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President Michelle Bachelet: Last Female Leader Standing in the Americas

For a while, South America had a significant amount of female leadership and policy progress. Unfortunately, things have now shifted in the other direction.

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile stood tall with two other female leaders for a few years. They presided over much of South America, representing more than half of the continent’s population.

Now, President Bachelet is the last woman standing.

One of her counterparts has been impeached and the other is fighting corruption charges. To make matters worse, in a few months, Bachelet too will be gone after her term ends. This means that none of the countries in either North or South America are expected to have female presidents.

This lack of female representation is raising questions among advocators of women’s rights, who were previously hoping that the region’s recent track record of electing women marked a lasting step toward gender equality.

Dozens of countries around the world, including Chile, have adopted quota systems in an effort to increase the representation of women in government. Yet progress has been stubbornly slow.

Although the initiative is there, a push for more notable change is necessary.

A goal set by the United Nations in the 1990s – to have at least 30 percent of lawmakers in national legislatures be women – remains elusive. Today, just over 23 percent of legislators are women, and that number seems to have plateaued.

Moreover, Executive Director of UN Women Lakshmi Puri pointed out, “In all of these countries where there have been such leaps forward on gender equality, the tide could easily recede.”

Presidents often see their support plunge while in office. But the aforementioned three female presidents claim that their gender exposed them to particularly virulent backlashes from the people. This clearly poses a major problem.

President Bachelet, 65, is a pediatrician and single mother who began her government career as an adviser in the Health Ministry. She quickly rose to become the nation’s first female health minister in 2000, and then its first female defense minister in 2002.

Bachelet won her first presidency handily in 2006, succeeding a political ally, Ricardo Lagos. Although she was not the region’s first female head of state, she was widely regarded as the first to be elected on her own merits – that is, without riding the coattails of a politically powerful husband. Her election inspired women across Latin America.

Sexism still persists today, especially in politics, but it is clear that there exist strong women prepared to lead. Although it is not necessarily an easy road ahead, women and men must continue to fight discrimination and inequality – especially when it comes to representation of gender in politics.

Featured Image by Michelle Bachelet on Wikimedia
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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