Women in Government Internationally

Women in Government

Why are most countries having men leaders only and not ladies?

Zulea, 17, f, Kenya


I’d like to be the first Kenyan leader who completely eradicated corruption and poverty. Lylac, 16, f, Kenya


The lack of equal representation of women in governments is not due to lack of female ambition or ability, but “arises from men choosing men,” explains Margot Wallström, former chair of the Council of Women World Leaders.[i] She suggests that women need to support each other and publicize gender discrimination perpetrated with “master suppression techniques.” She explains, “I have lost count of how many times I have experienced or witnessed men ridicule or ignore women at meetings or in public, and exclude them for the decision-making process.” Thirdly, she says laws are needed to stop discrimination—such as quotas for female candidates–and enable a better work-life balance.

Some countries had early women’s movements as part of their nationalist struggles against colonial rule, as in Turkey, Egypt and India. Feminism spread around the globe in the 1970s spurred on by the UN’s International Year of the Woman in 1975. The UN organized conferences on women in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).[ii] I attended the Copenhagen conference and was surprised that most of the official delegates were men. My son and his dad made the local TV news, showing a father caring for his baby. The 15-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action occurred in 2010. Motivated by UN leadership, governments set up ministries for women’s issues in the 70s. Universities set up Affirmative Action programs and Women’s Studies programs in the 1970s—I was the first coordinator at my university.

The UN adopted CEDAW in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Only eight nations haven’t signed on. The US is the only developed nation that hasn’t signed as conservatives oppose following UN regulations. It deals with poverty, violence, AIDS, access to representation in government, etc.[iii] “The CEDAW Convention is at the core of our global mission of peace, development and human rights,” observed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. We can pressure our politicians to sign on or enforce CEDAW.

The African Union provides a model policy on how to “function in accordance with the promotion of gender equality.”[iv] However, it’s 2009 policy reports: “70% of member states currently have gender policies and yet few of them have been implemented. . . . A few of them have established Gender Management Systems (GMS),” which it would like to see adopted in all member states.

Public-private programs assist women to advance in the workplace; Mexico’s federal program, Generosidad, awards the Gender Equity Seal to private employers who do an excellent job of gender equity. It inspired similar programs in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Egypt. The European Women’s Lobby wages a campaign for “50/50 for Democracy,” which began in 2008.

The countries that have the best equality programs are in Scandinavia, with Iceland at the top, followed by Norway and Finland (according to the Global Gender Gap Index created by the World Economic Forum in Geneva).[v] The US was in 17th place in 2011.  The most egalitarian country in Africa was Lesotho. Norway is at the top of an index of best countries for mothers, with the US much lower at 31 out of 44 developed nations, partly due to its least extensive maternity leave.[vi] In Sweden both men and women are entitled to 480 days of parental leave for childcare and elder care. A Feminist Initiative political party was formed in 2005.[vii] Although Sweden is a leader in equality, oppression of women exists if there’s any truth to the disturbingly violent 2009 films Millennium Trilogy based on novels. They reveal the ugly underbelly of corruption, prostitution, and violence against women displayed in the life of the tough punk main character, Lisbeth Slander.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union reports that women’s presence in parliaments (only 19% globally) and in ministerial positions significantly increases investments in social welfare and legal protection, as well as honesty in government and business.[viii] Scandinavians have the most equal representation of women in parliament with women at 42%.

In India in 1993, the government changed the constitution to require that one third of village panchayats chiefs be women. A reporter comments, “In rural India, which is by any measure more patriarchal and conservative than urban India, the promotion of women to public positions of power constitutes nothing short of a revolution.”[ix]. In villages run by women, more water pumps or taps were installed and were better maintained.[x] Although fewer than 11% of members of the country’s parliament are women, a proposal in 2010 to extend the one-third reservation for women in parliament caused uproar. It was passed by the upper house, but not the lower house.[xi] Despite this activity, an Indian activist told me in 2010, “India never had a feminist movement! I think that is the problem with the ‘women’s movement’ in India. It does not have a feminist foundation.”[xii]

What about on the local tribal level of leadership? I asked a Nigerian chief, James Iowarri, if women can be chiefs. “Yes, in some communities, women can also be made Chiefs, while in some, only men can be made Chiefs, while their wives are made Lolo or Olori. In IgboLand–my tribe, an accomplished woman of integrity, dedication and of note, can be made a Chief. Such women are rare but they exist.” In Bali, Indonesia, only men head the important communal groups called banjars.

