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2011 Commonwealth Essay Competition Deep Vaze (16), India Senior Prize Winner Discuss the statistic that

2011 Commonwealth Essay Competition

Deep Vaze (16), India

Senior Prize Winner

Discuss the statistic that 51% of the world are women but only 8% of countries have an elected female leader.

Are fifty one percent of the world women?

The statistic is disputed. As Nobel winning economist Amartya Sen shows in his essay ‘More than 100 million Women are Missing’, the global gender imbalance is significant, and perhaps growing especially in developing countries. Sen argues that it may be unwise to derive a global ratio by “generalizing from the contemporary situation in Europe and North America, where the ratio of women to men is typically around 1.05 or 1.06, or higher. In South Asia, West Asia, and China, the ratio of women to men can be as low as 0.94 or even lower.”

In much of the developing world, societal ignorance and neglect poverty’s terrible by products conspire against girls, often from the moment they are born. In agrarian societies, the monetary value of male children appears self evident: boys can earn their keep working the land, provide for

their parents in old age, and eventually inherit the family land. By contrast, girls are often viewed as

a drain on the family purse, expensive to marry off in communities where dowries are still accepted, and precluded by patriarchal custom from inheriting their father’s land.

Thus, it is not uncommon amongst poor families in many parts of the world for the men and boys to be fed first, or for boys to be favoured over their sisters when scarce family funds are allocated for school fees or even medical expenses. Consequently, in South east Asia and sub Saharan Africa more than anywhere else in the world, girls die prematurely due to malnourishment at a disproportionately high rate. Of course, this applies only to families who have chosen to raise a girl in the first place. Despite legislation to stamp out female infanticide and gender based abortion, illicit markets continue to cater to desperate parents who believe they are too poor to raise a daughter. It is, appallingly, still no exaggeration to say that at the poorest levels in developing countries, girls are often second class citizens in their own families.

With such a start in life and such bleak prospects, is it any wonder that few women make it to the top job in government in developing countries? In a society where women are fewer in numbers and discriminated against from birth when they seek access to nutrition, health care, education and

a fair inheritance, should we really be surprised that so few women have realised their political


Those that have tend to have been cocooned from the systematic subordination that many of their countrywomen face. India’s Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunga were all daughters of charismatic prime ministers. In Bangladesh, power has consistently been lobbed back and forth between two women: Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Khaleda Zia, the widow of assassinated


president and former army chief Ziaur Rahman. The achievements of these women in being elected to the highest political offices in four of the world’s most populous countries are arguably less representative of the possibilities open to most Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi women than of the enduring power and privilege of political dynasties in the Indian subcontinent.

How can this state of affairs be corrected? While most developing countries are pursuing vigorous economic development and headline growth rates, it is worth remembering that economic development is not a panacea for all of the hardships that women face. While growth does tend to bring higher literacy rates and reduced malnutrition, it does not automatically result in dramatically more representative government.

Even in developed countries, the correlation between educational attainment and public leadership has not been apparent. In the United Kingdom, for instance, over 50% of women hold a university degree compared with only around 40% of men, yet this has not translated into political power Margaret Thatcher stands out as a lone female prime minister. In America where higher education figures are similar to those in the UK, less than 3% of Fortune 500 companies have a woman CEO.

Why? Growth and globalisation have created immense economic opportunities for well educated women but they have also brought with them increasing demands on time, which women, still often the primary caregivers in families, can ill afford. Consider, for example, the modern financial sector. With the ability to make deals instantly across timezones, money, as the phrase has it, truly never sleeps. Those who trade in and analyse international markets, therefore, increasingly adopt an ‘always on call’ lifestyle. Such lives are very difficult for parents with young children to sustain, and societal mores often expect a woman to sacrifice her career for her family.

Even in other sectors, a globalized workforce necessitates the adoption of globalized working times:

waking up at dawn in Hong Kong to join a transnational conference call with Head Office in California is now considered an unremarkable requirement of professionals from diverse fields. Working for a multinational corporation often requires global flexibility: moving with the job and uprooting the family. Even large companies often fail to accommodate the needs of working parents – by providing an onsite crèche, for example, or allowing staff to adopt flexible working hours while small businesses often simply cannot afford to do so. With so many highly qualified women dropping out of the workforce midcareer to raise families, few remain to attain the highest offices in both corporate and political spheres. The case of America’s ‘First Family’ is telling. Michelle Obama, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, was at one time senior to her husband at the law firm where they met; after they started a family, it was Barack’s career that accelerated.

How, then, can we get more women to prepare for and attain positions of public leadership? It is important to remember that there are no quick fixes. The reasons for male dominance in high office are deeprooted. Religious and military power have long gone hand in hand with political might. The traditional primacy of war in national life has naturally favoured men aspiring to high political office. And those seeking to exclude women from public office have also often used selective – and self serving interpretations of religious texts and traditions to bolster their cause.

Governments of both developed and developing countries must work to widen the pool of capable and qualified candidates for leadership roles throughout society. Only when women regularly attain


the top jobs running schools and hospitals, local governments and charities, media and the arts, and banks and corporations will there be significant numbers of women qualifying to lead their countries.

The spread of democracy should give rise to qualified candidates, whatever their background, aspiring to high office. But the nature and practice of democracy is as important as the mere fact of it. Mandatory voting for all people of voting age may be one major step that most countries could take towards ‘true’ democracy. Voting rates amongst women are markedly lower than rates amongst men; hence, if women had to vote then we could expect greater success for female candidates. Implementing firm ceilings on the value of political campaign contributions, too, should reduce the considerable advantage that men – who hold a disproportionate share of national wealth have in running for office.

In the developing world, legislation that promotes gender equality is often already in place. It is the enforcement of these policies – the difficulty of changing long standing practices that is problematic. It is one thing to pass a bill banning gender discrimination, but quite another to make sure a poor mother feeds her son and daughter equally, to make sure boys and girls receive the same vaccines and the same education, to make sure young women feel safe enough to move to cities to pursue a career, and to make sure that assets are passed down to all of a couple’s heirs, not only to the male ones.

Similarly, governments in developed countries should not simply congratulate themselves on the high educational attainment of their women. Corporate culture may need a governmental nudge to recognise the needs of working mothers and the dangers of losing them. Fathers increasingly play a more active role in raising their children than in previous generations this is a trend that is to be encouraged, not only for the benefits to the children but for the alleviation of pressure on mothers who work outside the home or aspire to do so. It is vital that children of both genders be taught their equal responsibilities and opportunities – in both the home and in public life.

Truly substantive change at the highest levels of government begins not in Downing Street and the White House, Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Kremlin. It begins at more fundamental levels: through systemic changes in the way we run our families, our civic institutions and our corporations. Only when men and women feel equally able and qualified to aspire to their nation’s supreme office can that nation harness the full potential of all its people.