Pinoy Kasi

Women gov’t heads

/ 05:07 AM March 27, 2019

The ongoing election campaign is bringing out many women politicians. Although we are not voting yet for a new president, I thought I should write something on women heads of government, especially in Asia, to look at how women’s participation in politics has evolved through the years, and what directions that participation might take in the Philippines.

I am going to concentrate on heads of government but will sometimes mention heads of state. Many countries will have two separate positions, the head of state often being more of a ceremonial position while the head of government presides over a Cabinet of ministers or secretaries and actually runs the country’s affairs.


I checked and Wikipedia, which had specific entries on women heads of government and state. (My usual warning to students: Wikipedia, like encyclopedias, can provide useful information but also needs to be double- and triple-checked.)

I was surprised at how many women heads I hadn’t heard of; currently we have 25 states with women heads. Since 1950, there have been 76 states headed by women.


We should be proud (sort of) of the fact that we’ve had two women heads of government, while powerful Japan, the United States and China have not had any. But it turns out Haiti and Peru have had four each, and San Marino has had 16. But in that tiny principality, the country’s leadership is collective, meaning there are several people simultaneously considered heads.

The former USSR was the first to have women as heads of state, but it was always men who were heads of government. The first country to have a woman head of government was Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) when, in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister, the post of her husband, who had been assassinated.

Since then, we’ve seen a similar pattern in other Asian countries, where all of the women who became heads were widows or daughters of previous prime ministers or presidents. Their surnames no doubt helped them overcome the patriarchal institutions and to rise to power.

Look at the pattern, starting with South Asia. I’ve mentioned Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike. India had Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who practically cut her teeth in politics as the only child of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira was an autocrat, ruling for some time under a state of emergency, and was assassinated in 1984.

Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to head a Muslim country. Her father was prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, convicted and executed for murder by political enemies. Benazir Bhutto herself was killed in a terrorist attack.

For almost 30 years now, Bangladesh has had two women taking turns as prime minister. The current one, Sheikh Hasina, is the daughter of Bangladesh’s first prime minister, while her archrival is Khaleda Zia, the widow of another former prime minister.

East Asia has had only one woman head of government: Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the dictator President Park Chung-hee. Park Geun-hye’s presidency from 2013 to 2017 was a turbulent one, ending with her impeachment and conviction to 25 years’ imprisonment for corruption-related charges.


Then to Southeast Asia. Indonesia had Megawati Sukarnoputri as president from 2001 to 2004, following the footsteps of her father Sukarno, one of Indonesia’s founders, and first president.

In Thailand, there was Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister from 2011 to 2014, and sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, also a former prime minister ousted by a military coup.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto head of government as state counsellor since 2016. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, she inspired many people in the world with her courage resisting a military dictatorship, but has, in the last two years, been heavily criticized for not asserting her leadership to act on the genocide of the Muslim ethnic minority Rohingya.

Finally, the Philippines. Cory Aquino came from a very wealthy and political family, the Cojuangcos, but had to be practically forced into politics with the assassination of her husband Ninoy Aquino, who easily could have become president. Years later, it was Cory and Ninoy’s son, Noy, who became president.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the daughter of a former president and had a controversial presidency. She was arrested several times, tried for misuse of state funds and was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2016.

What does the future hold? Will our women presidential aspirants and other women politicians prove they can break the mold?

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