The first country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand, in 1893.[xiii] Since then women have headed countries including: Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka (the first country to have a woman prime minister), Bangladesh, Liberia, Haiti, Philippines, Ireland, United Kingdom, Israel, Norway, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, Jamaica and Denmark. In 2011, 20 women were presidents or prime ministers.[xiv] Sonia Gandhi (Italian by birth) is the head of the ruling Congress Party in India.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 1938) became the first African woman president in 2006. She said voters told her during the campaign, “Men have failed us. Men are too violent, too prone to make war. Women are less corrupt, less likely to be focused on getting fancy cars and fancy homes for themselves.” Her campaign relied on women going village-to-village, door-to-door campaigning. She appointed women as Ministers of Youth and Sports, Gender and Development, Commerce, Foreign Affairs, and Finance. She believes that being mothers gives women leaders “a sensitivity to humankind” that will make the world a better and safer place.[xv]

She explains in her book This Child Will Be Great that African women are honored as mothers and aunts, but are not considered equal to men. Her husband felt free to hit her. She was reluctant to divorce him though because fathers get custody of children, but finally did get a divorce and he did take her four boys. She went on to be educated in the US to be an economist and served in Liberian government agencies, the UN and the World Bank

She was jailed and threatened when young rebels brought civil war to her country. Samuel Doe was only 28 when he and his fellow soldiers forcefully took control of Liberia in 1989, followed by civil war between battling warlords until 2002. They relied on child soldiers, killed a quarter of a million of the 3 million Liberians and uprooted most who survived. When soldiers kidnapped and threatened to kill her, she calmed them down by saying, “Think about your mother. How would you feel is someone did this to her?” Democratic elections were finally held in 2005 with Johnson Sirleaf’s victory at the polls. When she asked children what they wanted, they said to go to school. Her first year as president, school fees were abolished in public primary schools and reduced in high schools, creating a 40% increase in school enrollment. Parents can be fined if children were working on the streets during school hours.

In 2010, she reported on her accomplishments:[xvi]


Women hold strategic positions in the Cabinet and in other government bodies. I have established a market development fund supported by private donations to empower rural women through better working conditions and literacy training. A second fund, also from private donations, provides funding for the building of 50 schools, training of 500 teachers and scholarships for 5,000 girls throughout the country; girls and women have voices in claiming participation in societal endeavors.


She was reelected in 2011 winning over 90% of the vote, soon after being    awarded a Nobel peace prize along with two other African women activists. One of them is Laymeh Gbowee, co-founder of the Women’s Peace Network in Liberia which helped to end a decade of civil war.[xvii]

Over 97 countries use gender quota systems resulting in women being nearly 33% of their legislatures, compared to 12% in countries without quotas, according to UN data. However, if women end up at the bottom of the lists for national elections, they have no chance of being elected. Sweden has a quota system and women held 47% of its parliamentary seats in 2007.[xviii] Argentina passed a law in 1991 requiring that 1 in 3 candidates nominated for election to the legislature must be women. In France, a 1998 law required political parties to nominate an equal number of male and female candidates for elections, but parties often pay fines rather than comply. In Iraq, 25% of the seats in parliament are reserved for women, but they don’t have much power, and the Minister for Women’s Affairs, Nawal al-Samarraie, quit when the government cut her budget to $1,500 a month for the entire ministry.

