Women in World Politics

Jan 252006
Authors: Meg Burd

In this first month of a new year, an exciting view of women achieving positions of political power is taking place.

"January has been a precedent-setting month for women. Ms. Michelle Bachalet was elected Chile's first female leader, becoming South America's second woman elected head of state, while Ms. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took office as president of Liberia, Africa's first elected female head of state," notes the Japan Times.

With Johnson-Sirleaf taking the reins of civil war and crisis-wracked Liberia, which had seen internal and international strife under the leadership of Charles Taylor, many are hoping changes might take place not just for the politics and economics of the country but also the conditions for women in the nation.

Bachalet likewise marks a turning point for women in South American politics, being the first woman to lead a nation there "who is not the widow of a political strongman" as the New York Times notes. Bachalet provides a vision of a woman leader who is independent and worked her way through adversity. A single mother who has experienced imprisonment and torture, she held the position of defense minister and was in charge of the military forces in the previous administration.

While these two women (and indeed other female leaders throughout the world) were able to make their way through the political hierarchy, women around the world still face adversity in the political system.

Indeed, while many are hailing recent political turns as a foray into political power for women, there are still disadvantages when it comes to political representation. While the world-wide appearance of women in political seats ranging from local to national levels is rising to what is considered an "unprecedented high," the seats of parliaments and representative houses occupied by women worldwide still only equal 16.2 percent as of 2005, reports Karine Jarab, a Swiss researcher, in a South African CapeTimes newspaper report.

"Women have yet to achieve the critical mass at the lower levels of government that will be necessary if their ascension is to be seen as part of the normal course of politics," the New York Times recently noted.

Even so, looking to recent successes might help give hope and point the way for future developments for women in politics that are still much needed.

With the election of Johnson-Sirleaf, for example, issues facing women will hopefully find more attention in the government. "Johnson-Sirleaf's election has drawn international attention to women's rights in Africa," notes Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times. Johnson-Sirleaf broke a taboo early on in Liberian politics, openly discussing the horrors of rape and promising to tackle this issue using tough new laws. Women leaders such as Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, likewise suggested that women leaders might be more in touch with such issues. Bhutto said in a BBC report she had always hoped to make a difference "in terms of exposing domestic violence or in terms of permitting women easy access to credit to start businesses of their own."

For women leaders, experiencing gender discrimination might indeed give them a powerful insight into what needs to be changed around the world, where much alteration is still needed.

Many women around the world still face severe violence in and outside of their homes, struggle to earn the same wage as men for working the same jobs, and are limited in their rights to vote, work or access proper health care.

Besides calling attention to issues facing women, the appearance of more women leaders around the world likewise provides a positive example for young girls and other women, showing what they might achieve. "Observers predict her election will inspire a younger generation of African girls and clear the path for other rising female politicians on the continent," notes Sanders in the L.A. Times.

As women continue to struggle to have their rights recognized, their safety ensured and indeed their dreams realized all across the world, this vision of two women coming into power provides a hopeful view, and also highlights how much more work must be done for women to achieve political equality.

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