Stories of Power: Women in Politics

Recently, there has been a growing focus on the importance of reliable, accurate gender data on the situation of women and girls. There are many reasons why data is important: we need accurate data so that we can prioritize. We need accurate data to know where we are starting from, so that we know if the programs we are implementing are actually working. We need data to know whether our work is benefitting people equally and reaching those who are most vulnerable. But data does something else too: It tells powerful stories.

As the world is hopefully nearing a day when a woman is elected to be the president of one of the most powerful nations in the world, let’s see what kind of a story data tells us about women’s political participation globally.

The aspect of women’s political participation and empowerment is also included in the Sustainable Development Goals, under Goal 5 about gender equality and women’s empowerment, for which target 5.5 is:

Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

Women’s ability to participate in politics and decision making varies greatly between countries. The Nordic countries are often seen as trailblazers in this area: My native country, Finland, was one of the first countries in the world to grant women full voting rights in 1906, and in 2000 Finland elected its first female president, Tarja Halonen, who served two terms from 2000 to 2012. Halonen is one of nearly 80 women who have served as Heads of State in the world since the mid 20th century.  Yet, despite the growing number of women in positions of power, there are currently only 10 women serving as Heads of State and 9 as Head of Government – while there  are over 190 countries in the world. Only 22% of parliamentarians worldwide are women, and women in Saudi Arabia only gained the right to vote and run for office last year, in 2015 – leaving only one territory left where women still effectively cannot vote:  Vatican City.

Now perhaps more than ever, the world needs stories about women in politics – stories and narratives backed up by data that show how incredibly unequal the world of politics still is not only  in terms of political positions, but in terms of political panels and reporting the news on politics. A Google search of “images of famous political analysts” reveals quite a lot. It certainly isn’t that there aren’t talented and savvy female political analysts available, but a question of who is given visibility, attention, broadcast time and media space.


In the United States, arguably one of the most powerful and developed nations in the world, a presidential race like no other is underway with only days left before the next President of the United States is elected. On November 8th, Hillary Clinton will most likely (and hopefully) become the first woman to be elected for that office – but her campaign and career, even way before this presidential campaign (or the previous one) began, have been shadowed by clear bias and discrimination due to her gender. This current presidential campaign has been an unreal and scary showcase of the deep rooted misogyny and patriarchal attitudes that are embedded in the American society, and Clinton has taken the brunt of it – but she is not the only woman. In America, and throughout the world, women who dare to run for or be elected to positions of power are faced with hatred, discrimination, belittling, shaming, verbal abuse, mansplaining and sexism.

Having a woman in a political leadership position does not, obviously, automatically lead to more pro-women or gender-equal policies or politics – but there is plenty of evidence that indicates that countries with more women in charge have greater chance of making lasting strides in areas like education, labor force participation and paid leave. In the corporate world, companies with a more gender-equal leadership tend to outperform companies run only by men. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been in the headlines for many pro-women and pro-feminist statements and actions since he took office, one of which being his decision to ensure gender parity in Canada’s cabinet. When asked why, he stated the obvious: Because it’s 2015.

As global institutions, agencies and governments take strides towards closing the gender data gap, let’s ensure the data we collect can tell powerful stories of the kind of a world we could have if more women had fair access to positions of power and decision making. Let’s ensure that our data tells us why it is important for all of us to make sure women have a chance in elections, that women are no longer overlooked and belittled, and that those who are elected also get treated fairly and without sexism while in office. If women can succeed against all odds and get elected to positions of power even in our current system that is inherently biased against them, imagine what women could do and achieve if so much of their energy, time and effort didn’t need to go into fighting back and standing up against sexism, bigotry and discrimination.

With reliable data, we won’t need to imagine. So let’s make sure we have that data – and let’s make sure we also use it and tells those stories of resilience, of power, or change.

Illustration by Elina Tuomi. 

Percentages in illustration reference the following numbers and statistics:

Introducing the Malini Foundation

By: Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation

I don’t think that my story is a unique one for a career professional but I may have somewhat of a different ending. My name is Valerie Handunge and I’m a management consultant – or at least I used to be until three months ago. I was at a top firm, traveled weekly to exciting cities and worked on intellectually challenging strategic projects with incredibly bright colleagues. I loved most aspects about my work but deep down I felt like something was missing. I craved meaning beyond career growth.

I thought about the path I was on and saw myself in 10 years and then again in 20 years and while I’m sure I would have moved slowly but surely up the corporate ladder, it didn’t appear that I was happy or fulfilled.

So after much thought, I made a drastic decision to quit my job to pursue an initiative that I have been passionate about for more than half my life – to foster girls’ education and women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka.

Being originally from Sri Lanka and growing up in the Middle East, it was not uncommon to hear “girls don’t, can’t or shouldn’t do this, that or the other” from teachers, friends and other role models. However, my grandmother, who was married at the tender age of 17 or 18 through an arranged marriage, was generations beyond her time. She was a strong and jovial woman, who had learned many lessons throughout her life. She encouraged my curiosity and somewhat unorthodox independence, saying,

“Girls can do anything that boys can do.”
Valerie & her Grandmother
Valerie as a child & her Grandmother

In mid-2013 I decided to start the Malini Foundation, a non-profit social enterprise, named after my grandmother as she embodied the spirit of the type of organization I wanted to create.

Our mission is to advance the interests of girls and women in Sri Lanka to help them unleash their potential and transform their lives through quality education, empowerment and by bringing their voices to the international community.

Our goal is to implement three programs in the next two years:

1) A unique model to serve talented and gifted orphaned girls

2) Community outreach programs that engage and empower local women leaders to address issues surrounding girls’ education, child marriage, child domestic labor, sexual abuse/ incest etc. and

3) A women’s livelihood program that also serves as a self-sustainability effort for the organization, where profits made will be used to run and grow our programs.

All this sounds great in theory! Yet, implementation has presented its own set of anticipated and unforeseen challenges. From the complexities of attaining the appropriate provincial legal approvals to the occasional self-doubt that arises, there are many bumps on the road.

In fact, just a few days ago I woke up and realized that it has been three months to the date that I had stopped working. I couldn’t help but calculate the salary that I would have made and the many comforts that I took for granted that I no longer have.

Yet, I thought, I go to bed at night excited, with a sense of purpose, peace and satisfaction that I’ve taken this leap of faith to work towards a childhood dream that could yield incomparable rewards to what I’ve left behind.

Please join me on this incredibly humbling and gratifying journey as I document it on Girls’ Globe.

Twitter: @Malini_Fdn

Akili Dada and Women’s Leadership: Lessons from Mandela

Akili Dada is an international award-winning leadership incubator nurturing a generation of young African women from underprivileged backgrounds whose commitment to the underserved is transforming their communities. Akili Dada’s development curriculum creates the foundation on which young women ages 13-35 build their skills and earn the essential qualifications they need to access key decision-making roles and leadership positions.

Last month, we lost Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders in history. As individuals and as a global community, we have felt the loss intensely. In the wake of Mandela’s passing, we have been searching for ways to continue his legacy. At Akili Dada, we have distilled three key lessons from his life that we are committed to take and carry forward in our work of nurturing the next generation of African women leaders:

1. Commitment to the long-term vision is essential.

Even in the 26th year of his imprisonment, Mandela kept his eyes on the prize. At Akili Dada we look at a 13-year-old girl and, with her, create a vision of her future long past the 27th year. We are a leadership incubator because we are committed to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s future leaders who may have been overlooked, and walking the long journey with them. It’s what Mandela taught us.

2. Transnational solidarity is necessary in creating paradigmatic shifts.

By recognizing the important role of international activism (such as the divestment campaigns) and coalition building across national borders, Mandela showed us the value of an inclusive movement that pairs firm assertion with courageous patience. While Akili Dada works in Kenya, we recognize the need to build and nurture transnational support for our mission. Not only do we need to empower young African women as agents of change, we must also fight for the global space in which they will thrive. We need a world that recognizes, appreciates and welcomes young women’s leadership. Regardless of where on our planet you sit as you read this, if you believe that young women from poor communities hold solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing their communities, we need your support.

3. Women are central to achieving social justice.

From the Defiance Campaign to every day acts of courage, women have, and continue to play a critical role in the dismantling of Apartheid. Akili Dada exists because we know that the African continent cannot afford to continue under-investing in, and under-utilizing 50% of its human resources. We are nurturing young women who are equipped and committed to continuing the struggle for social justice, starting in their home communities, and throughout Africa and the world.

As we lose great African leaders like Nelson Mandela and Wangari Maathai, there is a growing urgency to build the capacity of the next generation to lead. Through Akili Dada we are continuing to live and breathe Mandela’s legacy for the African continent and for the world.

Click here to meet Akili Dada scholar-leader, Josephine, and learn more about Akili Dada in this short video

Governance for Health Roundtable Event: Women’s Leadership in Health Systems Management

An artist's outline of the day's discussions.
An artist’s outline of the day’s discussions.

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Governance for Health in Low and Middle Income Countries Roundtable hosted by Management Sciences for Health’s (MSH) Leadership, Management and Governance (LMG) Project at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The Roundtable aimed to further the conversation surrounding good governance within businesses and organizations – particularly in regards to health systems management. As demonstrated by the attendees who represented a wide range of cross-cutting issues, good governance impacts everything – from women’s leadership to technological innovations to global health.

Governance is a life and death decision. When you get it right, you live. When you get it wrong, you die. ~ Jono Quick, MD, CEO of MSH

Dr. Kate Tulenko, Senior Director for Health Systems Innovation at IntraHealth International, was first to speak about the importance of women’s leadership in health systems governance. Tulenko emphasized that women usually are first to come into contact with health systems as they – typically – are the primary caregivers for their children. Therefore, more women must ‘sit at the table’ of health systems governance boards in order to achieve the best results – both in finance management and health outcomes. Tulenko also emphasized the need for more data demonstrating how boardroom diversity – in gender and other realms – is critical for improved results.IMG_20130815_173844

In order to attract more women to high-level positions, organizations must implement a leadership training style that suits women’s needs.

One option discussed at the Roundtable was to include a mentorship program into companies’ mandatory guidelines. The importance of matching women with more senior women to encourage women-to-women learning cannot be underestimated.  Women often experience unique and similar struggles in the workplace (i.e. establishing a healthy work/life balance and interacting with male supervisors). Through female mentorship programs, women are not only more likely to reach for leadership positions, but to excel at them.

Additionally, workplaces must cater to women’s specific needs. As Sheryl Sandberg discussed in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, an act as small as designating close-up parking spots for pregnant and expecting mothers can have a huge impact on women’s high-level aspirations. To expand on that, the Governance Roundtable discussed the importance of establishing daycare services at workplaces – an effort that would allow women to focus more attention on achieving career goals and less on constant caregiving.

Girls' Globe blogger Elisabeth Epstein with Jim Rice, Project Director at LMG
Girls’ Globe blogger Elisabeth Epstein with Jim Rice, Project Director at LMG

Gender quotas in boardrooms also serve as a helpful tool to ensure gender equity exists in the workplace. However, merely including women at the executive level is not enough. Women must be considered boardroom equals and have the ability and desire to freely voice their opinions to male colleagues without the threat of negative consequences. Therefore, in order for women to most effectively participate in board discussions, leadership training – for both men and women – must begin at an early age.

Participating in the Governance Roundtable discussions was an amazing experience. I learned an incredible amount from the participants and left with a greater appreciation of the importance of approaching obstacles in a holistic manner. After all, good governance is not good governance unless it extinguishes all major threats of corruption throughout every sector – whether found in governance, health, education, leadership, or gender equality.

To learn more about the Governance Roundtable, please see the following:

Organizations represented at the Roundtable include Abt Associates IncAMREFBoardEffect LLCBoston UniversityCenter for Strategic and International StudiesDAIDepartment for International DevelopmentFree the SlavesHughes Development IncInternational Planned Parenthood Federation,  Japan International Cooperation Agency, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Leadership, Management & Governance Project, Management Sciences for HealthMedic MobileMedicine Imperial College LondonPlan USARTI International, USAID, the World Health Organization, and of course, Girls’ Globe.