HONG KONG: In the 21st century world the number of national leaders who are women remains extremely small, but with four female presidents and prime ministers currently in office Asia appears to be doing more than most regions for gender equality.
This picture of political power, however, is misleading since it does not so much reflect increasing female empowerment and grass roots representation as it does the region's enthrallment with dynastic politics, analysts and activists say.
While strides have been made in female political involvement since the first International Women's Day 30 years ago, the lesser-represented sex remains heavily in the minority in parliaments across Asia, recent figures show.
Asia has four women leaders: Prime Minister Helen Clark in New Zealand; President Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines; President Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka and; Prime Minister Khalida Zia in Bangladesh.
Until last October Megawati Sukarnoputri was Indonesian president, while India last year elected Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party into power, though she declined the premiership.
Pakistan too has had a female prime minister in the not too distant past, while in the cases of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and New Zealand the current leaders are not the first women to head their nation.
Yet in all but the case of New Zealand the women concerned have been the widows or daughters of former rulers and founding fathers, some of whose families have maintained a grip on power off and on over several decades.
"There is strong legacy of family politics in South Asia, where family background takes precedence over gender," says Pakistani women's rights activist Kamila Hayat. "But this leadership by women does not translate into empowerment of women in their countries, where levels of female education and social, political and economic development remain low."
In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was prime minister from 1988-1990 and again from 1993-1996 before she was forced out of power on corruption charges and left the country to live in self-imposed exile.
Hayat points to similar situations throughout South Asia, with Italian-born Sonia Gandhi hailing from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty in India, and Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga being the daughter of an assassinated prime minister.
In Bangladesh voters have had a woman prime minister since 1991, with two major rivals twice swapping the post: Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of the country's founder Mujibur Rehman, and incumbent Khalida Zia, the wife of slain president Zia ur Rehman.
"That both the ruling and main opposition parties are led by women is the exception, not the rule," says barrister Khusi Kabir, a leading women's rights campaigner in Bangladesh.
"More than three decades after independence, the number of women MPs is very low in Bangladesh because the political parties don't have the commitment to promote women."
Parliament last November passed a bill to reserve 45 seats for women, although this has yet to be implemented and it has been criticised for allowing parties to select the appointees rather than them being elected.
Philippines President Arroyo is the daughter of former president Diosdado Macapagal, while the country's first female president Corazon Aquino, who swept into office on the strength of People Power in 1986, was the wife of an assassinated opposition figure.
Political analyst Sheila Coronel said, "the country is ruled by political elites ... marriages are a form of clan alliance that expand the influence of the families and allow them to consolidate their resources.
"When compared to party loyalties that shift with each change in political season, marriages are long-term, if not permanent, coalitions. Philippine law, after all, does not allow divorce."
Women who occupy seats in the congress are for the most part, at around 60 per cent from political families, although with almost one-sixth of MPs women - compared with five per cent 40 years ago - the country has better representation than many Asian countries.
Across Asia, no parliament has more than a third of its legislators as women, according to a survey released on Thursday by the International Parliamentary Union (IPU).
The region lags behind Europe and the Americas and hovers just below the world average of 15.7 per cent representation at the beginning of 2005, the survey found.
New Zealand fares best in the region with almost 30 per cent of parliamentary seats occupied by women. It also has a female Governor-General and top judge.
Despite long histories of women leaders, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka rank worst in the region for female MPs, with 2.0 per cent and 4.9 per cent respectively, according to the IPU survey, while India does not fare much better with 8.3 per cent.
"There was a time from 1985 to 1990, when the presence of women in parliament and legislatures was high and that was because then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi gave more tickets to women to contest polls. But in the 1990s, that trend declined," said Girija Vyas, who heads India's national commission for women. But things might soon change for the better, she added, saying the government had promised to present a bill reserving one third of the seats in parliament and state legislatures for women.-AFP