3 More Women to Watch

Leaders in Emerging Markets in 2018

There are currently 24 female heads of state or government around the world, putting women at the helm of 12.3% of the 195 countries recognized by the UN.

Margarita Zavala delivers a speech to her supporters after registering as an independent presidential candidate at the National Electoral Institute (INE), for the upcoming July 1 federal elections in Mexico City, Mexico March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ginnette Riquelme

Following on from our last article about the rising stars of politics in emerging markets, we profile three more women making waves in the world’s most dynamic economies.

Peng Liyuan (China)

Not since the Chairman’s last wife Jiang Qing was flinging fuel on the flames of China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s has China had as high profile a first lady as Peng Liyuang.

The wife of current President Xi Jinping, Liyuang rose to fame as a Communist Party (CCP) folk singer and actress with catchy ballads such as Plains of Hope and People from Our Village in the 1980s.

Beginning her career as an “arts and culture warrior” for the PLA, her soothing serenades during clashes on the Sino-Vietnamese border boosted morale, earning her the nickname ‘Peony Fairy’ and entry into the hearts of millions of Chinese in an era when cultural and media options were few and very far between.

Yet it is hardly a coincidence that China’s most powerful president in a generation is married to a nationally-celebrated folk singer, patriot, and unreconstructed nationalist.

Often criticized for being nontransparent, the Party’s image had much to benefit from a confident and charismatic woman known for her quick tongue and ear to the street standing at the helm of the country’s power structure.

Also known as Mama Peng, the conservative nationalist is also famous for her annual solo at the country’s spring festival gala. Her signature red dress and grey coat become such a sensation on Taobao, one of the world’s largest online retailers, that the government blocked search terms related to her sartorial inclinations.

Following the enshrinement of “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” into the CCP’s charter in October 2017, never has the role of Peng Liyuan been more significant.

As a steady promoter of Chinese culture as well as UN Goodwill Ambassador on HIV/AIDS, Liyuan’s combination of subtlety, celebrity, and underscored elegance has gone a huge way toward shoring up her husband’s power; evidence suggests it will only continue to do so going forward.

Margarita Zavala (Mexico)

The wife of former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) made a major splash in October 2017 by announcing she was leaving the country’s largest opposition party, the center-right National Action Party (PAN), to run for the highest office in the land.

She will contest incumbent Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country from 1929-2002, on July 1, 2018.

Though launching her bid back in 2015, Zavala had struggled to secure the PAN’s official endorsement as presidential candidate.

Though PAN has 109 of 500 seats in the country’s lower house and 37 of 109 in its upper, it has entered into an alliance with the center-left Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) in an attempt to outflank both the incumbent PRI and the eternally recurring leftwing populist threat of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, twice the close runner-up in presidential elections.

Interestingly, Obrador himself only left the PRD in 2014 to set up his own rival leftist movement, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA).

Nonetheless, both Zavala and Obrador still come out rather well in recent polling, with the latter receiving 28-31% of respondents’ support in one poll ahead of next July’s election and the former receiving 26.6%, both well above incumbent President Nieto, whose PRI only received 16.5%.

Leaving PAN after 33 years, Zavala claimed its leadership had sidelined the democratic will of the party’s base by aligning itself with longtime center-left rival PRD; now striking out alone against all three of the country’s largest and most successful political machines (PAN-PRD, PRI, and MORENA), Zavala runs the risk of further rupturing the center-right/center-left (PAN-PRD) and paving the path for Obrador to finally take power.

On the other hand, the PAN has repeatedly stated that it’s still open to Zavala returning to the party before the final showdown in July. Should she choose to do so, her newfound control of the PAN-PRD alliance may prove just enough to oust an unpopular incumbent, fend off Obrador’s perennial populist threat, and become the first woman to govern all of Mexico.

Bidhya Devi Bhandari (Nepal)

Nearly a century after China and Russia abolished their monarchies, neighboring Nepal finally did so in 2008 following a long and brutal civil war with Maoist rebels (1996-2006).

The cessation of hostilities resulted in a peace-sharing agreement that went into effect in early 2008.

Barely eight years after the 236-year reign of the House of Shah came to an end, the country elected its first female head of state, the women’s rights campaigner and vice-chair of the ruling Communist Party, Bidhya Devi Bhandari.

The second president in the country’s history, her largely ceremonial role is still a boon to the advancement of women’s rights in a country overwhelmingly dominated by men, a plight revealed by her slow rise to power.

Married to the popular communist leader and the country’s first democratically elected Marxist prime minister Madan Bhandari, it was only after her husband died in a mysterious car crash in 1993 that her national political career began in earnest.

Elected to parliament in 1994 and again in 1999, she became the first female Minister of Defense from 2009-2011 and as president is now in charge of the country’s largely conservative armed forces. Though criticized by some for holding less-than-fully-feminist views, she has helped ensure a one-third quota for women in parliament.

That said, an enormous amount of work remains to be done. Despite being run by Marxist-Leninists, deep-seated mysogynistic cultural and religious traditions persist in the country. In chhaupadi, for example, menstruating girls are sent away to live in isolation, often in makeshift outside huts, a practice that is still enforced in the dead of winter and rigorously defended by sections of the population.

At worst, this leads to calamities such as death by smoke inhalation (whilst trying to keep warm), very high maternal death rates, snake bites, rape, or malnutrition; at best, it means that tens of thousands of girls are missing school for roughly five days a month, the consequences of which should be self-explanatory.

If Bhandari wants to truly make the country an “independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular and inclusive democratic republic nation,” she must meet her commitments to use the prestige of her office and person to fight chhaupadi.