Policy Press author and guest blogger Torild Skard reflects on what it has taken for women to be the political power in their countries in the 50 years between 1960 and 2010.
Torild Skard is a Senior Researcher in Women’s Studies at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo, specialising in women in politics. A pioneer in the women’s movement nationally and internationally, she was formerly a MP and the first woman President of the Norwegian Upper House. She has also been Director for the Status of Women in UNESCO Paris, Regional Director in UNICEF West- and Central Africa and Director General in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has written numerous books and articles on women’s issues, particularly women in politics and travels widely studying and promoting the status of women.
Her book, Women of power, written from a position of ‘insider knowledge’, charts the lives and careers of women as they finally moved onto the central political stage, published at the end of July.
IN THE COURSE of 50 years 73 women have become presidents or prime ministers globally. As newcomers to political leadership, who fought opposition and prejudice to get there, many also came to power in times of crisis.
Unrest and armed conflict, transition from authoritarian to democratic rule and depression with poverty and social distress were all challenges many of the women national leaders had to deal with in and as part of coming to power.
Facing the military in Bolivia
In 1979 accountant Lidia Güeiler Tejada became president of Bolivia. Bolivia was one of the poorest countries in Latin-America with a record in military coups. Güeiler had had a long career struggling for human rights, fought in the underground resistance, was active in party politics and in 1956 was the first woman elected to Congress. When the military took over, she spent years in prison and exile, but did not give up. In 1978 she was re-elected and became president of the Chamber of Deputies
In 1978 the long-time dictator finally accepted that he must hold elections, and a chaotic period followed. An interim government was formed, but it was soon overthrown by the military. People protested and Güeiler became the country’s first woman president.
In spite of the turbulence and insecurity, Güeiler took on the role of interim president and pressed ahead with firm determination. But it did not last long. The military seized power again and Güeiler had to flee the country.
Fighting for democracy in Bangladesh
At its independence in 1971, Bangladesh was overpopulated and devastated by war. Agriculture was primitive and the land was ravaged by floods and storms. In spite of extensive development efforts, dissatisfaction was growing and Mujibur Rahman, the ‘Father of the Nation’, responded by declaring a state of emergency so that he could rule with greater authority. But this provoked negative reactions, and in 1975 he was killed by military in his home. General Zia took power and gradually moved towards a more democratic system. But then he was murdered by a group of officers. General Ershad replaced him and re-imposed a state of emergency with authoritarian rule.
The two politicians who, more than any others, took up the struggle for democracy, were women. Sheikh Hasina became leader of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party. They struggled for years organising demonstrations and strikes and both were imprisoned several times. But they persisted, even though Muslim leaders claimed that female leadership was in conflict with Islam, and close relatives of both of them were assassinated: Sheikh Hasina was the daughter of Mujibur Rahman and Khaleda Zia was General Zia’s widow. Finally in 1991 elections were held and the two women became prime ministers, one after the other.
Ethnic tensions in Central Africa
Central Africa was marked by intense conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis and two women were brought in as national leaders to promote reconciliation. Until the 1990s the regimes in Burundi and Rwanda were authoritarian with violence and mass killings. Then efforts to democratise started. In Burundi in 1993, a Hutu president was elected and he appointed Sylvie Kinigi as prime minster. In addition to being a capable economist, she was Tutsi. But three months later while massacres took place in the countryside, Tutsi paratroopers stormed the palace and killed the president. Kinigi sought refuge in the French Embassy.
Suddenly Kinigi was both president and prime minister. After 11 days she left the embassy to talk with survivors and army factions. She managed to create some order and the Parliament elected a new president. But ethnic violence continued and she was the subject of criticism, threats and attacks from all sides. She resigned as prime minister and went abroad. She survived; her female colleague in Rwanda did not.
In 1990, Tutsi refugees in exile created the Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF, and invaded Rwanda. They demanded an end to the authoritarian regime of the Hutu president Habyarimana. He established a coalition government with members from the opposition, among them Agatha Uwilingiyimana. She was a teacher and Hutu. First she became minister of education, then in 1993 prime minister. She managed to negotiate a peace agreement with the RPF, but before a new government could take over, the presidential airplane was shot down. It is not clear who fired the shot, but the incident led to widespread murders of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda and Burundi and both Agatha Uwilingiyimana and her husband were killed.
Brutal sexism in France and Australia
Over the period 1960 – 2010 economic and political crises were most frequent in developing and Eastern industrial countries. But even in ‘stable’, ‘calm’ Western democracies women leaders experienced challenging situations.
In France in 1991 President Mitterand appointed Edith Cresson as the first woman prime minister. He wanted to be radical and modern, but the male ‘barons’ in the party were furious, refused to support her and opposed her initiatives and policies. Before she even said a word, the media labelled Cresson a ‘media bluff’ and a ‘poor puppet’. She was Mitterand’s ‘sexy slave’ and was ridiculed because of her ‘frivolous’ jewellery and high-pitched voice. Cresson fought back, but before a year had passed, she had been dismissed by the one who appointed her.
In Australia twenty years later the situation was no better. The first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, became the object of cruel sexist attacks. The media called her a ‘bitch’ and a ‘liar’. There was hate speech against her on Facebook and cartoons were published depicting a naked Prime Minister wearing a dildo.