By 2010, only 19% of parliament representatives were women, up from 11% in 1995.[xix] At the current rate of progress, it will take 40 years to reach gender parity in the world’s national legislatures.[xx] The highest numbers of women legislators were in Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa. Nine chambers lack any women at all, as in Saudi Arabia. Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament because genocide killed so many people. The highest percent of women in lower or single legislatures were in these countries, 2007:

1. Rwanda – 48%

2. Sweden – 47%

3. Finland – 42%

4. Costa Rica – 39%

5. Norway – 38%

Although only 25% of EU national parliaments and senior ministers are female, Spain requires that women make up 50% of its cabinet and 50% of all company boards (quotas for women corporate board members are also required in Norway). Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Zapatero appointed an equal number of women and men to his Cabinet, including 31-year-old Bibiana Aído, head of a new Ministry for Equality. However, she was removed after three years due to budget cuts. Zapatero explained,


I’m not just antimachismo, I’m a feminist. One thing that really awakens my rebellious streak is 20 centuries of one sex dominating the other. We talk of slavery, feudalism, exploitation, but the most unjust domination is that of one half of the human race over the other half. The more equality women have, the fairer, more civilized and tolerant society will be. Sexual equality is a lot more effective against terrorism than military strength.”[xxi]


Neus, a Spanish graduate student, added:


Yes, the equality in the government cabinet is what he promised that would do if he got elected. It is the first step towards a more egalitarian job market, since we still have lower salaries for the same position that a man has in the private sector. And most of the high position jobs are given to men. I guess that the public sector is the one that has to model and demonstrate women’s abilities and then the private may follow. We are in the very beginning, but things are changing; we have to keep pushing for our rights!

   Activism for Gender Equality

The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project poll of people in 22 nations about gender equality, released in 2010, found that solid majorities support it and say inequality persists in their countries, as many believe that men have more access to better paid jobs.[xxii] Women are far more likely to think gender inequality is problematic. Nigerian men were the only exception to believing in equal rights. Muslim respondents—men more than women—are least likely to advocate equality and in fact their preference for equality in marriage has decreased over time in Nigeria and Pakistan. Attitudes towards marriage became more egalitarian over the decade in seven of 19 countries, as in Jordan, Russia, Poland, Lebanon, Mexico and the US.

Many people of various religions feel that when jobs are scarce, men have more right to a job, including mainly Muslim countries and India, China, South Korea and Nigeria. Men are more likely to have this view. When asked if it’s more important for a boy to have a university education than a girl, a majority agreed only in Egypt (50%), among Nigerian Muslims (50%), Pakistan (51%), and India (63%). When asked if men or women have better lives, about half agreed men did (more women than men) and about half said they were the same. The exceptions were South Korea and Japan where respondents thought women have a better life, perhaps because of men’s long work hours. It’s encouraging that advocacy of equality is increasing, but worrisome that it lags in Muslim countries.

What do women want? Only 10% of all young Europeans in a large survey favor keeping a strong distinction between men’s and women’s roles.[xxiii] Women want equal opportunity with men and not to be treated as inferior. They want equal pay for equal work. In the US, a woman earns only an average of 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns for full-time work, although women are half the workers. The wage gap is bigger for employed mothers and women of color, despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. For a college-educated woman, the wage losses over her lifetime are over one million dollars, compared to her male peers.

A telephone survey of US Generation Y women found almost half would like to be entrepreneurs  (47%) so they can be their own boss and balance career and family.[xxiv] Although most would like to see a woman President, they are not interested in holding political office or in being a CEO because of their focus on balance. Their top political issue is improving education.

Globally, women are taking a stand. Nala, a 16-year-old Maasai girl in Tanzania, helped organize support groups for Maasai women. In her twenties, she founded the Massai Women’s Forum, which now has over 30 chapters. It expanded from adult literacy classes to village nursery schools, loans to women’s groups, and girls’ education programs. It’s considered one of the few organizations that really help people by creating a social network to create change. Nala described her work as “to educate young Maasai women who are being forced to marry older men…to advocate the right of Massai women’s education, because Maasai women need to do something different and not just get married. ….We have a lot of girls fleeing from forced marriages and coming to MWF because many them need education support.” [xxv]

When Nala finished primary school, her father wanted her to marry. She put up a “big struggle” and refused to get married. She was strong-willed, given the nickname “half-man” by an uncle after she protected her family’s cattle herd from being stolen. Her male relatives were going on to secondary school and she wanted to go with them. Her cousin helped intercede with her father and tried to convince his father—an age group leader—to help her. After months of planning, disguised in a red blanket worn by Maasai men, at midnight she got in a waiting car of an educated Maasai friend of her cousin, who drove her to the capital city of Dar-es-Salaam. Her helpers talked her father into calling off the marriage and repaying the dowry. As 16, she began coordinating women’s groups.

