Recap 2011: Important year for women across the world

by Fitri Bintang Timur

The past year should not be taken lightly by women, since it was the year when female empowerment movements began to show the fruits of their respective struggles.

For global politics, 2011 was marked by regime changes, global protests and examples that authoritarian regimes do not last forever. Not a single case of these events passed without female participation.

Many people were shocked by the waves of protest across the Middle East and North Africa; long-standing regimes were toppled in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

Stereotypes of women from this region as culturally oppressed and not being able to stand up in public were also challenged.

Muslim women marched with their Islamic brotherhood, giving Islam a new confidence in female participation.

Not a few women were beaten, arrested and shot in Arab revolutions. As always, there were stories of how the male-dominated authoritarian regime tried to strip women protesters of their dignity, such as virginity tests carried out upon female activists who protested in Tahrir Square.

Nevertheless, these women did not stop. They spoke of their experiences to the media and continued their participation toward nation-building, making sure equal-rights agendas do not slip off the table.

Tunisia is one model where women activists have been successful in demanding all political parties commit to gender equality before the election in October 2011, and they remain active in overseeing the implementation.

The Nobel Peace Prize this year was awarded to three female leaders who hail from the area. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, and Tawakul Karman from Yemen, were the women recognized for their struggles to achieve women’s safety and rights and full-participation for women in peace-building initiatives.

This event stated that democracy would only be achieved if women were given the same opportunity as men in contributing toward development and security.

In Latin America, the first reelected female President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez, won a resounding victory after gaining 40 percent more votes than her contenders.

With her, this region is currently led by three female heads of state: the other two being President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica.

Other countries in Latin America also reported a rising number of women in government jobs and parliamentary representation, namely Ecuador, Panama and Chile.

The reason behind these increased votes for women is the quota policy. From the early 1990s, 12 Latin American countries have implemented a quota law. This law provides equal support to both men and women to hold government positions as suggested by the United Nations women’s organization.

The proposal aimed for a quota stating that at least one-third of women should stand for the respected state-related sector.

This legislation has proved to be working. The number of national congresswomen is rising; in Argentina and Costa Rica, the figure is around 30 percent.

Other countries in the region have around 20 percent of women, while the neighboring United States has only 15 percent of women in its House of Representatives.

Contrary to Latin America, Indonesia only adopted a quota policy half-heartedly. The Constitutional Court accepted articles 53 and 55 on affirmative action regarding the 2008 General Elections Law but canceled article 214 of the law, which regulates that the number of candidates should be taken into account.

The result is that, despite women being encouraged to offer their candidacy, their chances of winning are low and are not supported by the policy.

In spite of its relative lethargy in empowering women in politics, Indonesia is a far better environment than Saudi Arabia, which only decided to grant its women the right to vote and run for government jobs in September 2011.

Last year also marked an increase in the number of women in the economic sector. The position of managing director of the International Monetary Fund was handed to Christine Lagarde, the former French finance minister who became the first woman to ever lead the IMF.

As the new head, Lagarde has successfully revamped the institution campaign using microblogging site Twitter. Her efforts have resulted in the IMF gaining wider access in the emerging economies of Brazil and India. She also held online conferences to address her Facebook followers’ questions, which has made the institution more transparent and open.

In Asia, women build landmark of economic achievements. At least three Asian women CEOs: Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), Guler Sabanci (Sabanci Group) and Dong Mingzhu (Gree Electric Appliances) reached the upper rankings of the 2011 Financial Times Global Top Business Women List. Businesswomen from China and India made up 20 percent of the list.

Indonesia also has its leading woman in economics. Former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati has been employed as managing director of the World Bank since June 2010. Last year, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 65th most powerful woman in the world.

Changes in female advancement also took place in the field of defense and security. In August 2011, Australia declared all its military positions open to women, lifting the ban for frontline designations, such as artillery, special forces and fighter jet pilots.

In the same month, the British Royal Navy also appointed a woman to command a warship, the HMS Portland.

This was the first time a woman had been promoted to such a position in the 500-year history of the UK’s senior service. Marching ahead, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) recently announced its decision to allow women to serve in submarines.

The year 2011 also marked changes for female soldiers in Mexico. They are now permitted to participate in paratrooper training.

As its defense ministry in October 2011 issued an equal opportunity regulation, Mexican female military personnel are able to apply to any defense post to which they aspire, such as head of battalion and even defense minister if their qualification allows.

In Afghanistan, military women started their training to become helicopter pilots in the middle of last year and will be ready for their deployments in 2014.

Meanwhile, Indonesia in 2011 had around six women generals in service with a further six retired. They came from both the Indonesian Military (TNI) and police, working in such fields as legal advisor, international political expert, criminal investigator and even a provincial head of police and head of the National Resilience Institute.

These women are the history makers after Kartini and Cut Nyak Dien, who were successful without adequate government support to empower them. It is believable that more women can emerge, if only the doors to gender equality are opened wider.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Published in Jakarta Post, 4 January 2012

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