young woman standing for a performance

4 countries where women have gained political power—and the obstacles they still face

Activists in Bolivia, New Zealand, Iraq, and Afghanistan have made huge advances, but cultural resistance—and even violence—are still barriers to overcome.

New Zealand Bronwyn Clifford, 16, stands with other Maori women on Waitangi Day, observed each February to commemorate the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by some 500 Maori chiefs and the British in 1840. Much ancestral land was lost during Britain’s 19th-century colonization. Today Maori women use social media to mobilize support for indigenous land rights and other reforms.
This story appears in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The Bolivian mayor thought she was going to die. It was November 6, 2019, and the municipal building was on fire, set ablaze after a disputed October presidential election and protests that ousted socialist president Evo Morales. Mayor María Patricia Arce Guzmán, 48, a member of Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), escaped the smoke and tried to dodge the hostile crowd outside.

Hobbled by a bad knee, she ran through the streets of Vinto, a town in the central Bolivian department of Cochabamba where she’d been mayor since June 2015. She lost her shoes but didn’t stop. “Then they grabbed me and started shouting that I was a murderer,” Arce later told me. And her hours-long ordeal began.

Rioters doused her in gasoline. She also smelled of urine and bleach. Kicked, beaten with sticks, and pelted with stones, the mayor was dragged barefoot to a site where a 20-year-old man, Limberth Guzmán Vásquez, had died in clashes between left-wing supporters of the ousted president and their right-wing opponents. The anti-Morales protesters accused Arce of financing and supporting leftists involved in the violence that claimed the young man. “I thought they were going to kill me, set me on fire,” Arce says.

A man poured red paint over her. A woman cut off Arce’s waist-length, honey-colored hair. “It felt like she was almost tearing my scalp.” Some in the crowd shouted that they would kill her two sons. Others told her to resign and to denounce former president Morales, who had been declared the winner of the election, amid allegations of fraud. After losing support from the military and police, Morales resigned.

Videos circulated on social media of a distressed but defiant Arce surrounded by masked protesters. “I’m not going to shut up!” she said in one snippet. “And if they want to kill me, let them kill me!” Finally, people she didn’t know spirited her away on a motorbike and handed her to the police for protection.

The assault on Arce reflected the depth of bitter divisions in Bolivian politics. But it also shed light on a contradiction: Bolivia is known for promoting representation by women in its national and local governments—and it’s one of the most dangerous places in South America to be a woman. The country has the highest rate of femicide, women killed because of their gender, on the continent—2.3 murders for every 100,000 women in 2018. In 2019, 117 women were killed. It’s estimated that 70 percent of Bolivian women have been sexually or physically abused.

That’s why Arce and many other women in Bolivian politics say the attack stemmed in part from a culture of machismo—a resentful version of the pervasive bias that challenges women leaders around the world, including in places like Bolivia, where a 2010 law requires that women make up at least half of all party nominees for federal, state, and local offices. Women now hold 53 percent of the seats in the national legislature. (Rwanda's legislature is majority female. Here's how it happened.)

When Arce was assaulted, there were three other women mayors in Cochabamba, also members of Morales’s party. Only Arce was targeted physically. She suspects it’s because of the female empowerment programs she championed: skills-based employment training such as basket-weaving and cooking classes, aimed at promoting financial independence for women. The programs weren’t popular with some men, she says.

Arce’s detractors accuse her of improperly using public resources to incite violence, which she denies. “There is a lot of machismo here,” Arce says. “I think they wanted to teach me a lesson and make me an example to others.”

Arce returned to her office in Cochabamba weeks after she was attacked to finish a term that would end on May 30, 2020. On a warm December morning she sat at her desk, her natural dark brown hair growing back, slightly longer than a buzz cut. “The fear is always there,” she told me. “I don’t feel protected here.”

The glassless windows in her office, smashed in the riot, were still covered in plastic sheets that billowed gently. Images of Morales adorned the walls. There were no photos of Morales’s more conservative successor, Jeanine Áñez Chávez—a woman—whom Arce does not support. “We women have struggled to have a [political] space and we can’t give it up,” Arce said through tears, referring to her mayoral post. “If I quit and let them win, what message does that send to the people, to the women I tell to keep going?”

