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Asian Women on Top

Asia still has women leaders who came to power at least partly because of their family ties. But 2011 witnessed a major change: these leaders now seem to use their positions with far more confidence putting women and their concerns squarely at the center of their agendas.

NEW YORK – India’s Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia – these women leaders dominated South and South East Asia for much of the past four decades. Each belonged to a special class of women whose husbands or fathers were their country’s recognized founding father or longstanding political leader. But, while their dynastic links brought them to power, they were not the sole factor keeping them there.

When first elected, none of these women had any serious professional or political qualifications. For some, this “shortcoming” was seen as an advantage, enabling some of them to project an image of innocence and purity, even martyrdom, as they stood in the place of their deceased husbands or fathers. None was particularly focused on a women’s agenda (at least not in their first terms in office), and studies show that rural women did not fare particularly well under their rule.

But something very different emerged in Asia in 2011. We still have women leaders who came to power at least partly because of their family ties. But they now seem to use their positions with far more confidence in putting women and their concerns squarely at the center of their agendas. And perhaps more importantly, a growing number of women are reaching for the highest political echelons in their countries by dint of their political talents alone.

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