political rights to participate, in reality they can be actively discouraged to do so. Highly patriarchal societies enforce rules, responsibilities and behaviour for women, enforcing these norms in ways that af f ect their self-confidence, limiting their access to information and skills and reinforcing their lower status.

(c) Discrimination

Women face discrimination when standing for office and when elected or appointed to local government positions. Attitudes that put politics and decision-making into the male preserve see women as incapable of management and governance roles

(d) The Male Environment within Political Institutions

While there are few women on decision-making bodies the styles and modes of working are those that are acceptable to men. This can limit the extent to which women can raise women’s issues and issues of social justice. Some also find they are judged harshly by society and by their colleagues.

(e) Costs

Campaign expenses are prohibitive for women, particularly while they continue to earn less than men in the labour market. Once elected the rate of remuneration can be insufficient for what is, in some countries, almost a full time job. The lack of childcare and the timing of meetings can also be a barrier.


It has become clear that while a small number of women have attained the highest political positions in their countries, a critical mass of women is still to be elected and there is no place in which women hold the same number of seats as men. Nevertheless it is also clear that many of the women who have succeeded have transformed the way in which politics is practised and they have changed the political agenda to include issues that improve women’s lives.

Consequently some recent initiatives that have focused on increasing the opportunities for women’s political participation have worked from the basis that more women in government will mean better futures for other women and their children and for future generations. Such an approach also comes from the perspective that women with political power have a responsibility to work in a transformative way to ensure that their involvement makes a difference in terms of outcomes for women.

One example of this in the Asia Pacific region is that developed by the Centre for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics whose vision of transformative politics is based on a new political paradigm: a politics that is both transformed and transformational. Within this framework politics are transformed to ensure that power is used to create change and develop people and communities; it is non-hierarchical and participatory; and it gives priority to disadvantaged sectors. Politics are seen as transfor m ational when they work for economic, social and political equality for women within a humane and sustainable society.

Questions about transformative leadership were included in the questionnaires that were used to collect information from women in local government for the individual country reports on which this comparative analysis is based. The criteria for selecting women to participate in this survey were based on the factors that contribute to good governance and the transformative role of women in local government. These factors were:

• Responsiveness and accountability to the local community

• Across the board ethics-based government

• Inclusive and consensus building policies – “power with rather than power over”

• Sustainability in terms of institutions and programmes as well as the environment

• Gender equity

• Age and experience in local government.

In reality, selection was also based on the practical circumstances of these women’s lives as with their very high workloads and the realities of juggling many roles it was difficult for many to have the time to participate in answering the questionnaire.

The intention was to highlight the impact of women’s involvement on local government and the impact that more women might have. Women participants were asked whether they felt they had different concerns and priorities to men; whether increasing the number of women in local government would make a difference and what they had done during the time they had been in local government.

It is clear from the responses to these questionnaires that women believe that they do have an impact on local government and that they do practise transformative leadership. However, while the basic right to participate is continually undermined by the political system and through the barriers imposed by tradition and culture, some women are still dealing with the first hurdle of just getting into local government. This sometimes means they have to be start with a more conservative approach a n d work within party lines than have different agendas to promote. The exciting thing is that even in these repressive systems, women are making a difference even if only initially in small ways. A summary of much of the material in the questionnaire responses follows.


Research has found that women in local government believe they make a difference as women leaders; they bring a different style to local government; and they consciously approach the job in a different way. Many also believe that increasing the number of women in local government will “accelerate the pace of change, promote collaborative styles of leadership and decision-making, broaden perspectives and move communities forward.”

Evidence of this difference in countries in the Asia-Pacific region shows that women:

• Have a greater sense of the social issues and the well being and welfare of their communities and factor these into the decision-making process

• Promote policies and activities which strengthen communities

• Encourage participation

• Emphasise the importance and the practice of good communication with the community

• Have a different approach to the way their local authority is governed

• Develop a team approach

• Set different priorities

• Bring the mediation skills that they have developed as mothers, the ability to have clear goals, to juggle many tasks at once, and to be practical.

• Are dedicated, responsible, practice what they preach and show a great deal of spirit

• Stimulate and encourage other women to be part of development


Women’s concerns and priorities are more likely than are those of men to centre around people’s needs for safety and clean water supplies and for community facilities rather than just the traditional roads, rates and rubbish. Women also have a strong focus on women’s issues and a human rights flavour in their goals for local government, suggesting that changes in local politics will lead to changes in society, less discrimination against women and greater flexibility in work and childcare. By b ringing a grassroots perspective to local government, women make it more people-orientated and closer to the community it serves. Some survey respondents suggested that:

• There are differences in the interests of female and male councillors in that women’s interests focused on environmental issues, childcare, education and caring while men are more interested in construction, maintenance and planning for water supplies, sewerage, roads and urban development.

• Women are more concerned about the social implications of policies and give priority to issues which impact on people’s lives such as employment, care of elderly, poverty elimination, the rights of women and children, education, health care and sanitation, family planning, quality of life and social support. They also tended to work out the details and aim to achieve consensus on specific policies and programmes rather than to politicise issues.

• When dealing with the needs and priorities of women in planning city development, local government women not only take into account the physical considerations but they also consider harmony in art and culture, the quality of life, a healthy city, and environmental development. And in their involvement with their communities, it is suggested that women actually contribute more at all levels of politics than men.

• Women ensure a more democratic and transparent form of governance by standing on a unified platform with other women to pressure municipal government to present information such as the budget in detail.

• Women give importance to issues that men find trivial, such as family and marriage disputes and dowry problems. They also feel they work from their heart as their own experiences help them understand the causes and nature of gender discrimination.

• There is also a belief that women’s work in the home and with their children has made them more concerned than men are about aspects of health, cleanliness, water, sanitation, housing conditions and the environment.


