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Activist Zaitun Kasim declines nomination

Wed, Feb 20, 2008

PETALING JAYA: Independent candidate Zaitun Kasim has decided not to contest the March 8 general election due to health problems, just four days before nomination day.

Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI), the non-governmental organisation promoting women’s political participation, wanted to field her in the Petaling Jaya Selatan parliamentary constituency.

Her campaign manager, Maria Chin Abdullah, said WCI will not field another candidate as the decision came at the eleventh hour.

This effectively scuttles its plan for Toni (as Zaitun is popularly known) to showcase women’s needs on a national level, something WCI had been pushing since 1999.

Just before the 1999 polls, 90 NGOs drafted the “Women’s Agenda For Change”, listing 11 issues of concern to women, ranging from participatory democracy to health and sexuality.

They asked MPs to endorse the agenda and include it in their party manifestos.

All DAP MPs signed, Parti Rakyat Malaysia (which later merged with Keadilan) endorsed it and Gerakan put a commitment to women’s issues in its manifesto.

Within Umno, only then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and a Terengganu MP signed. Other Barisan Nasional component parties, including the women MPs, didn’t. Neither did Pas.

Meanwhile, Toni ran as an independent candidate under the DAP banner in Selayang that year, winning 43 per cent of votes and slashing the margin for BN’s Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy from 38,627 to 8,835.

She decided to contest as other parties were not fully advocating women’s interests, she said in an interview before her withdrawal.

“Who better to take it up than women themselves? And why should we allow others to make decisions that concern our lives anyway?”

The women’s NGOs stayed out of the 2004 polls but in 2005, the now defunct Women’s Development Collective, in which Maria was the executive director, began compiling an annual “report card” on MPs and state representatives, tracking their public responses on promoting and implementing four of the original issues on the Women’s Agenda for Change.

Year after year, the same issues resurfaced, which Maria said was a reflection of women’s needs being ignored.

Women voters outnumber men, at a ratio of about 55:45. But such is not the case in parliament and the state assemblies, although the number of elected women representatives is increasing.

The number of women MPs rose from 19 after the 1999 elections to 21 in the last parliament, while the number of women in state assemblies more than doubled, from 15 after the 1999 polls to 40 now.

But women’s participation in parliament is still only 9.6 per cent. WCI argues that 30 per cent is the critical mass needed to influence decision-making.

Umno Wanita deputy chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil has asked that 20 per cent of the candidates fielded next month be women.

Insufficient number of representatives voicing women’s issues was the reason WCI decided to field Toni again this year.

And although she has pulled out of the race, the NGO plans to focus on a voter education campaign instead, “inspiring people that change is indeed possible”.