Women Who Have Made An Impact
By Hiranmayii Awli Mohanan
While women should be celebrated everyday, International Women’s Day is the occassion to reflect on the progress made by women thus far, call for change and celebrate women and their achievements. As an homage to this special day, we highlight four women who have made profound contributions to their respective countries and have empowered women across the globe.
Kamala Harris, daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father has risen higher in the US leadership than any woman ever before her. Former California Senator, Kamala Harris made history on Jan 20, 2021 when she became the first woman and the first woman of colour to serve as Vice President, alongside President Joe Biden.
Harris studied political science and economics at Howard University in 1986 — a historically Black college and one of the country’s most prestigious. Later, she earned a law degree from Hastings College in 1989. Subsequently, she worked as deputy district attorney from 1990 to 1998 in Oakland, earning a reputation for toughness as she prosecuted cases of gang violence, drug trafficking, domestic and sexual abuse, as well as exploitation. Harris rose through the ranks, becoming district attorney in 2004. In 2010, she was narrowly elected attorney general of California—winning by a margin of less than 1 per cent, thus becoming the first female and the first African American to hold the post. While she lost her bid for presidency in 2020, Harris captured national attention with her empowering debates. Harris carved a name for herself in Washington with her stinging prosecutorial style in Senate hearings, grilling her adversaries in high-stake moments that at times went viral.
What makes Kamala Harris a light in her own right is her personal biography, steeped in racial injustice issues since she was in Oakland and Berkeley, California which she narrated in her memoir. In her presidential campaign in 2020, Harris pitched herself as a history-making candidate who could appeal to both progressives and moderates. Instead of trying to elevate the economy, she stressed on policies that sought incremental, targeted results, particularly focusing on historically neglected community groups like women, people of colour and low- income Americans.
As the first Black and South Asian-American and the first female Vice President, Harris will carry the weight of her ancestors into the country’s second-highest public office. She plays a pivotal role in many aspects, including international and domestic affairs, thanks to her experience on the Homeland Security, Intelligence, and Judiciary committees. She can be at the helm or make significant changes to important issues like criminal justice reform, voting rights protection, healthcare and wage growth for teachers and other workers, as the second most influential voice.
Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz was once described as the only ‘man’ in the cabinet when she served during the premiership of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. She didn’t believe in holding back the punches, no kid globes, no fawning – she told it like it is. Her bold and resilient ways inspire us all to be fearless and upstanding, and many looked up to her as someone they could get behind.
Rafidah holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of Malaya, obtained in 1966 and a master’s degree in Economics in 1970. She started her formal career as a lecturer at her alma mater. She held the portfolio of Deputy Minister of Finance from 1977 to 1980 and Minister of Public Enterprises from 1980 to 1987. She served as Minister of Trade and Industry from 1987 to 2008 and the head of the women’s wing of the United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) from 1999 to 2009. Rafidah was the longest serving woman MP in Malaysia, from 1978 to 2013, spanning 35 years. She was appointed as one of the members of the Economic Action Council (EAC) by the Pakatan Harapan government on Feb 11, 2019 when it was in power. This impressive lady currently serves as non-executive independent chairman and director of AirAsia X since March 3, 2011. She was also the chairman of Supermax Corporation Berhad from June 16, 2015 until her resignation on April 16, 2018.
In 1998, Rafidah was thrusted under the international spotlight when she came to an impasse with US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky over the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) at the World Trade Organisation. It was also at the same summit when former Thai Deputy Prime Minister Amnuay Viravan told Asiaweek sthat Rafidah was the voice of the people and of many developed countries. Her early years in politics placed her at the centre of women’s welfare, a subject close to her heart. She tackled consumerism, equal pay, ensuring permanent work status for women in the civil service, monogamy laws and the rationalisation of Muslim law with the legal system, as well as reaching out to rural women to help them cope with the high inflation at the time.
During the premiership of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Tun Hussein Onn and as the vice president of the National Council of Women’s Organisations, Rafidah pushed to establish a Department of Women’s Affairs but was told that it wasn’t the right time as development had to be the priority. Her merit was being efficient and proactive, a philosophy that guided her throughout her career. This is evident in the way she steered the Ministry of International Trade and Industry — the most efficient department during that time.