Another woman activist in an extremely patriarchal society is Tawakkol Karman, a leader in the 2011 rebellion in Yemen, inspired by the youth uprising in Tunisia.  She’s known as the “mother of the revolution” and “iron woman.” She’s 32, a college-educated journalist, the mother of three children, active in the opposition party Islah. She organized protests and sis-ins beginning in 2007., campaigning for women’s rights and press freedoms. See her photo online.[xxvi] Yemeni women are often burka-clad with only their eyes showing, the majority is illiterate, and many girls are married off as children, their legal testimony worth half of men’s. Some held a veil burning to protest.

When asked to comment on this section, Ms. Karman emailed me via Facebook, “wonderful subject, but many women–especially from the new generation of young people–are wearing the veil only because the generation of young people in Yemen has more freedom than its predecessors.”‎  She stopped wearing the niqab, keeping the headscarf, in 2010 so she could be “face to face with my activist colleagues.” The demonstrations started at Sanaa University with ten people the day after Ben Ali left Tunisia. Men were surprised when Ms. Karman took the microphone to speak but they followed her and her Facebook and cell phone messages. After a week, she was acknowledged as the movement’s leader.

She was jailed in January but released after three days although thugs beat her and other protestors. Dictator Saleh told her brother, “Control your sister. Anyone who disobeys me will be killed.” The Muslim imams accused her of degrading the morals of Yemeni women. Saleh declared that women and men mingling in the demonstrations was a violation of Islam. A text message spread: “Saleh has brought shame upon his country’s women; meet tomorrow at 3.30 p.m. at Sanaa University for a women’s march of honor,” resulting in 10,000 women in black abayas marching through the capital on April 16. Ms. Karman said when her husband and father tell her to stop her activism, worried for her safety, “I ignore them, of course.” The demonstrations steadily grew to over a million protestors.

This is not her first foray into activism, as she previously led sit-ins at the Ministry of Social Affairs to gain the release of jailed journalists in her role as head of Women Journalists Without Chains. Framed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Hillary Clinton sit on the mantel in her sitting room. She told a journalist that Clinton is her role model and she was inspired by Mandela’s memoir and Gandhi’s autobiography.[xxvii] She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize on October 7, 2011, along with the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Leymah Gbowee, peace activist in Liberia. She found out about the award where she has spent most days for eight months, in a protest tent in Change Square in central Sanaa.

Here is her analysis of the role of women in reducing terrorist extremism:[xxviii]


Women have more opportunities in challenging extremism and terrorism than men due to woman’s nature in having patience, containing others, hating killing and bloodshed and—more importantly—women have tremendous feelings of love and sacrifice towards their husbands, children, and communities that is enough to enhance the attitude of coexistence, respect, trust, and listening to the other. This, in turn, will lead drying the roots and sources of extremism. Extremism stems from the culture of rejecting the other and the culture of hating the other. Therefore, there is no solution other than spreading the culture of coexistence and dialogue, skills that women master and possess.

A Yemeni woman cannot be part of terrorism because she herself is suffering from terrorism. She is banned from taking part in public life, fearing she will mingle with men (which is forbidden). The intellectual terrorism that is practiced against woman by a large segment of men in the Yemeni society makes her ineffective in the public domain either politically or socially. A Yemeni woman without doubt has no role in recruiting or training terrorists in order to kill innocent people. If the policy of excluding women from public life and preventing her from effectively taking part in developing this country and challenging terrorism along with men continues, the culture of extremism will flourish and the ramifications will be disastrous.


