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Female Leaders in the PandemicIn the months since COVID-19 first emerged in late 2019, the world has experienced many challenges that have led people across countries to experience economic, social and political instability. The pandemic has also exposed another issue: COVID-19 has displayed the strengths of female leaders while highlighting the need for more opportunities for women in the future.

Female-led Countries Perform Better

Around the world, female leaders in the pandemic have been praised for their response to the global crisis.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has become a stellar example of thoughtful and resourceful leadership in handling COVID-19. Her decision to implement strict lockdown procedures at the beginning of the pandemic saved thousands of lives and the country’s economy. On June 8, months before many other areas, Ardern declared there were no longer any cases of COVID-19 in the country.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has done a significantly better job at controlling the virus in Germany than many of her European neighbors. Even though the virus hit Germany hard, the country “had about a quarter as many deaths as France,” in April.

In Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen combated COVID-19 early. By beginning testing in late December, she prevented the virus from getting out of control in its early stages. Praised for her approach to containing the virus, the president now has a 61% approval rating.

Such successes of female leaders in the pandemic are not isolated events. The strength, compassion, thoughtfulness and collaboration that women have shown throughout the pandemic have benefited the health and safety of their countries. Across the world, female-led countries “have suffered six times fewer confirmed deaths from COVID-19 than countries with governments led by men.”

The Strengths of Female Leadership

Women bring specific strengths to the table when it comes to leadership. Women are naturally more inclined to act compassionately and work cooperatively. These characteristics are especially important in the midst of the pandemic. Focusing on collaboration instead of competition is the only way to effectively handle an international crisis. Contact tracing, self-isolation and simply wearing a mask are all altruistic actions that depend on a cooperative response from the public. Leaders must serve as role models by exemplifying those actions.

Humility has also been recognized as a characteristic closely associated with women and is vital to managing the pandemic. Leaders must acknowledge that they cannot eradicate the virus alone and recognize the value of insight from experts like the medical community.

Female Experience and Crisis Management

Female leaders are also, to some degree, free from the expectations grounded in toxic masculinity, including the standard to act aggressively and competitively. This appeal to hyper-masculinity has appeared in some male-led countries during the pandemic. In the United States, for example, by calling himself a wartime president, President Trump has framed the virus as an enemy requiring the same aggression and violence as war. His decision not to wear a mask is an attempt to appear strong and assertive over his enemy. However, this kind of militaristic charisma does intimidate a virus. In contrast, many female leaders have “emphasized compassion and patience, rather than war and victory,” thus taking a more humane approach that prioritizes the health and safety of human lives over a desire to appear ‘tough’.

Women’s life experiences also inform their response to a crisis. Comprising the majority of essential workers and the newly unemployed, women may have a more empathetic response to the pandemic. Women of color “may be more attuned to the disproportionate impact of the virus on marginalized communities than people who have never had to think about marginalization before.”

For female leaders in the pandemic, these experiences bring to light the severity of the situation while fostering compassionate and collaborative solutions to overcome the crisis.

The Girls LEAD Act

The success of female leaders in fighting the pandemic has made one thing clear: women should receive greater political and leadership opportunities. The Borgen Project supports the Girls LEAD Act, which seeks “to strengthen the participation of adolescents, particularly girls, in democracy, human rights, and governance.”

The Act aims to expand opportunities for girls by implementing “activities to increase adolescent girls’ civic and political knowledge and skills and address barriers to political participation.” It also offers “foreign assistance funding for democracy, human rights, and governance programs.”

Female leaders in the pandemic have highlighted the importance of opening opportunities for women through legislation such as the Girls LEAD Act. Women’s ability to participate in politics and access leadership roles is not only of pivotal importance for gender equality but also imperative to the health and safety of our world.

– Jessica Blatt
Photo: Wikimedia

Women’s Access to Healthcare in Iraq
Iraq, a nation that war and devastation have plagued, has a healthcare system in a state of crisis. Doctors are fleeing the country and drugs are running low. Of a nearly $107 billion budget in 2018, only about 2% went to Iraq’s health ministry. As a result, healthcare quality is very poor, and women’s access to healthcare in Iraq is particularly limited. Many doctors attempt to purchase supplies and technology from private manufacturers, but laws require that the government provide all medical supplies.

Violence Against Women

About 96% of Iraqi citizens do not have health insurance, but 85% of women over the age of 15 are unemployed and cannot afford to pay out of pocket. Iraq’s long history with misogyny, honor killings and religious ideas promoting the use of violence against women exacerbates the situation for Iraqi women, 37% of whom will experience violence from a partner or acquaintance.

Women in Iraq have little to no access to female-centered health such as OB-GYNs, counseling and crisis centers, which are generally secret or hidden. WHO has called the issue of violence against women a “global health issue of epidemic proportions,” and has created effective measures so that doctors can become more aware of abuses. In Iraq, where women are unlikely to see doctors sensitive to women’s issues, there is no guarantee of receiving assistance.

Access to Education

Another issue affecting women’s health is a lack of female doctors due to a very low rate of education among girls in Iraq. Unfortunately, little data is available to measure the number of girls who attend in school in Iraq — which is itself proof of the lack of attention to girls’ education. As of 2010, according to the last published report about female education in Iraq, only 44% of girls were enrolled in school. The report also revealed that 75% of girls dropped out before the end of primary school, and only 25% of girls who stayed in primary school made it to intermediate school.

Women’s lack of access to education has proven to be a direct link to child marriage and the exploitation of young women. About 33% of girls who have to marry have no education, and 13% only have a primary school education. Girls who are educated are more likely to recognize the signs of abuse, which gives them a chance to escape, pursue careers and experience lower risks of poverty.

US Efforts to Help

The Girls Lead Act (S.2766) aims to make education more accessible for girls in nations like Iraq. This bill will strengthen young girls’ involvement and participation in education, specifically in math, science and politics. A lack of women in leadership roles is a major factor behind misogyny and sexism in developing nations, as well as in women’s health. According to the bill, “Despite comprising over 50 percent of the world’s population, women are underrepresented at all levels of public sector decision making. At the current rate of progress, it will take over 100 years to achieve gender parity in political participation.”

Writing to leaders in support of the Girls Lead Act, participating in initiatives to ban child marriage and raising awareness of gender-based violence are key ways to increase women’s access to healthcare in Iraq. These efforts may be the greatest chance that Iraqi girls have at living a prosperous life.

Raven Heyne
Photo: Flickr

forced marriage in Iraq and Afghanistan
In Iraq, a 1987 law entitled the Personal Status Law and Amendments stated that a person may not marry until age 18, however, they could marry with judicial consent at age 15. Nevertheless, 24% of girls marry by age 18 and 5% marry by age 15. In Afghanistan, the numbers are just as shocking. In fact, 35% of girls in Afghanistan marry by 18, and 9% by age 15. The consequences of forced marriage in Iraq and Afghanistan are detrimental to the development of a young girl’s identity and safety, and they shed light on issues with child marriage around the globe.

Child Marriage in Iraq

Child marriage is often the result of extreme poverty or religious beliefs, and because of these factors, it is at its highest in the Middle East. In Iraq, one in four children lives in poverty, making them extremely vulnerable to forced marriage. When families receive offers of money in exchange for their child, they often accept in order to feed the rest of their family. The girls that enter these marriages often suffer abuse and rape, or become pregnant; then in some cases, they experience divorce and end up on the street. Women over age 15 are also vulnerable to abusive marriages because 85% do not work and cannot financially support themselves.

In Iraq, child marriage is not criminalized and many often consider it normal or protect it. Recently, the rate of “pleasure marriages” has skyrocketed as well. Pleasure marriages are temporary marriages that have religious approval and often occur either so the man can obtain money from the girl’s family or for sexual exploitation of the girl before the marriage ends and the wife experiences abandonment. This is detrimental to young girls in poverty and rural communities, as their family often abandons them after paying large dowries to the man’s family.

Child Marriage in Afghanistan

Forced marriage in Iraq and Afghanistan is an unfortunate commonality, largely because of religious beliefs but also because girls lack opportunities for independence. In Afghanistan, although there are laws in place that make it illegal to marry anyone under age 18, they rarely experience enforcement. A 2017 study by UNFPA stated that girls who complete secondary school are less likely to be married under age 18, but unfortunately, the most recent data reflects that only 44% of girls in Afghanistan enter primary school. Only half of those girls then go on to secondary school. The lack of education that leads to poverty does not only take away a girl’s chance to experience growth and independence–in Afghanistan, it makes her all the more vulnerable to a forced marriage.

The effects of child marriage on a girl’s health and well being are detrimental. Girls under 15 years old are five times more likely to die in childbirth, according to the Women’s Health Coalition. Just as devastating, a child born to a child bride is 60% more likely to die in their first year of life. Girls forced to marry often cannot access healthcare because they have signs of abuse both physical and sexual. Because of this, the risk of STD contraction is very high.

Combatting Child Marriage Globally

Forced marriage in Iraq and Afghanistan affects too many young girls. Girls Not Brides is an international organization working to enforce the sustainable development goals that are necessary to end child marriage, starting with poverty and hunger. Girls Not Brides outlines steps in its Theory of Change and monitors change frequently. The organization’s website allows people to email and call leaders in support of enforcing the legal age of marriage. Thanks to organizations such as that, child marriage now is declining in the world. In 2016, the percentage of women married before the age of 15 globally was 7%, as opposed to 12% in the 1990s.

There are also fact sheets and visuals to use on social media. In the U.S., the Girls Lead Act, or S.2766, is in need of support. This bill would provide funding for education initiatives for the millions of girls worldwide. This bill also focuses on the lack of girls in politics, science and technology; it will fund programs to make these fields of study more accessible. Beginning with education and stable living conditions, girls living in poverty won’t have to fear losing their futures.

Raven Heyne
Photo: Flickr