Skip to content

Guardian: The world’s female politicians should inspire British women

By Baroness Warsi

There is a collective assumption in the west that on this side of the globe we lead the way when it comes to female representation in politics. Britain achieved universal suffrage in the 1920s, elected the first female prime minister in the 1970s, and since then women have taken their rightful place at the heart of public life.

Yet countries across the world are showing us up. From south Asia to Latin America, they’re boasting an increasing number of female politicians in top roles – in spite of the inequalities faced in their societies. Take Bangladesh, which I visited last month. It’s a young democracy, yet has several women in senior political roles. The prime minister, the foreign minister and the leader of the opposition are all women.

In Pakistan, the foreign minister and the speaker of the national assembly are women. And in India, the head of the governing party, the leader of the opposition and the chief minister of Delhi – who I met on my visit to India – are all women.

This trend isn’t just confined to south Asia: Somalia’s foreign minister is a woman, Thailand is ruled by its first female prime minister and both South Korea and Brazil have female presidents.

What makes this all the more powerful is that women are achieving these positions, in many cases, in spite of deeply entrenched inequalities. In the Gulf states, for example, women’s employment and decision-making opportunities are said to be the lowest in the world. Yet in 2009, Saudi Arabia appointed its first female minister – a small step but an important signal to send out to the country.

In many cases, it’s the inequalities that are driving women to take a stand. Like Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl who was shot by the Pakistani Taliban last year for campaigning for girls’ right to an education. Malala, who I’m delighted to hear was recently nominated for a Nobel peace prize, is an inspiration: rising up in defiance of militant misogyny and showing leadership, even when her life is in the gravest danger, and touching thousands across the globe.

One thing I have found is that when women do make it to the top, they’re increasingly taking on the heftiest roles. For example, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is leading the country’s key negotiations on peace with Afghanistan and trade with India. And the governor of the central bank of Malaysia, Zeti Akhtar Aziz, is spearheading the economic success of the south-east Asian country.

Of course, many of these countries have a long way to go in delivering women’s rights. But that does not mean we should not applaud the continuing representation of women in politics. And we should also applaud the efforts to promote women’s rights – for example in the countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia, that mark International Women’s Day as an official holiday.

There is a habit of assuming the west has a monopoly on equality and progress. And yet across the world we are seeing women rise to the top when the odds are stacked against them. In Britain, gender equality is much stronger, yet just 22.5% of parliamentarians elected in 2010 were female – far behind, for example, Rwanda – where over 56% of representatives are women.

It is still tough for female politicians in the UK. The low representation of female MPs in our parliament puts us at a ranking of just 57th in the world. It’s hardly what you would expect from a country that elected the first female prime minister more than 30 years ago.

So we can’t rest on our laurels. On International Women’s Day, I want our would-be women leaders to be as inspired by the female politicians in Thailand, India and Brazil as they are by people such as Margaret Thatcher, Harriet Harman and Justine Greening, and to think “if they can do it, so can I”.

%d bloggers like this: