Nepal Joins The Now Long List Of Asian Countries Who Have Elected A Female Leader

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Bidhya Devi Bandari: The New Nepalese President

Nepal’s parliament has elected human rights campaigner Bidhya Devi Bhandari the nation’s new president. She is the first woman to hold the largely ceremonial office. She is the vice chairman of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal, and from 2009 to 2011, she was defense minister. As president, she is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Her election follows the selection of Onsari Gharti, another woman, as speaker of the Nepali parliament. Thus, the victory of President-elect Bhandari was officially announced by another woman.

Gender Inequality In Nepal

While they have shattered the glass ceiling, the fact remains that Nepali women are a long way from being the social equals of Nepali men. The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Only 53 percent of women can read, reports the CIA’s World Factbook, compared to 76 percent of men. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report has consistently ranked Nepal near the bottom of the pack for gender inequalities. In the most recent analysis, in 2013, Nepal was slotted 121st out 135 countries, slipping from 111th in 2006.”

At the same time, the women of Nepal rank 43rd in the world in political participation, which is grounds for optimism.

Nevertheless, Nepal’s recent political developments seem to follow an interesting regional pattern of choosing female political leaders while denying women anything resembling equality with men.

India: Indira Ghandi

Image Source: New India Express

Consider, the case of India, where Indira Gandhi was prime minister as far back as 1966.

Yet the Foundation for Sustainable Development can say “Women are commonly married young, quickly become mothers, and are then burdened by stringent domestic and financial responsibilities. They are frequently malnourished since women typically are the last member of a household to eat and the last to receive medical attention.”

The Foundation also reported: “Additionally, only 54 percent of Indian women are literate as compared to 76 percent of men. Women receive little schooling, and suffer from unfair and biased inheritance and divorce laws. These laws prevent women from accumulating substantial financial assets, making it difficult for women to establish their own security and autonomy.”

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Pakistan: Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi.
Image Source: Gujark Handir

In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was prime minister starting in 1988. notes: “The annual Gender Gap Index by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum released Tuesday showed Pakistan ranked 141 out of 142, second to last in global gender equality. This is the third year in a trot that Pakistan has maintained the second to last ranking. The only country where women face worse equality issues is Yemen.”

Bangladesh: Sheikh Hasina

Sheikh Hasina-Image Source: Thestar

Bangladesh has elected Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina as prime ministers, meaning that the leader of the nation for more than 20 years has been a woman. Gender equality in Bangladesh is actually quite high, in large part due to microfinance, 92% of recipients of such help are female.

Nor is the phenomenon restricted to South Asia.

The Philippines: Corazon Aquino

Corazon Aquino-Image S0urce: El Nuevo Diario

In the Philippines, Corazon Aquino started this whole trend in Asia. She was elected president after the assassination of her husband, Benigno Aquino, Jr., by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That killing sparked a “people power” revolution in 1986 (nonviolent protests that shut the country down and a model for many of the color revolutions in the former Soviet republics as well as for the Arab Spring in its early stages). She served six years from 1986 to 1992.

Perhaps having a woman as president a generation ago has had some effect. The country ranks top in gender equality among Asia-Pacific countries and was ninth out of the 142 economies assessed in the Global Gender Gap 2014 report.

Indonesia: Megawati Sukarnoputri

Former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and chairperson of the Indonesian Democratic Party speaks to her supporters during a rally in Jakarta
Megawati Sukarnoputri-Image Source: De Kandidat

Another island archipelago, Indonesia, had its first female president in 2001. Megawati Sukarnoputri is the daughter of the nation’s first president, Sukarno. She served as vice president and moved into the top job when President Abdurraman Wahid was removed from office.

In Indonesia, the challenges to gender equality remain discriminatory attitudes, which prevent women from exercising their economic rights, property ownership and land inheritance, access to credit, wages and workplace benefits, and livelihood opportunities. Exploitation of women migrants, violence and harmful traditional practices are further cause for concern.

Thailand: Yingluck Shinawatra

Women as the Way Forward: Yingluck Shinawatra
Yingluck Shinawatra-Image Source: Wikimedia

Thailand elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, nicknamed “Pu,” in 2011. She is the younger sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006. He was removed from office by a military coup and was convicted in absentia for abuse of power. Her successful campaign centered on national reconciliation, reduction of corporate taxes and eradication of poverty. Like her brother, she lost power but at the order of the Constitutional Court that found her guilt of abusing her power.

Challenges in gender equality and the empowerment of women in Thailand remain in the areas of lack of sex disaggregated data, traditional attitudes and stereotypes which underpin domestic violence and violence against women, low participation of women in politics and decision-making positions, discrimination and vulnerabilities of ethnic and rural women as well as women in the informal sector, HIV prevalence, trafficking and exploitation. Thailand ranks 69 in the Gender Inequality Index as of 2011.

South Korea: Park Geun-Hye

South Korea's President Park speaks during a commemorative ceremony at the U.N. Memorial Cemetery in Busan
Park Geun-Hye-Image Source: 3 news

Finally, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was elected the nation’s first female president in 2013. She is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea for almost two decades. She is not married and a rather private individual.

South Korea has the highest level of gender inequality in the developed world. In the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index (where the Philippines ranked 9th), South Korea was 117th, trailing behind United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

If the Asian experience is anything to go by, having a woman at the top of the political ladder only goes so far in achieving gender equality. The real challenge lies in the lowest income levels, classes and castes. Equality only comes when the women at the bottom have the same change to rise as the men. It also helps a woman win office if she is related to a successful male politician.

Hillary Clinton supporters can draw their own conclusions about what that means for America.

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