Female political representation under threat?
Jacinda Ardern

"Jacinda Ardern will be remembered for guiding her country with strength, compassion, and grace through multiple historic crises, doubtless saving countless lives. She's shown the world a new model of powerful leadership. A true stateswoman." — Hillary Clinton

The international community was stunned recently by the announcement that Jacinda Ardern was stepping aside as prime minister of New Zealand. The announcement was shocking not only for her countrymen and countrywomen, but it also has implications for global female political participation and representation.

She became the youngest female head of Government in the world when she was elected prime minister in 2017, aged 37. Ardern has been a champion for women's and children's rights since she first became prime minister more than five years ago, and is credited for her strong and empathetic leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic; the Christchurch mosque shootings in which 51 deaths were recorded; and the White Island volcanic eruption.

She was able to navigate the hypermasculine and often toxic world of politics graciously. Ardern also gained attention for taking along her baby daughter to the United Nations for her debut speech in 2018 and wearing a hijab to show solidarity after a massacre targeting Muslims. And she led the Labour Party to a landslide election victory in 2020, profiting from her Government's strong, early response to the pandemic.

It must be noted that New Zealand has had a trio of women trailblazers who have served as prime ministers: Jenny Shipley (1997-1999); Helen Clark (1999-2008); and Jacinda Ardern, who was first elected prime minister in October 2017.

According to the UN, only 22 of 193 countries have a woman as head of Government. This equates with the fact that only 26 per cent of all parliamentarians are women, up from 11 per cent in 1995. The UN adds that as of September 19, 2022, there are 28 countries where 30 women serve as heads of State. The Women's Power Index ranks 193 UN member states on their progress toward gender parity in political participation. It analyses the proportion of women who serve as heads of State or Government, in cabinets, in national legislatures, as candidates for national legislatures, and in local government bodies, and visualises the gender gap in political representation.

Women and girls make up half of the world's population; however, far too often their voices, experiences, and contributions are overlooked or undervalued. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has all but removed the voices of women from the public sphere by barring women from attending educational institutions and working outside the home. In Iran, another Islamic country, the views and opinions of women are not encouraged and women are legislated to play a secondary role to men in the rigid patriarchal society.

Inequality and the second-class status of women and girls in numerous societies have vast political, economic, and social implications. This can limit the ability of communities to resolve conflict, countries to boost their economies, or regions to grow enough food. The untapped potential of women remains a lost opportunity for economic growth and development the world can ill afford.

Regrettably, the world has stood by as gains in the rights of women and girls have been eroded and continue to be eroded. Women are under-represented in the halls of political and economic power and over-represented in poverty. At the same time, barriers, from gender-based violence and lack of political and economic opportunities, to laws that hold women to a different standard, hinder their path to progress.


In January 2020, a man sent two threatening e-mail to then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. It was the culmination of a number of menacing e-mail sent to government officials over a four-month period. The current Parliament is the most diverse in New Zealand's history. There are over 50 female Members of Parliament, accounting for close to 48 per cent of elected members. One is left to ask the question: How then can such a society be viewed as having a misogynistic culture, given the relatively high percentage of women elected to serve?

According to Kate Hannah of The Disinformation Project, there has been an exponential growth in misogynistic abuse, such as rape, death threats, and derogatory comments about appearances and female qualifications. Misogyny is not just about hatred of women, it is about the control and punishment of women who are challenging male dominance.

Ardern's successor, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, has vowed to protect his family from what he called the "abhorrent" abuse that his predecessor received while in office. Data released in June showed that threats against Ardern had almost tripled over three years, and local media reported that at least eight of these had entered the legal system. The type of abuses that Ardern endured was more than troubling and speaks to the need for society to engage and interrogate misogyny and the toxic brand of masculinity.


The Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy Programme states that women's leadership promotes bipartisanship, equality, and stability. Interestingly, when women make up the critical mass of legislatures, around 25 to 30 per cent, they are more likely to challenge established conventions and policy agendas.

Women are more likely to cross party lines to find common ground. A study of the US Senate found that women senators more frequently worked across the aisle and passed more legislation than their male counterparts. In recent years, for example, female US senators from both parties joined to negotiate an accord to end a government shutdown. In Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant women's groups joined forces to establish a powerful political party that made progress across religious divides during the Northern Ireland peace efforts in the late 1990s.

Additionally, women lawmakers are more likely to advocate for policies that support education and health. Parliaments with a higher share of women lawmakers are more likely to pass and implement legislation that advances gender equality, including laws on domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment. An increase in the share of women legislators is also positively correlated with investment in education and health. Among the mostly high-income countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), growth in the number of female legislators led to an increase in educational expenditures. Similarly, in non-OECD India, women-led legislatures were more likely to support investments in clean drinking water.

Most countries have been having a difficult time meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5, which addresses gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. According to the United Nations, the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030 and has been pushed further off track by the socio-economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN adds that at the current pace it would take another 40 years for women and men to be represented equally in national political leadership.

In Jamaica, the number of women involved in political representation is encouraging. As of August 2020, there were 18 female Members of Parliament out of a total of 63 members in the Lower House of Parliament, accounting for 28.5 per cent. In the Upper House of Parliament, there are eight female senators out of a total of 21, accounting for 38 per cent.

Former Prime Minister Ardern's powerful symbolism of a working mother at the UN will serve as a conduit to galvanise women worldwide. Her message is that women do not need to choose between having a family and being in the workforce. Contrastingly, Ardern's resignation also serves to highlight the complexities women face as they balance both work in the private and public spheres. The burden can become too burdensome.

Ardern has not only earned the respect of New Zealand, but also the respect of the global community. Undoubtedly, her honesty in telling the electorate how burnt out she was is to be commended. It can be argued that her stance was one of grace, courage, and humility. Based on her past, we should not expect her, at age 42, to disappear from the international scene. Her service to humanity will continue in some other capacity.

In the her words, "I never, ever grew up as a young woman believing that my gender would stand in the way of doing anything I wanted."

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and/or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or waykam@yahoo.com

Wayne Campbell
Wayne Campbell

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