A roll-call of the political elite in the past fifty years is a pretty depressing document for anyone who’s got even a passing interest in gender equality: although it’s been sixty-one years since the UN Convention on the Political Rights of Women, the first international legislation protecting the equal status of women to exercise political rights – to vote and to hold office – came into effect, and although, as of 2015, the Convention has 123 state parties (including Palestine), the political landscape is still almost entirely male-dominated. In fact, only 21.9% of national parliamentarians worldwide right now are female. Let’s take a look at which states have female leaders right now.
Argentina: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
Kirchner is Argentina’s President – the second woman ever to serve in the role, the first directly-elected female president and the first woman to be re-elected. She’s also been the First Lady, has served as a Senator and has worked as a lawyer. Her (often right-wing) detractors have accused her of cronyism and corruption, but the public keep voting her back with huge margins, and her faction of the Justicialist Party is known for its radical socialist ideology.
Bangladesh: Sheikh Hasina
Hasina has been Bangladesh’s Prime Minister since 2009. This is her third term; between the first two, in 2004, she was the target of an assassination attempt, but she’s still going –her re-election in 2008 was by a landslide and she was voted back again in 2014. She’s not an uncontroversial figure: she’s been indicted on extortion charges, accused of masterminding the assignation of rival political leaders, and she refused refugees from Myanmar access to Bangladesh in 2012.
Chile: Michelle Bachelet
Bachelet is currently serving her second term as Chile’s President, and was the first woman to be elected to the post, back in 2006. Between terms, she was appointed the first executive director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). She’s a doctor and has also worked for the government as a military strategist; she’s been the subject of two documentaries and the recipient of many international awards. Side note: the current president of Chile’s senate is also a woman, Isabel Allende (not to be confused with the novelist of the same name), a record-breaking double-header in Chilean political history
Denmark: Helle Thorning-Schmidt
Thorning-Schmidt is both the Prime Minister of Denmark (since 2011) and the leader of the country’s Social Democrat Party (a leftist party that’s a member of the Socialist International group and the Party of European Socialists); she’s the first woman to have held either post, let alone both. Before she was elected Prime Minister she was an MEP, and she’s got a degree in political science from the University of Copenhagen. Some of her more hard-left supporters in her coalition government jumped ship amid concerns about privatization in 2014, which led to a major cabinet reshuffle.
Germany: Angela Merkel
You all know Angela Merkel: leader of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union and the Chancellor of Germany (head of state) since 2005. Again, she’s the first woman to have held either post; she has a PhD in physical chemistry; she’s been President to the European Council and chair of the G8, and quite a lot of people think of her as being the de facto leader of the entire European Union. Her insistence on austerity-driven economic policy throughout Europe and the Eurozone has made her very unpopular with the people, if not the governments, of many countries less economically stable than Germany itself.
Jamaica: Portia Simpson-Miller
Simpson-Miller is Jamaica’s Prime Minister since 2012 (though this is her second term) and leader of the country’s People’s National Party, a centre-left social-democratic group that has pretty much abandoned its original socialism in favour of neo-liberal policies and globalization – though Simpson-Miller herself was elected vice-resident of Socialist International in 2013. She’s very much in favour of LGBT rights, which was a controversial late part of re-election campaign, as well as being anti-monarchy, and equality is one her key buzzwords.
Liberia: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Sirleaf, who’s been the incumbent President in Liberia since 2006, having narrowly lost out in the 2007 elections, is the first elected female head of state, not only in Liberia itself, but in all of Africa. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2011 for her work in women’s rights and in 2013 she was given the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development (other winners have included Hasina and Merkel). She’s worked for the UN and the World Bank, she’s protested against electoral fraud, she’s been imprisoned and exiled, she’s made primary education free and compulsory for all children, she’s set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate over two decades of civil unrest in her country…. We could go on!
Our top pick so far has got to be Sirleaf, but watch this space for Parts Two and Three of our political round-up!