In Times of Trouble, Nations Turn to Women

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Where trouble and corruption hang in the air, voters around the world are increasingly turning to women to clean up the mess left behind by bad-old-boy networks. Kavita Ramdas, President & CEO of the Global Fund for Women, says that women's recent political successes in Liberia and elsewhere in Africa "are very much related to the decimation of the continent by AIDS and civil conflict."

Sworn in as president of Liberia last week, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf vowed to attack the corruption that lay beneath the recent bloodshed and despair in her African nation.In Chile, newly inaugurated President Michelle Bachelet, tortured as a teen during a dictatorship, was propelled to power by voters who were weary of machismo politics and corrupt leaders.

Angela Merkel, elected in November as Germany's first woman chancellor, leaped to power earlier in her career after her mentor, ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was cut down by a slush-fund scandal.Where trouble and corruption hang in the air, voters around the world are increasingly turning to women to clean up the mess left behind by bad-old-boy networks.

The United States trails much of the world in the success of female candidates, ranking behind dozens of countries in the percentage of women elected to parliamentary bodies. That is due in large measure to the fact that about 70 countries now prescribe hard quotas or voluntary goals for women's participation.

But some U.S. strategists believe the budding lobbying scandal in Washington will heighten the chances of women candidates who are trying to unseat congressional incumbents in November. And the groundbreaking successes of women in other nations have helped rekindle talk about if, and when, a woman will be elected to the White House.

"People are talking about Hillary and Condi and thinking why, if it can happen in Germany and Chile and Liberia, can't it happen in the United States?" said Yolanda Richardson, president of the Center for Development and Population Activities, a Washington-based nonprofit group that works to improve the lives of women and girls. She was referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, spouse of the ex-president and a leading light in the Democratic Party; and Condoleeza Rice, the secretary of state whose political fortunes received a boost recently when Laura Bush said Rice should run for the Republicans' presidential nomination.

Political veterans wonder if 2008 is a realistic goal for a woman reaching the presidency, given Clinton's lightning-rod status and Rice's assertion that she won't run.  Nonetheless, Richardson and other strategists say that around the world, women are fast climbing into new realms of power.
"The trend lines are good. Increasingly, there are breakthroughs in women achieving leadership positions, and it's happening faster than ever before," she said.

In 1995 at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, governments set a goal of women achieving at least 30 percent of seats in national parliaments. Thus far, women have succeeded in commanding only about 16 percent of those seats. But that amounts to an all-time high today of 6,690 seats, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva, reflecting some key gains in the past year.

"People trust women more"

Some of the biggest gains reflect women rising to leadership in troubled lands. Liberia, where the Harvard-educated Johnson-Sirleaf took over last week, had been ravaged by two decades of instability and civil war that claimed 150,000 lives.

Analysts say it's no accident that the world's parliamentary body with the biggest share of women is found in Rwanda, where women hold 48.8 percent of the seats. In the 1990s, tribal fighting in the central African nation triggered genocide and some of the most horrific human cruelty in recent history. Kavita Ramdas has paid special attention to Africa as president of the Global Fund for Women, a San Francisco-based organization that distributes grants to women's groups around the world.

She says that women's recent political successes in Liberia and elsewhere in Africa "are very much related to the decimation of the continent by AIDS and civil conflict." She added, "The emergence of a women's political voice is almost directly linked to the exhaustion of alternatives."

In 2001, a World Bank report on gender discrimination reported that less corruption exists where women govern. Ramdas observed that in Afghanistan, voters in September expressed a desire to rid their war-wracked land of male-dominated corruption. They elected 68 women in the country's first parliamentary election in more than 30 years; a quarter of the 249-member legislative body is reserved for women under the country's postwar constitution.

"People say they trust women more than men because they are not corrupt," she said.

Missouri and Florida

Even before their global gains, women in the United States were lining up to run for office this year.

Missouri and Florida are among the states where national political parties are touting the hopes of women challengers. In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill is giving indication that she will present a formidable challenge to Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican. In Florida, Republicans trumpet the potential of Rep. Katherine Harris to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat. EMILY's List, which recruits, trains and finances female candidates who favor abortion rights, claims to be working with twice the number of office-seekers who have raised three times as much money as they did two years ago.

Be they men or women, incumbents in the United States likely will hear challengers criticize a culture of corruption as a result of the mushrooming scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Karen White, EMILY's List political director, asserted that scandal, along with health-care, war and the government's failure in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, present an arsenal for challengers.

Ticking off the names of indicted members of Congress, White remarked, "Voters are disgusted that this is the government they have and are looking to women to come in and fix this process." As president of the Christian Coalition, Roberta Combs views abortion and many issues differently from White. But she is just as insistent on the suitability of women to hold power.

She speaks of her admiration for Margaret Thatcher, Britain's prime minister for 11 years and a conservative politician who made friends around the world. "By nature, we're compassionate people. Women bear children and they have that instinct to take care of people. And that kind of spills over to governing," said Combs, the mother of two daughters.

Sounding like women around the world seeking political power, she added, "I am activist as far as women being involved in politics. We deserve that right and we have paid the price. But we still live in a man's world."

Reporter Bill Lambrecht of the Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau covers environmental issues and national politics.

 
 

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