The women suggest that they take a democratic approach to governance and management within their councils and with their communities, encouraging participation in decision-making. Their styles were described as being:

• More inclusive, collaborative and consultative

• The style of some woman mayors was described as involving everyone, consulting and sharing power. Women also broaden the governance outlook and outcomes and they expect discipline from councillors. Women use more democratic forms of decision-making, preferring to consider, debate and discuss with their colleagues rather than resort to orders.

• More tolerant of different points of view. Women work around the problem and look at it more fully rather than taking a confrontational approach to it. They don’t always have fixed views and prefer win-win solutions.

• More caring, people orientated and respectful. They facilitate opportunities for community representatives to make submissions to the council.

• Change focused, in particular wanting to clean up the dirty image of politics. This approach is based on honesty and an effort to create a corruption free society.

• More open, informative and professional. Some women issue regular newsletters to report on their activities and the major issues being dealt with in their local authority.

• More innovative and conscientious. Some women have made bold and pioneering strides. They are practical and will stick with issues and projects throughout and they can put themselves in the place of others. They also take effective decisions and demonstrate self-confidence.

• More persistent, persuasive, committed and unafraid of challenging the structures.


Successful and competent women act as role models and earn respect not only for themselves but also for women in general. Many women believe that being a role model helps demonstrate that women can participate effectively in local government. This in itself opens doors for more women.

The range of issues considered by councils has also extended, council processes have changed because of different styles of women and community perceptions of the council have changed as a result of increased openness, accountability, breaking down the ‘red tape’ and a preparedness to listen.

Some examples from the survey material suggest that:

• Women are particularly well-suited to coping with change itself and the diversity of issues that local government is now required to consider as their approach is distinctly different to that of many of their male colleagues. They have a strong sense of wanting to demonstrate a different way of ‘doing’ politics and not simply operating in the same way as many male politicians. These qualities, if possessed by significant numbers of people, have the capacity to transform the local government e nvironment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that male councillors and appointed staff have observed and learnt from the examples that have been set by women colleagues.

• The increasing numbers of women in local government has had a positive impact on the improvement of women’s position in society as it creates an increased understanding of conditions for women and children and leads to policies, projects and funding for development and to promotion of other women to decision-making positions.

• Once women reach decision-making positions in urban local governments, more concern is shown for the improvement of living and working conditions of women. Women’s activities become favourable and are included in the allocation of budgetary funds to women’s work.

• Women in large numbers have come out against atrocities on women, in defence of their traditional control over crucial resources such as water, forests and land, mass literacy drives, human rights and other issues. They are also coming out against ecological degradation, price rises and protests against repression.

• In supporting women’s groups and being part of their programmes on health, cleanliness, environment, security and family issues, more women have become conscious of their own worth and ability.

• The environment in which local government operates has changed. It is more people friendly, more transparent and less corrupt. It has also changed in relation to the poor and women. Issues like familial disputes, dowry issues, domestic violence, mother-child healthcare, education opportunities, women’s cooperatives, income earning and credit programmes and emergency funds and relief in times of disaster have received special attention.


When asked what they had done to improve their local authorities women in the Asia and Pacific region had long lists. Some examples of programmes initiated, continued or supported include:

• Women’s centres, youth centres, arts centres, community owned child care centres, playground projects, petitions to oppose development that would impact negatively on the district, safety councils, trusts to deal with unemployment, urban and community projects, campaigns to improve local hospital and health services, environment projects, pensioner housing, landscape projects, swimming pools, independent economic development projects, EEO projects, urban and community renewal programmes, a r e creation review. Different processes were also initiated by some women in order to improve consultation, participation, planning, decision making, working as a team with council and develop a culture of cooperation and collaboration, changing the language and using more user friendly approaches

• Changes to council policies, land-use planning instruments and new and improved infrastructure, facilities and service. Specific projects relate to community services and facilities such as art galleries, parks, aquatic and sports centres, childcare and community centres. And apart from projects that involve their councils directly, women have had a significant influence on more broadly based initiatives through their work with community and business organisations or through their contacts a n d influence on state and federal committees and with state and federal politicians. Some of these projects are main street programmes, revitalisation of central business districts, obtaining a sexual assault counsellor for the town, community festivals, business enterprise centres, projects to build relationships with indigenous and non-indigenous communities, crime prevention, community safety and health programmes for older people.

• Gender equity policies have been implemented which provide for training and promotion of women employees and improve their working conditions, increase the number of women on advisory committees, consciousness raising and gender mainstreaming policies.

• Local programmes and projects for the improvement of the urban environment, farm economy, garden, field and fruit tree development and programmes to mobilise people in the construction of infrastructure, roads, electricity and safe water supply.

• The pace of civic construction has accelerated in order to provide basic and much needed facilities, water supplies, housing and controlling pollution. Cultural, educational and public health management projects have included a nine-year compulsory education plan, welfare facilities, rest homes, libraries and centres for women’s activities. Urban economic programmes have targeted outside investment for local projects which build community infrastructure and activities.

• Increased development to districts has occurred through completion of projects on time and these improvements have not gone unnoticed. This has helped to secure more federal and state funding for the district, created the capacity to do more and developed community pride as the district as won awards for this transformation.

• Developed proposals for programmes on energy and environmental concerns for women with the result that a recycled paper project has been set up to solve waste problems and increase the income in the community.

• The provision of clean water, waste management, city cleanliness has improved, street lighting provided, slum development, food packages for workers, programmes that address the needs of poor children, such as noon meal centres.

• Projects which improve the municipality and assist its residents, such as programmes for education and basic needs for internally displaced and a housing and resettlement programme. This has also included successfully fighting for a significant percentage of the city budget.

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