Jacinda Ardern has recently been named as the world’s second best leader by Fortune Magazine. The Prime Minister of New Zealand won global admiration for the dignified manner in which she led her country after the Christchurch Mosque terror attack on 15th March 2019, the worst in the country’s history. Her response which was empathetic with a resolute determination, a combination that is rarely seen together, sent a powerful message against sectarianism.
The same week, halfway across the world, in Boston, Dame Jenny Shipley was beaming with pride talking about her current Prime Minister in a room filled with women leaders from various countries. Glowing words were being said by Shipley, the first woman Prime Minister of New Zealand, for Ardern despite being from rival parties. She hailed Ardern for her strong leadership decisions despite the challenges of leading a coalition government.
But this was not the first time that Shipley has stood up for Ardern. When the latter announced her pregnancy, the whole of New Zealand was debating whether she would be able to do her job properly now. Shipley recalled being telephoned by a reporter for a quote, she admitted to thinking about it politically for a moment as they belonged to opposing parties and then shouting, “Of course, she can do it,” in the next moment. Having rarely seen such sisterhood in my time in Indian politics, I was in awe.
Women traditionally have been seen as competitors to other women – How can we change that?
In the few days of mentorship that I received from Shipley, there was a recurrent theme of upliftment. One fine evening, as we were walking to dinner at Harvard Faculty Club, I expressed my respect for the way she hailed even her political opponents. In response, Shipley said, “Despite political differences, women need to hold women up. That’s the least we can do for each other”. Her words, etched in my memory forever, hold a deeper meaning.
Women traditionally see other women as competitors. Notions like ‘two women cannot work with each other’, ‘a woman is another woman’s enemy’ have become entrenched in our mind-set. This is a direct manifestation of patriarchy, which has made women believe over the years, that they have just a piece of the pie to share amongst themselves. When in reality, women have as much right as men over the whole pie. Shipley’s standing up for her political adversary stems from the belief that there is enough space for all of us within the system. Such leadership is a crucial step towards undoing centuries of patriarchy.
Women traditionally see other women as competitors. Notions like ‘two women cannot work with each other’, ‘a woman is another woman’s enemy’ have become entrenched in our mind-set.
According to a study by Inter-Parliamentary Union, greater participation of women in decision-making diversifies the process, which in turn enriches the institution and society. One of the notable examples of this was seen in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges wherein the Supreme Court of the United States decided that same-sex couples had a fundamental right to marry. Of the three women who decided the case, all of them were part of the majority; while four of the six men on the bench dissented. Even in India, Justice Indu Malhotra in her judgment decriminalizing section 377, thoughtfully wrote, “History owes an apology to the members of this community and their families.” These words acknowledged the struggles and pain of many families who, at last, felt seen. An aspect none of the male judges mentioned in their judgments.
A similar trend is seen when women leaders are elected. According to a study by Harvard University in the villages of India where women have been elected after gender quotas were brought in local governments, there has been an increase in access to healthcare, infrastructure, delivery services, and most importantly, education attainment of girls. Having elected women leaders led to parents sending both their male and female children to schools. It served as a motivating factor for young girls to have relatable role models.
India lags far behind the international average of women representation. But our country has a vast untapped potential of women leadership, as seen in the local governments, which when harnessed will ensure a revolutionary stride in terms of growth and development.
Talking about this phenomenon, Beatriz Merino, the first woman Prime Minister of Peru, narrated an anecdote one morning as we sipped pineapple juice at breakfast. Quite recently, she ran into a prominent woman leader from her country. The first thing the lady said to her was, “I’m where I am today because of you. You made me believe that a woman can reach any heights, even the Prime Minister’s chair”. Merino, throughout her time with me, hammered home the point that women leaders shape the lives of other women without even our own knowledge.
With just 11.8 per cent women elected in the Indian parliament, India lags far behind the international average of women representation. But our country has a vast untapped potential of women leadership, as seen in the local governments, which when harnessed will ensure a revolutionary stride in terms of growth and development. The Women’s Reservation Bill is the surest way to guarantee at least 33 per cent women in our parliaments and legislative bodies. Our political parties need to ensure it is passed as soon as possible, to embark towards a brighter future where women take the country, in every section as equal stakeholders, ahead.
We must not be kept away from the benefits of diversity which women leadership brings. In a society that is currently reeling under the impact of division and subversion of the marginalized sections, having more women leaders will bring a much required healing touch as well as a strong stance on issues of prominence, just like Ardern did.
The views expressed are author’s own.