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Monday, November 5, 2007

What women voters want

NST (4/11/2007): It is said that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, poles apart in almost all respects. This is true, it seems, even in politics.

Women apparently vote differently from men. They want different things and are generally influenced by separate issues.

Audit consultant Jasmine Li, 30, has been a registered voter since 2003. She exercised the right to cast her ballot for the first time in the 2004 general election, when she looked for a gender sensitive party and candidate.

To win her favour, political parties in the running should look out for the welfare of women.
"There are other things I look out for but I consider that the most crucial factor. My husband, of course, doesn't share this view. His main concern is corruption, transparency and honesty," says Li.

This is also the trend on a larger scale. An opinion poll conducted by the MCA recently showed that the voting pattern differed among men and women.

The poll, which was done in six constituencies, was to gather general data and not specifically focused on the voting pattern of the different sexes.

"However, when we analysed the data, the differences came out quite distinctively," says MCA's Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (INSAP) director Fui K. Soong.

According to the poll, where a woman's vote will go appears to be determined by income level. Those from a lower income group tend to vote for the Barisan Nasional.

"Women who earn more, above RM6,000 a month, are more critical," she points out. Conversely for men, income level does not determine how they vote.

Education level is surprisingly not a determining factor, adds Soong. A highly educated woman, it seems, tends to vote in the same way as one who is less so.

Considering the dearth of more comprehensive data, she says there is an urgent need to conduct a survey to find out what women want and what influences their vote.

"It is important for political parties to know this as women comprise the majority of registered voters," Soong stresses.

The number of women voting is between three and five per cent more than men. The ratio is usually 55:45, which was the case in the 2004 election.

Umno clearly recognises and acknowledges the power of women.

"In 1959, when Chinese voters isolated the Alliance and Pas brought political Islamic ideologies into Malayan politics, Umno set up Kaum Ibu (later Wanita Umno) to counter extremism," says Soong.

"In 1999, when Malays were split, Puteri Umno was set up to counterbalance the political power. So once again, the gender power base was exploited."

It is a misconception to think that many women do not vote, says Soong

"They are not apathetic. Politicians must consequently be more aware and sensitive to women's needs. Political parties must be careful when choosing candidates. They should not say things which are politically incorrect. Gender issues transcend political parties."

While women, like men, place importance on good delivery systems and the integrity of institutions, they also want a government that is sensitive to issues concerning the empowerment of women, opportunities, access to education and abuse.

There remains ample room for improvement in this regard. According to surveys by the Women's Development Collective in 2005 and 2006, members of parliament hardly address women's issues related to, among others, healthcare, legislation and working environment.

WDC executive director Maria Chin Abdullah says its report card tracks the sensitivity of MPs to gender issues through their statements made in the media and classifying them accordingly.

Soong also notes that women are especially concerned about public safety and issues related to children's welfare and education.

"Whenever we have a focus discussion, men talk about the economy while women inevitably raise issues on crime and safety.

"Women tend not to look at the race of the candidate or their parties," she notes.

"The bocor remark made in parliament recently is wrong irrespective of whether the MPs who made it were from the BN or not. If a male candidate is fielded, women voters want one who is gender sensitive."

DAP Member of Parliament Teresa Kok says that women look for different things when voting.

"Women without a strong affiliation to any political party usually vote according to the gender of the candidate," she says.

Most women parliamentarians are voted in by the women in their constituency, especially in urban areas. She observed this in her constituency, Seputeh.

"Women in urban areas are also more conscious of gender equality issues."

But in the rural areas, women are more partial to the BN, says Kok.

"In such places, it is almost a family tradition to support a particular party.

"Many women are not highly educated, and not too concerned about gender issues, so they are easily influenced by the men close to them, like their husbands, fathers and colleagues. They are not too bothered about politics, so they do whatever people tell them to."

Consequently, Kok predicts that sexist and politically incorrect MPs, such as those who made the bocor remark, may get re-elected if fielded in rural areas.

"I would not be surprised if such candidates are voted in by rural constituents who have not been sensitised by the media."

Besides being gender sensitive, what should political parties do if they want to have women voters on their side?

According to Soong, parties should strive to have a good proportion of capable woman members.

"Having more women is good for a party's image. Political parties should field more women in elections."

However, she admits that it can be a challenge to find women who can "play the game".

"Going through party grassroots politics is tough. A lot of time and effort is needed and not many women can take that."

Parties should also realise that branding is integral, she points out.

"Women voters have less knowledge of the newer parties, even Keadilan."

Soong says, however, that the voting pattern for women of different races could be dissimilar due to cultural differences.

Senator Datuk Saripah Aminah Syed Mohamed, however, does not think there is much difference in voting patterns of women from different ethnic groups.

The Penang Wanita Umno chief says high earning "corporate" women working in urban areas tend to be more cynical and critical.

"One of our concerns is that they will return to their kampung and attempt to influence their families."

This is especially so based on their recent door-to-door surveys, she reports. One concern raised by some 75 per cent of those polled, irrespective of gender, is rising prices.

"However, we have explained and are confident that those who traditionally vote for the BN in rural areas will continue to do so based on our track record," she says.

Senator G.K. Loga Chitra believes that Indian women voters are very much issues-driven. She dismisses the notion that they tend to be influenced by their husbands or male relatives.

Loga Chitra, who is Wanita MIC national treasurer, says Indian women are concerned about domestic and national issues.

"There is more empowerment now and they are very much capable of making independent decisions."


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