Throughout history and around the world, women who sought political power often faced resistance, ranging from slurs to assassination. Women have made significant gains but continue to face familiar barriers, including in countries that have given women a greater voice in governing. In more than half the world’s countries, including Bolivia and conflict-riddled states such as Afghanistan and Iraq, legislative gender quotas now guarantee the formal political participation of women. Such quotas have their limitations, however. They’ve been criticized as undemocratic and discriminatory by some in liberal democracies who argue that they undermine the principle of merit by favoring women over men solely based on gender. And, as in Bolivia, they don’t prevent criticism of women officials from occasionally taking on a nasty, sexist tone.

There also are historical structural inequalities embedded in gender-neutral, merit-based political systems. These nonquota systems, such as in the United States, can favor the dominant groups in society, including men, white people, and those with significant financial resources. Overcoming barriers to political entry is one challenge. What women can—and can’t—do once in power is another. The inclusion of women in a party or parliament may tick the box for gender equality, but it also can be tokenism if female politicians are seen but less often heard. And then there are questions of which women gain access to the halls of power and how representative they are of others—questions that several countries, such as New Zealand and Afghanistan, are grappling with. Despite intimidation, violence, and other barriers, women around the world are holding their ground in an effort to seize and strengthen their political power. (See how women are taking charge of their future around the world.)

Some governments have made significant advances in female participation in politics without mandating quotas.

New Zealand, the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, in 1893, ranks 20th in the world when it comes to women’s inclusion in parliament. The United States, by comparison, sits at number 81, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Swiss-based global organization of parliaments. But getting in is only part of the challenge. In some countries, the presence of women in decision-making roles doesn’t necessarily translate into greater equality for that country’s women. For some women, such as Iraqi parliamentarians, being in power doesn’t always mean having power. (These are the best and worst countries to be a woman.)

Iraq was once at the forefront of women’s rights in the Middle East. The country’s 1959 Personal Status Law restricted polygamy and child marriage, outlawed forced marriages, and improved women’s rights in divorce, child custody, and inheritance. The 1970 constitution, drafted by Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath Party, enshrined equal rights for all citizens. Women’s literacy rates, education, and participation in the workforce were all actively promoted through generous policies such as free childcare and six months of paid maternity leave.

That momentum was reversed by international sanctions and decades of successive wars. Hussein was a brutal, murderous dictator, but his fall in 2003 paved the way for the rise of conservative religious clerics and parliamentarians who have sought to chip away at women’s rights. The religious political parties “really don’t believe in women participating in high positions,” says Hanaa Edwar, who’s been working on human rights for more than 50 years.

The post-2003 Iraqi Constitution decrees that a quarter of the nation’s parliamentary seats are reserved for women, but as women everywhere know, being in the room doesn’t necessarily mean being heard. Noora al-Bajjari, a female parliamentarian from Mosul first elected in 2010, says that the religious parties and blocs that dominate parliament “consider women are simply there to make up the numbers and not to have an actual role in major decision-making.”

There are no women in Iraq’s cabinet or other high-level roles, and al-Bajjari says that Iraq’s female parliamentarians are not allies. “I must be honest. We women don’t support each other or ourselves. There’s an element of jealousy, selfishness, competition.”

If Iraq’s 84 female lawmakers banded together, they’d form a significant bloc in the 329-seat parliament, Edwar says. Until 2018, attempts to form a female caucus in the house had failed. Edwar is co-founder of several groups, including Al-Amal Association and the Iraqi Women’s Network, an umbrella group encompassing more than 90 women’s organizations. Edwar is trying to change attitudes in parliament through workshops for male and female lawmakers focused on political empowerment and women’s issues.

“We are not making confrontations; we try to make a channel of cooperation, even with the ones who are against the points we raise,” she says.

And she is seeing results: “Some of them were religious people—they changed their ideas,” she adds. “But the problem isn’t just creating change, it’s the high voices of those opposed to change. They are a very small group, but they are very aggressive and … they try to drown the voices of others.”

She’s talking about people such as the conservative parliamentarians who in 2014 backed a bill known as the Jaafari law. Included among its 254 articles was a provision to legalize marriage for girls as young as nine years old, while another stated that a husband was not required to financially support his wife if she was either too young or too old to satisfy him sexually. Women’s rights activists were the driving force of opposition to the bill and succeeded in removing it from the parliamentary agenda as well as defeating a subsequent attempt, most recently in 2017, to introduce similar legislation.

“We raised public opinion against it,” Edwar says. “I was so, so happy to see that not only our voices but … the voices of public opinion in Iraq were raised very strongly against this. That was the happiest moment.” (Read how women are stepping up to remake Rwanda.)

Afghanistan’s women, like Iraq’s, have faced decades of war, foreign military interventions, the rise and fall and rise again of hard-line Islamists such as the Taliban, and worsening political instability and insecurity. But unlike Iraq’s female parliamentarians, who were late to form a women’s assembly, some in Afghanistan established a women’s caucus more than a decade ago. Twenty-seven percent, or 68 of the 249 seats in Afghanistan’s lower house, are reserved for women.

Shinkai Karokhail was first elected to parliament in 2005 to represent the capital, Kabul. She was instrumental in assembling the female caucus, spurred by a draft bill known as the Shiite Personal Status Law. It was similar in content to Iraq’s Jaafari bill, and both bills were based on the same religious jurisprudence. “It was terrible stuff,” Karokhail says of the bill’s articles.

“The problem was that the main decision-makers in this society are men, not women; even if we become politicians, the first and last word is said by a man,” says Karokhail, who received death threats for arguing against the bill. “I was under a lot of pressure. I limited my movements and had guards look after me. It was a terrible time.”

Female parliamentarians make up only two dozen of the 150 or so members of the women’s parliamentary caucus, which includes women from civil society, the judiciary, and the media. “The most important thing was that we stuck together and said, What’s our priority?” Karokhail says. “If you are in the parliament and you came via a reserved seat, the quota system, that comes with obligations and we have to fulfill them. We have to work for the women of Afghanistan.”

Amendments were made to the bill, and despite continued protests by women’s activists, it was signed into law in 2009, the same year as the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, championed by the women’s caucus.

Afghanistan’s women now face a new yet familiar challenge—the return of the Taliban and its repressive attitudes toward women. In 2001, the Taliban government was ousted in a U.S.-led invasion following 9/11 as punishment for the group’s harboring of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. In February 2020, the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban aimed at ending the 18-year war. It’s unclear how much influence the Taliban still holds inside the war-torn nation and how it intends to wield it after U.S. troops withdraw.

“We don’t know yet really what the Taliban wants us to lose and to sacrifice,” Karokhail says, noting that Afghan women weren’t involved in the U.S.-Taliban peace talks. “Women were always the losers of the war, and we don’t want to be the losers in the peace agreement. That’s our concern. We are not against peace, we are not against bringing the Taliban back to [politics in] Afghanistan to at last end this long war.” But the “women of today are not the women of yesterday.” Women, she says, deserved seats at the negotiating table.

Jamila Afghani, a prominent women’s rights activist and Islamic scholar, was one of the few women granted an audience with the Taliban. She was among the delegation of women to meet with Taliban officials involved in the peace talks last summer in the Qatari capital, Doha. The 11 women were part of a larger group of Afghan civil activists.

“Unfortunately, during the formal meetings there was no opportunity to talk” about women’s rights, but “we raised this question during the tea breaks, lunch breaks, with them,” she says.

Afghani came away from the two-day meeting concerned. “The Taliban said that they will agree with sharia-given rights and regulations for women,” or more precisely, their interpretation of such rights, which Afghani considers “totally unacceptable and un-Islamic” because of the limits placed on women. “We cannot go back to what it was like before, under Taliban rule,” she says. “They were banning women from going to school and work. We cannot tolerate that.”

Since the Taliban was ousted from government in 2001, Afghani has worked to empower women through Islam, educating some 6,000 imams across the country about women’s rights through her Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization. She also has provided literacy and religious education to about 50,000 girls and women. She says she has been threatened by the Taliban “many, many times,” and that in the past two years, eight of the imams in her network have been assassinated for teaching a version of Islam that does not gel with the Taliban’s. She wants other women activists “who have the knowledge of Islam” to work together to present interpretations of sharia that are alternatives to the Taliban’s version.

But Karokhail says that Afghani and her ideas don’t represent her. Afghani has “a different mentality” than most Afghan women, Karokhail says, adding that while it was important to have women at peace talks with the Taliban, “which women are you talking about? ... You can’t have a few political elite ... and say, there—women are represented.”

Afghani’s heard such criticism before. “Sometimes I feel like, where should I go? Civil society is moderate; civil society thinks I’m conservative or I’m Islamist, and some of the Islamist people say I’m introducing a new Islam,” she says. “I cannot represent everybody, but I’m sure that I can represent a large number of women who believe in Islamic values.”

It’s a question that even peaceful, historically progressive Western democracies such as New Zealand’s have grappled with: Which women are being heard, from what communities, and for whom are they speaking? New Zealand’s current leader, 39-year-old Jacinda Ardern, is the country’s third female prime minister, after Jennifer Shipley blazed a path in 1997, followed by Helen Clark two years later. New Zealand has never elected a prime minister, male or female, from its indigenous Maori population, which makes up about 16.5 percent of New Zealand’s nearly five million people. There have been Maori members of parliament since 1868, after the Maori Representation Act of 1867 designated four elected Maori seats in the 120-member House of Representatives, which includes 71 elected seats and 49 appointed by parties. Now, more than 150 years later, there are seven elected Maori seats and 29 Maori in the house overall, 11 of whom are women.

New Zealand’s Maori secured their rights by fighting the British colonizers to an agreement, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of the state. There are hundreds of outstanding claims by Maori for breaches of the deal. The treaty was declared null in 1877 by Sir James Prendergast, New Zealand’s chief justice. He said it had been signed “between a civilised nation and a group of savages” who were not capable of signing a treaty. It wasn’t legally recognized again until the 1970s.

Before colonization, Maori women “shared an equal but complementary power with men,” says Margaret Mutu, professor of Maori studies at the University of Auckland, the chair of her indigenous Iwi parliament, and a tribal leader of her Ngati Kahu people. Women, she says, were responsible for the spiritual well-being of their people while men dealt with the physical world.

“In terms of decision-making and the exercising of power, women were an essential part of it,” she says, adding that the Western patriarchal traditions of the colonizers, specifically Christianity, “did huge damage to that system.”

In the late 1800s Maori women, most notably Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, campaigned for woman suffrage and the right to stand for parliament. “Maori women never assumed that they had no role or had no voice, as white women just assumed it,” Mutu says.

In many ways Maori culture has been mainstreamed, although assimilation can also be a form of colonialism. Maori greetings such as kia ora are widely used by non-Maori, and schoolboys are taught how to perform the haka war dance. Despite the semblance of integration, communal relations between some Maori and non-Maori are fraught, with pending land-rights disputes and allegations that the state has been biased against Maori women.

Kiritapu Allan, 36, was appointed by her Labour Party and is one of the 29 Maori in the 120-seat house. She remembers hitchhiking through Wellington at age 17 on the way to catch a ferry to the cherry-picking fields. Allan recalls looking at the parliament building known as the Beehive and wondering about the disconnect “from those halls or chambers of power,” she says. “How do these people here represent me, and do they understand people like us?”

Allan went back to school to study law and politics. She joined Ardern’s Labour Party while in college and interned in the office of then prime minister Helen Clark. As a young Maori woman from a modest, blue-collar background and a married mother in a same-sex relationship, Allan says she made it to parliament in 2017 with a lot of luck and hard work, and not because of any structural ladders that helped her rise. “Whether you’re young and indigenous, young and ethnic, young and a woman, if you live a nonprivileged existence,” Allan says, “there are significant challenges that you have to overcome.”

New Zealand has voluntary party quotas. In 2013, the Labour Party became the first to introduce a gender quota system to ensure that half of its parliament would be women. In 2015, the Green Party announced that half of its cabinet ministers would be women.

Prime Minister Ardern made headlines for being an unmarried pregnant woman leading a country. When Allan brought her four-month-old baby into parliament, she says, it invoked “a lot of vitriolic opposition. How dare a mother be in the parliament, parenting a child,” she recalls. “If we want to encourage more and more women into not just the workforce but positions of power and leadership, well, women need to take leadership on what that looks like.”

In her moving maiden speech to the house in 2017, draped in her family’s heirloom Korowai cloak of kiwi feathers, Allan recounted how her grandmother and namesake was punished at school for speaking her native language, and how her name was changed from Kiritapu to Kitty.

“My nana’s cultural identity was whipped out of her at that school, and so too, some might say, was her voice. So Nana, I stand here in this House to honour your name, to give voice to the voiceless, who, for whatever their circumstances, cannot speak for themselves,” Allan said in her speech. It is a powerful legacy that Allan considers a key part of her mission.

Issues around the law, human rights, public authority, and the impact on indigenous communities inspired Allan’s bid to become a lawyer and then a politician. “It triggered my career to really understand the law and its application, and how the law could be used as a tool not only for oppression but how it could be a tool of liberation or at least restrict oppression.”

