Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

LegCo and Village Elections Unfair to Women

Hong Kong is by no means a fully democratic society at present. The current system for choosing representatives within government is particularly disadvantageous to women. The system within Hong Kong itself gives undue influence to prominent leaders of male-dominated professions and the business community. This unfairness is illustrated by both the electoral system itself and the village representative elections.

The current Legislative Council "elected" in 1998 consists of 60 members, of whom 20 are directly elected from 5 geographical constituencies (GCs), 30 are elected from so-called functional constituencies (FCs) representing particular interest groups, and 10 are "elected" by and 800 member Election Committee (EC) which is elected by interest groups.

There are slightly more male than female electors in the geographical constituencies, reflecting the slightly higher number of male than female proportion in our population. GCs elected 16 males and 4 females, indicating that socio-economic and other constraints have put women in a less advantageous position that men in public life in Hong Kong, even in an election on a one-person-one-vote basis. The Election Committee itself is very male dominated with 709 male electors and only 9 female electors. 8 males and 2 females were returned by the EC. In respect of the FCs, as can be seen from the following chart, out of the 28 functional constituencies, 25 were dominated by men. Only 3 women were elected as compared to 27 men. This shows how imbalanced this system is.

FCs are specifically designed to enable lawyers to elect a lawyer, banks to elect a banker, and corporations to elect a businessman, etc. They give the business and professional sectors greater influence. In addition to their votes in the GCs, those privileged few are also eligible to vote in the FCs to fill seats reserved for them. These functional constituencies permit corporate voting, and allow a single person in the FC to control the equivalent of 15,490 votes in the GCs(see our last issue). Household chores are considered of insufficient importance to warrant a functional constituency for people doing them. And so home-makers are not allowed to participate in the Election Committee election. People doing such chores therefore have fewer votes and are less represented in the Legislative Council. As they are predominantly women, the current electoral system systematically works against them.

The political rights of women are further limited by the fact that there are less women in important business or professional positions due to various socio-economic constraints. Women are less likely to be eligible to vote in the FCs, especially in those adopting corporate voting where the electors are corporate bodies which appoint their representatives to vote for them. Such representatives are most likely be men. Women also suffer similar disadvantages in the Election Committee. They therefore have less say in policy decision making and their interests and views are less represented in the legislative process. This unjust constitutional framework not only works against women's rights, it also threatens the protection of human rights and the rule of law generally.

Gender discrimination is very much part of the culture and practice of many indigenous villages in the New Territories. The subordination of women in the political life of these villages is a common practice. Many villages still refuse to allow women to vote in village elections. In other villages, women have reported that they feel intimidated by the male-dominated establishment in the villages, which in turn prevents them from fully participating.

The Heung Yee Kuk which is subject to legal regulation by the Heung Yee Kuk Ordinance, is the official organization set up originally by the colonial government to represent rural villagers. Discrimination in the election of the Council of the Heung Yee Kuk is probably reflecting the slightly more male than female proportion in our population prohibited by the Sex Discrimination Ordinance. However, at lower levels, the selection of family heads of household, of village representatives and of Rural Committee Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen is not governed by statute, and has mostly been left unscrutinized for gender discrimination.

Discrimination can occur at the level of the family where a male member will usually act as the head of the household, a status which has legal significance both for land ownership and for rights to participate in village affairs. It can also occur in the process of choosing a Village Representative from amongst the heads of households, in those villages which only allow household heads to vote. It is for example conceivable that a woman could stand as the head of a household (where there are no adult males in the family) but she could still be discriminated against when it comes to the election of a village representative among a male dominated village electorate. All Village Representatives should be required to be elected not on a household basis but on an individual basis so that all villagers above a certain age are allowed to vote.

A clause should be added to Section 7 of the Heung Yee Kuk Ordinance which sets out that the Returning Officer is in charge of the elections, and may declare each person elected to be validly or invalidly elected. The Returning Officer’s duty should be required to ensure that discrimination against women is prevented at all stages of the selection and election process. Section 8 provides that a Returning Officer may require that a fresh election take place within 6 months of a vacancy occuring or an election being declared invalid. It should be amended to include another ground for a fresh election where an incident of discrimination has tainted the selection or election process.

These amendments attempt to ensure that the process of acquiring membership of the Heung Yee Kuk is free from any discriminatory practices. The original intention of the legislation was to give the Returning Officer a supervisory role only with respect to elections. The amendments expand the role and obligation of the officer to include monitoring of the election processes. The non-discrimination qualification clause should be phrased broadly enough to apply to discriminatory practices at the Rural Committee and Village Representation to check all such practices at these levels.

The government in its report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women cites the Bill of Rights Ordinance (BORO) as giving permanent residents an equal right to vote without any distinction of sex.

However, Section 7(1) of this ordinance in fact says that the BORO binds only the government and all public authorities and any person acting on behalf of the Government or a public authority. The Heung Yee Kuk will probably fall into the BORO's scope of application. However, it is unclear whether the BORO could also be applied to the Rural Committee and Village Representatives. Rural Committees and Village Representatives are arguably public authorities discharging important public functions in the rural areas. But uncertainty remains since this interpretation of the BORO has not been put to the test in a court of law. There are many discriminatory practices which take place at the level of the family household and the village. The determination of a head of household who will eventually go on to become a Village Representative and other discriminatory practices may be free from attack by the BORO, unless the law is amended to place the issue beyond doubt. The political participation of women should be facilitated and improved. There should also be an abolition and replacement of the present unfair electoral system with genuine universal and equal suffrage based on a one-person-one-vote system. Village elections should also follow this model. It is only in this way that women can hope to participate more in political life.

1999 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor