Do Crises Call for Women Leaders? Lessons from Belarus, Lebanon, and New Zealand

Emily Death is Deputy Director at GPG. In this blog, she reflects on GPG’s work on women’s political participation in Lebanon, and how recent international crises have shone a light on the need for women’s leadership.

Last week saw the historic announcement of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate in the 2020 US Presidential elections. With polling currently showing a clear lead for Biden over President Trump, the US could be on course to elect its first ever woman Vice President.

Prior to the announcement of Harris, there had only been two previous women vice presidential candidates in US history. With the failure of Hilary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign at the last election, alongside those of several prominent female candidates to win the top ticket spot for the Democrats this year, it looked like the US was still not ready for a woman leader. As Elizabeth Warren said when ending her own Presidential campaign earlier this year, “I know one of the hardest parts of this is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.” While there will be at least four more years to wait to see a woman US President, Kamala Harris’s nomination has changed the landscape and given those American women and girls reason to hope.

But is there a reason why in 2020 – a year like no other – the ultimate glass ceiling may eventually be broken?

On 8 June, while Corona virus was still running rampant across the globe, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand was able to announce to her people that the country was Covid-free. Whilst a few new cases have since come to light, these are well known and monitored, and linked to the initial cluster of cases; New Zealanders have more or less returned to normal; and the Prime Minister’s approach of locking down early and hard has received worldwide praise, including from the WHO.

Ardern is not a lone as a woman leader who has received international acclaim for her handling of the Corona virus crisis. Other countries with women leaders who have dealt rapidly, effectively, and sympathetically with the pandemic include Germany under Angela Merkel; Finland, whose Prime Minister Sanna Martin also happens to be the youngest world leader; and similar stories are repeated in Denmark, Norway, and Taiwan.

As Jon Henley and Eleanor Ainge Roy commenting in the Guardian back in April put it, “Plenty of countries with male leaders – Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia – have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly.” In the months that have followed, many column inches have been dedicated to analysis of why women may make more successful leaders at times of crisis – Is it the nature of this particular crisis as being about public health, which warrants the combination of decisive responsibility and a collaborative, empathetic approach embodied by women’s leadership style? Does this represent the ‘Glass Cliff’ phenomenon identified in a 2004 Study, which dictates that women are most likely to be promoted to senior roles at the most precarious moments and when failure is most likely? Or is a woman leader likely to be a signifier of a country already having good systems and structures in place which would enable them to be best equipped already to face a crisis?

What is clear, is that we have recently seen various examples of countries where women’s leadership has been woefully neglected, experience the catastrophic effects of long-term government mismanagement and corruption.

In Lebanon, where GPG has been working since 2020 on a project to tackle women’s political participation, and where only 6 of 128 MPs are women, the recent tragic events at the Port of Beirut in which several tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was left unmonitored and unaccounted for over several years have brought into sharp relief the massive deficiencies in government, across institutions, and at all levels of the political system. In the wake of the disaster, it was also telling the first Minister to resign was a woman – the Minister for Information, Manel Abdel Samad, left citing the failure of Government to deliver infrastructure reforms and apologising to the nation.

The logic underpinning GPG’s work in Lebanon, as well as in other countries on gender representation, comes from the belief, supported by robust international evidence, that the advancement of women’s human rights and gender equality is central to efforts to build more peaceful and stable societies for all. Under-representation of women distorts the way in which policy is formulated and deprives decision-makers of vital evidence and expertise from women – with negative implications for all of society. This is particularly acute in male-dominated politics dealing with critical issues such as poverty, security, health, education and conflict.

There has been hope in the midst of tragedy in Lebanon, with women’s groups actively organising to support each other. One of GPG’s partners in the project in Lebanon is FiftyFifty, a small NGO with a vision to instate gender equality at all levels of political and public life in Lebanon. They have moved quickly since the crisis to launch an initiative called ‘Women for Beirut’ which coordinates between women in their networks, to channel and avoid duplication of aid and donations; to highlight the direct support activities done by women from all Lebanese regions; and has established a home restoration team. The are no shortage of active and vocal women across community organising and civil society in Lebanon, the challenge at this critical time and ahead of the next elections in Lebanon, be they in 2022 as planned, or earlier, will be to translate the promise of this strong organisational and community capacity into highly-trained women candidates in electoral positions or prominence and likely to be elected by the Lebanese people. This is what GPG and Fifty-Fifty will be working towards in the coming months.

Meanwhile in Belarus, widespread election rigging handed incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office. But what is different this time around, is that the Belarussian people were not prepared to accept this fraudulent result. Scenes of mass protest not only in the Belarussian capital Minsk, but from cities, to towns, and villages, of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens have appeared over the past week.

In Belarus too, this democratic uprising has been characterised by women’s leadership. The challenger to President Lukashenko’s generations of untrammelled power has come from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. A political unknown, Tikhanovskaya was thrust reluctantly into the campaign when her husband, activist and blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested and jailed after announcing his own Presidential candidacy.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the two women surrounding her during the campaign – Veronika Tsepkalo, former Campaign Head for her husband whose own Presidential Campaign was halted by authorities leaving him having to flee to Moscow; and Maria Kolesnikova, the former Head of Campaign for another opposition figure barred and jailed by authorities, have led to a totally different type of campaign which has completely disrupted the Belarussian political status quo. Visually, the optics could not have been more different between these three young women, coming from professional domains and with international experience, fighting for democracy against former Soviet-era collective farm director and Kremlin-backed incumbent Lukashenko, who stated during the campaign that Belarus was not ready for a woman leader.

Their campaign has been a huge popular success – marked by large and lively rallies. And it seems, had it not been for the rigged system, their time would have been now, with unofficial reports that Tikhanovskaya in reality won with the vote.

Now, in the face of almost laughably blatant footage of fraud circulating, and Tikhanovskaya herself having been forced into exile in Lithuania, women are again rallying to the fore. As news of Lukashenko’s re-election spread, and inspired by the opposition leaders, large groups of women across the country have formed human ‘solidarity chains’, dressed in white, some holding flowers, and some carrying with them photos of loved ones detained in the immediate and brutal crackdown on protestors by the country’s police. These images have become some of the most powerful and iconic symbols of change. Similar marches in support have taken place across Europe in Poland, Ukraine, and Germany organised around the hashtag #sheforBelarus and Belarussian women who have been almost invisible in the political landscape for generations, have come out and taken up their places.

Whilst the future of the political situation in Belarus and Lebanon is unknown, what we do know is that 2020 has seen the rise of the powerful, popular, and prudent woman leader. Crises both man-made and natural have put women’s leadership to the test, a test which appears to have been passed with flying colours. After this exceptional year is over, we must all hope that women leaders remain not exceptional, but the norm across the globe – after all, if they have succeeded in 2020, there’s nothing they can’t do.

If you wish to support FiftyFifty’s initiative Women for Beirut, you can find out more on their Facebook page.

You can read more about GPG’s work in Lebanon in this recent blog by Associate Margaret Curran