Still, there is only so much the law can do. There are limits to legislating reform, especially if societal attitudes don’t change, or the implementation of existing laws is lax. On paper, Bolivia’s 2009 constitution guarantees equal rights for women. Legislation such as 2013’s Law 348 criminalizes violence against women and imposes a penalty for femicide of 30 years in prison without parole. But conviction rates are dismal. Less than 4 percent of femicide cases result in a sentencing.

In April 2019, Shirley Franco Rodríguez, a 32-year-old parliamentarian touted as a vice presidential candidate and a senior member of the Democratic Unity party, called for a panel to investigate judicial delays in femicide and rape cases. “The main problem is that there are laws, there are rights, there are sanctions, but no mechanisms exist to enforce compliance, so everything is rhetoric; it’s not real,” she says.

Violence against women in politics is so pervasive that in 2012 Bolivia pioneered a law to try to combat it. Law 243 criminalizes acts including spreading false information about female politicians to discredit them or, as in the case of Mayor Arce, pressuring a woman to resign from an elected position and physically attacking her. The mayor has filed a formal complaint, but she doesn’t know if she’ll get justice.

In 2019 the Bolivian Association of Councilwomen, an NGO that brings together councillors and mayors to defend the political rights of women, received 127 complaints of various forms of harassment and intimidation. In 2018 there were 117 complaints and the year before that, 64.

Bernarda Sarué Pereira, executive director of the organization, suspects the real numbers are much higher but that fear keeps women from reporting abuse. “When someone makes a formal complaint, their persecution doubles, their harassment doubles, they are bothered more and stigmatized,” she says.

There are only 33 female mayors in Bolivia’s 339 municipalities, 11 of whom have filed complaints. The Bolivian women who have been targeted serve at all levels of power including the parliament, and they are from across the political spectrum. The harassment is not restricted to a geographic location or women of a particular ethnicity in a country where some 48 percent of the population is of indigenous origin. It’s just “women who exercise political power,” Pereira says, adding that existing laws don’t work because they’re not implemented effectively. “It takes a lot of effort for justice to be done.”

Some mayors, such as Bertha Eliana Quispe Tito, have been prevented from entering their workplaces, been physically attacked, and had their families threatened. Quispe was 27 in 2015 when she became the first female mayor of Collana, a small rural town of some 5,000 people of her Aymara indigenous group. A MAS party member, she says her problems started when she moved to regulate the local limestone mining industry. She was beaten by masked men one night in September 2016 after she left the office. It wasn’t a random attack or a robbery.

“They warned me that if I didn’t resign, my sisters were going to pay all the consequences, my family,” Quispe says. “They said various things: If I didn’t quit, they’d burn my father’s house, take the cattle.” Four of her colleagues in the council were kidnapped to pressure Quispe to withdraw her complaint about the attack. She did, and the four were released, but no one was prosecuted for the kidnappings. The doors of the municipal building where she worked were welded shut and walled up with bricks, forcing her to relocate to another town for her own safety. She is not certain that she’ll run for reelection.

The Aymara mayor of El Alto, Soledad Chapetón Tancara, 39, is from the other side of the political spectrum. A member of the National Unity Front, she unseated a male incumbent from the rival MAS party and made tackling entrenched corruption in her city of nearly a million people, the second largest in Bolivia, the cornerstone of her work.

Chapetón considers herself lucky that she was not in the municipal building on February 17, 2016, when an arson attack killed six public officials. She believes she was targeted for her anti-corruption work. Last October, after the disputed presidential election, Chapetón was again attacked because, she says, “many people said that because of me, the MAS lost support in El Alto.” The mayor’s office was burned, as was the home Chapetón shares with her parents. She has relocated to a temporary office, and her scattered family had to move to several undisclosed locations. She scrolls through her phone, sharing the threats she receives regularly on WhatsApp. Chapetón “has to pay for her sins,” reads one. “This bitch is doing all of this … we will take the mayor’s office, most of the areas, to neutralize them,” another message says. “We want her to quit!”

Chapetón has no plans to do so. “At no time did I have a moment of doubt,” she says. “I knew that I was doing things well.”

Rania Abouzeid wrote about the rising power of women in Rwanda and around the world in National Geographic’s November 2019 issue. Andrea Bruce photographed a story about sanitation in August 2017.

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