The election of Dilma Rousseff as the president of Brazil brings the number of female heads of state at the G20 summit to a record-breaking four
A 62-year-old former Marxist guerrilla from South America swept into the Imperial Palace hotel in downtown Seoul this week and checked into the history books. Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured by Brazil's military dictatorship as a student rebel, is Brazil's first female president-elect and the world's 16th most powerful person, according to Forbes magazine.
Today she will also be one of a record four female heads of state on the front line of global politics when the G20 summit convenes in South Korea. On her international debut at the G20 summit, Brazil's new "presidenta" will join forces with Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the German chancellor Angela Merkel and Australia's prime minister Julia Gillard.
Will this unprecedented number of women make a difference to the agenda, set to be dominated by attempts to ensure an economic recovery? In her victory speech last month Rousseff vowed to wage another major war: one that would push women's rights onto the national and international agenda. "I would like for fathers and mothers to look into their daughters' eyes today and tell them: 'Yes, women can,'" she said, promising to battle for equality in and outside government.
As a start, she has begun plotting her crusade for gender equality with plans to make a third of her cabinet women (11 of 34 posts). Several key members of her transition team are women.
Gender issues are unlikely to be directly addressed at the G20, but female leaders and activists hope they will find some space on the agenda. In the lead-up to the summit. Shin Nakyun, a Korean opposition MP, said she hoped policies geared towards women could be discussed as part of the summit's "development agenda". "Women are the most powerful drivers of economic growth," she argued in an interview with the Korea Times.
On the eve of the summit, Michelle Bachelet, Chile's former president and now the head of UN Women, claimed that 70% of the world's poorest citizens were female, while on a global level women's salaries were an average of 17% lower than men's. Women, Bachelet said, should be seen as "agents of change" not "victims". Bachelet's first cabinet was 50% female.
Rousseff, who will be sworn in as president on 1 January, is expected to take a backseat role in Seoul to Brazil's current president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. And although in a rare pre-election interview with the Brazilian women's magazine Claudia, she said, "We [women] are not a bunch of melted-butter [softies], incapable of facing up to adversity. On the contrary – we overcome everything," her feminist credentials are far from impeccable. During her presidential campaign she was criticised for largely ignoring women's issues and for publicly reversing her position on the legal right to an abortion in a bid to secure support from the religious right. An election video promised to "honour" Brazilian women but failed to detail any specific policy plans such as improved access to healthcare or wage equality.
Instead, aides convinced Rousseff of the need for a dramatic makeover inspired by Venezuelan fashion designer Carolina Herrera. She underwent several rounds of plastic surgery and fended off criticism that she was complying with the expectations of a macho society with the words "men do it too".
Despite the number of female heads of state, real progress on equality is likely to take time, not least in Brazil where the proportion of women in top-flight politics, about 10%, remains tiny.
In the days since Rousseff's election, the Brazilian press has done little to suggest that is about to change. The country's first female president is renowned as a highly competent technocrat and vociferous reader. But papers called in designers and celebrity columnists to comment, not on her plans for equal opportunity policies, but on her dress sense. "She should wear high heels," suggested one. "Like Queen Elizabeth."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017