Malalai Joya is a pseudonym for an Afghan feminist and youngest member of the Afghan parliament fears for her life. A documentary called Enemies of Happiness filmed her running for office in the country populated with the highest percent of young people. She was suspended from attending parliament because she spoke up very directly about the corrupt Karzai government’s embracing of violent warlords and the US support for this regime. ”Collateral damage” from western military has killed thousands of civilians, she protests. This in a country where she reports “killing a woman is like killing a bird,” rape goes unpunished every day, girls are still sold into marriage, and most (80%) women are illiterate. She has to travel with bodyguards because of the fundamentalists’ threats on her life, like Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali.[xxix] )

Her courage and outspoken commitment to freedom and literacy started as a teenager, when she taught Afghan women in refugee camps where she lived near Peshawar, Pakistan. She then risked her life to teach girls in secret schools under the Taliban, back in Afghanistan. It’s one time she was grateful for having to wear a burka that disguised the schoolbooks she carried. She tells her story in A Woman Among Warlords and continues to lobby for democracy in her country and for withdrawal of foreign troops. Like Tawakkol Karman who led the rebellion in Yemen, she had a supportive father and husband and was inspired by reading about revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.[xxx] Ms. Joya’s list also includes Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Bhagat Singh, Saeed Sultanpur, and Victor Jara. The courage these three young women demonstrate in patriarchal societies is inspirational.

[i] www.cwwl.org/index.html

Margot Wallström, “A Womanly Virtue: Female Representation as Global Security Strategy,” Harvard International Review, May 1, 2011.


[vi] Editorial, “U.S. Moms Deserve Better,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 2011.


[viii] Claire Devlin and Robert Elgie,” The Effect of Increased Women’s Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda,” Oxford Journals, February 3, 2008


[x] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Alfred a. Knopf, 2009, p. 197.

Women’s Campaign International coaches grassroots activists about how to achieve their goals and run for office.

[xii] Rita Banerji, www.ritabanerji.com

The 50 Million Missing Campaign http://50millionmissing.wordpress.com/

[xiv] Lynn Harris, “Female Heads of State.” Glamour Magazine, November 1, 2010.  http://www.glamour.com/women-of-the-year/2010/female-heads-of-state

[xv] Deborah Solomon, “Questions for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” New York Times Magazine, August 23, 2009.

[xvi] Lynn Harris, “Female Heads of State.” Glamour Magazine, November 1, 2010.  http://www.glamour.com/women-of-the-year/2010/female-heads-of-state

[xvii] Gbowee wrote Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, 2011. She’s featured in a documentary, Abby Disney’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 2009.

[xviii] Michelle Nichols, “Share of Female Lawmakers Hits New Global High,” March 1, 2007

[xix] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report,” June 15, 2010, p. 25.

[xx] Helen Clark comments about the impact of women in government. http://content.undp.org/go/newsroom/2010/march/helen-clark–international-womens-leadership-conference.en;jsessionid=axbWzt…?categoryID=593043&lang=en

[xxii] “Gender Equality Universally Embraced, But Inequalities Acknowledged,” July 1, 2010. http://pewglobal.org/2010/07/01/gender-equality/

[xxiii] Young People Facing the Future: An International Survey. Foundation Pour L’Innovation Politique, directed by Anna Stellinger, p. 31. An email survey of 17,000 people aged 16 to 29 in 17 countries in 2007.

[xxiv] 500 women aged 18-29 Willow Bay, March 23, 2007, Huffington Post www.huffingtonpost.com/willow-bay/what-a-generation-y-woman_b_44132.html. Similar findings were reported in http://www.bpwfoundation.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=5886

[xxv] P. 157 Benjamin Gardner

[xxvi]  Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Yemen, Female Activist Strives for Egyptian-like Revolution,” Washington Post, February 15, 2011


[xxvii] Dexter Filkins, “Letter From Yemen,” The New Yorker, April 11, 2011.


[xxviii]Letter from Tawakkol Karman to Women Without Borders, February 2, 2010. http://womenwithoutborders-save.blogspot.com/2010/02/letter-from-twakkol-karman-chairwoman.html

[xxix] Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Infidel. Free Press, 2007. See also Fadumo Korn. Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2006.

[xxx] Malalai Joya. A Woman Among Warlords. Scribner, 2009, p. 33.


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