Who Rules the World? Part I

It attracted a lot of attention when Michelle Bachelet and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were recently elected presidents of Chile and Liberia. There was talk of “breakthrough” and “revolution.” The reason was first and foremost that they were women. Moreover, they were chosen in a remarkable way. The countries of the world are governed primarily by men. Although women make up half of the population, there are not many women in the parliaments and governments around. But the picture varies from country to country.

  • Why is politics mostly dominated by men?
  • What role do women play?
  • Why does the female element vary between countries and regions?
  • What does it take to get women into politics?

2: What do the numbers say?

When World War II ended in 1945, there were not many independent nation-states, and those that existed had almost only men in governing bodies. Women made up 3 percent of the members of parliament. Possibly there were 2-3 female ministers all over the world (statistics are uncertain), but no female heads of state.

In the decades after 1945, the liberation of the colonies and the collapse of former communist countries increased the number of independent states. Women have gradually become more involved in politics, but the proportion in government has not risen as much as the number of states. Women made up only 16 per cent of the members of parliament in 185 states in 2005. There were 14 per cent women ministers and a total of 8 female heads of state (see box p.2).

3: Why do men dominate politics?

The distribution of tasks and power in society has its roots far back. People’s living conditions and livelihoods, culture, language and religion, social structures and traditions have been very different and to some extent still are. Although conditions have changed dramatically in many countries in recent decades – cf. industrialization and modernization – the past has left its mark.

The roles of men and women vary considerably between countries. Biology is important, but social and cultural factors play a major role. Therefore, the division of labor between the sexes changes, and in some societies women have a higher position than in others. However, large parts of the world are characterized by social systems where men dominate over women. That is, traits and activities defined as masculine are valued higher than those defined as feminine, men have more senior positions and greater political power than women. In no country do women have the same political status, participation and influence as men.

Women engage politically in local actions and social movements, while formal politics with political parties, parliament and government are essentially reserved for men. This applies regardless of the countries’ culture, economic system and political regime. But social and cultural conditions are changing, and over time women have become more involved in formal politics. This is first and foremost the result of an international women’s movement that has demanded equality.

The UN Charter states that women and men have equal rights. But things did not pick up speed until the second wave of women’s issues broke out in the 1960s. This made the period 1976–85 the UN Year of Women and a number of international women’s conferences were organized, in 1975 (Mexico), 1980 (Copenhagen), 1985 (Nairobi) and 1995 (Beijing). Here the governments of the world joined the demand for equality, changing the traditional roles of men and women, strengthening the position of women and expanding their role to include all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life.

The Convention against Discrimination against Women was adopted in 1979 and eventually gained the support of more than 90 per cent of the world’s states, although some made special reservations about marriage and the family. A majority of countries implemented measures to promote gender equality, including in political life. It was emphasized that women were a resource for development, and human rights became increasingly important. The proportion of women increased in decision-making bodies in the political sphere – first the parliaments (with the exception of Eastern Europe), then the governments, but the development was slow and varied from region to region.

4: Different countries

The political landscape varies greatly from country to country and over time. Authoritarian and democratic regimes have replaced each other since 1945 and even where “democracy” apparently exists, this can work in different ways. When women have taken political positions, this has happened in different ways. In Asia and Latin America, women in powerful families have sometimes gained top positions without significant participation of women in political life.

The first woman to be elected prime minister was Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka in 1960. She ran for office after the man – a leading politician – was assassinated. She was first called “the weeping widow”, but came to play a central role for forty years, and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga took over after her. The world’s second female prime minister was also a powerful politician. Indira Gandhi followed in the footsteps of her father, independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru, but became more than a family heiress when she became prime minister in 1966 and shaped both Indian and international politics until she was assassinated in 1984.

In 1974, Isabel Peron became President of Argentina. She took over after her husband, but it was not long before she was thrown out. Political life does not work in the same way in industrialized countries and in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, the family usually plays a minor role, while personal qualifications are central. Despite the fact that politics was a male domain, some women managed to climb to the top.

Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel in 1969, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain in 1979 and Milka Planinc of Yugoslavia in 1982. The first two in particular exercised considerable power, but as women they were the lone swallows in political leadership. In Africa, the first female head of state was appointed in 1975, when Elisabeth Domitien became Prime Minister of the Central African Republic. It has been difficult to get a broad march of women into politics, but to the extent that this has happened, the Nordic countries have taken the lead.

5: The North leads

From the 1970s, women’s political activity increased markedly, and representation in governing bodies increased both locally and nationally. In 2005, the proportion of women in the Nordic parliaments and governments had risen to an average of about 40 per cent. Norway got the world’s first “women’s government” with a female share of 44 percent in 1986, while Sweden in 1999 had more women than men ministers. When Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president of Iceland in 1980, it was with broad female support and she sat for 16 years.

According to PICKTRUE, Gro Harlem Brundtland was Prime Minister for three terms in the years 1981–1996. Before 1989 – when the Wall fell – Eastern European countries marked themselves with a high proportion of women in parliaments. But the parliaments played a modest role in the communist countries. The power lay first and foremost in the Communist Party, and there was a long way between the women in the party leadership and the government. When the regimes were changed in the 1990s, the proportion of women in parliaments declined, but some women still achieved top political positions.

Who Rules the World 1

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