When Suzanne Wu was elected to Yau Tsim Mong district council last year amid a landslide victory by democrats, she hoped to make gender perspectives in policymaking a mainstream issue.
Even within the pro-democracy camp, the gender equality advocate said, some colleagues are oblivious of gender-based needs.
The district council elections on November 24 last year, which ended with pro-democracy politicians taking 388 out 452 contested seats, coincided with the police siege at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong that lasted for nearly two weeks. The day after the elections, dozens of newly-elected councillors arrived outside to try to secure the rescue of students and protesters trapped inside the campus.
After negotiations with police, five of them were allowed in but Wu immediately realised they were all men.
There should be a female presence, she thought. “There was a mix of male and female protesters in the besieged campus. Their situations may require a variety of emotional support. Would it be possible to let a female councillor in?” Wu questioned.
“No one was confronting the matter at that moment,” she said.
A female Tsuen Wan District Councillor Chan Kim-kam, who is also a social worker, eventually joined the group entering the campus.
In a district council largely comprised of democrats, deliberate attacks on women or disparagement of their efforts is rare, she said. However, a certain kind of gender-based obliviousness still exists.
“Someone should point that out. Of course it requires enough experience and knowledge to discuss with them. To change normalised behaviour and mentality is a challenge,” she said.
Strategic thinking during relevant discussions is necessary to maintain a harmonious atmosphere in the pro-democracy camp, which already faces many hurdles from the government.
The Home Affairs Department, which coordinates and assists district councils with their operations, has been criticised as uncooperative.
Walkouts by government officials from council meetings have become increasingly common, after the department ruled that councillors were bringing up topics unrelated to their role and function.
Discussions of the national security law, the “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” artificial island project, the Tiananmen Massacre and issues related to police misconduct have thus been impossible.
The question remains as to whether gender-related proposals, which are less politically controversial but which compete for limited council resources, will be sacrificed. It is particularly the case when many councillors see their main duty as resisting the government’s clampdown on the pro-democracy movement.
“Gender issues get less limelight than political issues,” said Wu. “It doesn’t mean they will object to them, though.”
Wu said her own efforts in the past year had been hindered by bureaucratic procedures.
She proposed gender budgeting, meaning that part of the council’s budget will be earmarked for activities to promote gender equality.
For many years, district councils have been seen as merely a welfare organisation. Organising Cantonese opera classes, short trips and dining experiences for women are considered to be “women’s welfare.”
“Organising an activity that targets women does not mean the activity itself advocates gender equality,” Wu said.
In August, she proposed reviewing existing funding guidelines by assessing gender equality projects under another set of rules that would raise the budget limit and allow more flexibility.
The Home Affairs Department objected, saying there are no rules which would allow councillors to raise these items.
A work group on women’s affairs has long been funded by the council but the department refused to exercise flexibility within the system.
Another more progressively bottom-up scheme is to launch gender-responsive and participatory budgeting, in which members of the public and women in particular are consulted about how the council’s budget should be spent.
“Women have limited room to speak within the bureaucracy. Participatory budgeting offers space for them,” Wu said.
The participatory plan, which aims to engage the entire community to share their lived experience when allocating resources, was delayed due to the pandemic.
Wu said that unlike local councillors in the UK who can make substantial decisions, Hong Kong’s district councils are merely advisory bodies to the government.
She wants a bottom-up approach which takes into account everyone’s needs and incorporates gender-friendly elements when designing a community.
Infrastructure-wise, the councils have a budget for minor works within the community. “Can we build something more practical than flower pots?” she asked.
Before building facilities that serve the elderly or children, the government should consult these groups, she said. Unfortunately, it appeared to think it was enough to invite Social Welfare Department representatives.
As an example of what can be done, earlier this year the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women invited a group of women to survey roads within their community and point out the spots where they feel unsafe or are prone to sneak camera shots. The NGO plans to summarise the opinions and recommend improvements.
To Wu, this form of participation offers an entry point despite hurdles set by the government.
When it comes to building a new facility such as a lactation room at a community centre which may mean the loss of space for other users, communication with all stakeholders matters.
“It may be hard to take a step forward. But at least we shouldn’t step back.”