Women In Politics: The Dawn Of A New Era Of ‘Empathetic Leadership’

When New Zealand’s president Jacinda Ardern shed tears in a press conference after the Christchurch shooting massacre, there was something different that the world sensed and praised her for. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed refugees in a grand humanitarian move, she was anointed as ‘Mama Merkel’ and German citizens were moved enough to follow their leader’s footsteps, and welcomed refugees with flowers in their hands.

When the US President Donald Trump made a racist attack on four female lawmakers, namely, Reps Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, it garnered criticism even from his party members. It also garnered responses that were not aggressive but nevertheless measured and appealing to the higher faculty of citizens. Although, these leaders have attracted racist, sexist, and misogynist attacks from all quarters, for things ranging from as superficial as their sartorial choices to their leadership styles, nevertheless their fresh approach towards their leadership is too conspicuous to be ignored. It is a seed of change which is sporadic yet powerful. This article is not from the perspective of people and how they perceive these female leaders, but just a glimpse of how these new set of female leaders have perceived themselves and have approached their positions.

Women have been a part of the political scene for a very long time. However, as a voter and an active participant their entry date is as late as the 20th century.  Their participation in politics and leadership has been much older, dating back to the times of Cleopatra as well as Queen Victoria, although it’s too sporadic and unevenly spread out and mostly confined to their role as leader’s wives and chaperone.

South Asia has produced a number of female leaders, such as Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. England had Margaret Thatcher, the United States has Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice to name a few. However, one thing that was common among most of these leaders was their approach towards their leadership.

It can be said that these female parliamentarians in a parliament full of male members were compelled to or, better to say, resorted to, more often than not, overtly masculine and testosterone-fueled behaviour, which is generally identified as aggressive, conservative, nationalistic, and always ready for a war. This kind of behavioural pattern resembles the much-fabled ‘Napoleon Complex’ which is defined as a kind of inferiority complex generated due to a person’s short stature where latter resorts to overly aggressive and dominating social behavior to compensate for their seemingly harmless appearance. To be taken seriously, many female leaders had to resort to this kind of aggressive behavior, though a coincidence of them actually possessing such aggressive attitude cannot be denied, but a widespread prevalence and people’s fascination with the term ‘Iron Lady’ makes it a fair assumption.

Indira Gandhi.

India’s former, and deceased, prime minister Indira Gandhi’s journey from being anointed as a ‘goongi gudiya’ (dumb doll) to an ‘Iron Lady‘ who oversaw a victorious war against Pakistan. However, the binary of ‘doll’ and ‘lady’ is too blatant to be ignored.

Harvard Business Review, in one of their assessments on “The different Words We Use To Describe Male And Female Leaders” found that there are more negative than positive attributes assigned to female leaders as compared to their male counterparts. And the most positive term assigned to female leaders was “compassionate” while it was “analytical” for male leaders. However, this display of ‘compassion‘ by female political leaders has been either largely missing in action or seen as a weakness on the leader’s part.

Drury Stevenson used the example of Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright and their reactions to their husbands’ (Bill Clinton and Joe Albright respectively) cheating scandals to show how “Women in power are expected to project an image of remarkable self-control and wisdom despite the silliness going around them, while the men in power can excuse their most notorious failings by appealing to a pure lack of self-control or too much-stifled emotions.”

The pressure on women to be and act ‘rational’ is way too real, where rational is identified as a manly attribute as opposed to ‘emotional’, which is identified as a feminine one. Women leaders have to walk a tight rope in this patriarchal setup to avoid succumbing to the hysterical female stereotype that is naturally unfit to rule.

Clockwise: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Ilhan Omar. Image Source: Flickr, Wikimedia Commons.

In this backdrop, the rise of leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Angela Merkel is a breath of fresh air. It could be seen as a result of the growing acceptance of feminist movements worldwide which has removed the negative connotations attached to emotions as well as the burst of the much-hyped bubble of ‘rationality’ after the failure of a war on terror, in the name of which everything violent and aggressive stood justified.

Hannah Arendt in her book “The Human Condition” pointed out the irrationality that guided the actions of educated bureaucrats and managers behind the Vietnam War. The futility of it was exposed even after the numerous attempts by the leaders to hide behind terms like “collateral damage” and “fog of war.” However, the Vietnam War is just a shining example of this obsession with rationality gone wrong, as not even a single expert, not even Robert McNamara from the RAND Corporation, famously known as a “Whiz Kids” included, could stop the war from turning into a humanitarian and political disaster.

Perhaps, it’s time that we realise that human problems need humane solutions and that the time is ripe for more empathetic leaders. The article is not advocating for ‘irrationality but the obsession with ‘rationality’ that leads to much more inhuman and irrational actions. The new female leadership should be seen as a dawn of a new era and a beginning of a new narrative so that it gets the power of changing how people look at politics, and how politicians conduct themselves.

Featured Image Credit: Ulysse Bellier, Lorie Shaull, Glyn Lowe/Flickr; Wikimedia Commons
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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