During her tenure, Rafidah, who was at the centre of Malaysia’s industrialisation policies, believed that the focus should be on the middle class as they were the ones who moved the economy. Her stance was that if the middle class was able to have a higher income, it would contribute to higher GDP. She said people tended to forget the middle class, the backbone of the economy. “We tend to talk about GDP of a country but we forget who makes up the country,” said Rafidah.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s current premier was born In 1980 in the city of Hamilton, two hours south of Auckland, to a close-knit Mormon family. Her father, Ross, was a police officer, while her mother, Laurell, worked as a school cook. The town that she grew up in was poverty-stricken, where children didn’t have anything to eat for lunch. This would later shape her political views. By the age of 17, she was a Labour Party supporter.
Ardern graduated from Morrinsville College and then from the University of Waikato with a degree in communication studies in politics and public relations. Soon after, Ardern worked for Helen Clark, New Zealand’s then prime minister. In 2006, she ended up working in the UK Cabinet Office as Tony Blair was preparing to hand over power to Gordon Brown. In 2008, she returned to New Zealand and became an elected MP. During her time in parliament, she championed bills to eradicate child poverty, and supported gay rights.
It’s quite remarkable that Ardern became Labour leader only seven weeks before the 2017 election, especially when the party trailed in the polls and seemed to have a slim chance of winning. She said, “It was the worst job in politics”. But votes started streaming as New Zealanders cast their ballots, securing Labour the highest percentage of votes in more than five decades, claiming 64 seats in parliament. Ardern was a part of historic election victory. The feat allowed Labour to govern the country alone. She was sworn in on Oct 26, 2017, becoming the youngest female head of government at the age of 37.
In March 2019, however, the country was brought together by empathetic Ardern in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks, which left 51 people dead. She was unequivocal that the gunman was a terrorist, stressing that he did not represent the people of New Zealand. Over the next few days, she would be seen comforting those who had lost their loved ones. The tragedy also led her to announce a change to the country’s gun laws, banning the sale of all semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles with a speed. This prompted questions in other countries, including in the US. Tragedy struck again in December, the same year when a volcano erupted at the privately-owned White Island, also known as Whakaari. The natural disaster took the lives of 17 people, most of them tourists from Australia and the US. Again, Ardern was at the forefront, leading the country in mourning.
Ardern was also highly commended for her swift and strict actions in tackling the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly everyone who entered the country (including residents who’d been travelling) were mandated to self- isolate on arrival. Just a week later, the entire country shut down, closing its borders to almost all non-citizens or residents, when other countries were still putting plans into place.
Angela Merkel, born on July 17, 1954 in Hamburg, West Germany, is a politician who became the first female chancellor of Germany in 2005. Merkel has transformed German politics since being voted into office and her illustrious achievements have earned her way into Forbes’ most powerful women list eight times.
Merkel’s parents, Horst and Herlind Kasner, met in Hamburg, where her father was a theology student and her mother, a teacher of Latin and English. Upon completing his education, Horst Kasner accepted a pastorate in Quitzow, Brandenburg, which prompted the family to relocate to East Germany (German Democratic Republic) just weeks after Merkel’s birth. They made another move in 1957, to Templin, where Merkel finished high school. In 1973, she went to Leipzig to study physics at Karl Marx University, now known as the University of Leipzig. There she met her first husband, fellow physics student Ulrich Merkel, whom she married in 1977. Merkel graduated with a diploma the next year and worked as a member of the academic faculty at the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. Merkel and her husband parted ways in 1982, though she kept his last name. She was awarded a doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry in 1986.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel joined the newly founded Democratic Awakening and in February 1990 became the party’s press spokesperson. That month the party joined the conservative Alliance for Germany, a coalition with the German Social Union (DSU) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Merkel became deputy spokesperson of the government of Lothar de Maizière (CDU). She joined the CDU in August 1990, merging with its western counterpart on Oct 1, the day before the reunification of Germany. Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor of Germany on Nov 22, 2005 by 397 votes to 202.
Merkel’s contributions to her country are significant. While most other European leaders were challenged by the financial crisis, Merkel blossomed during it. She cleverly evaded long-term recession from the global economic crisis in Germany by introducing economic stimulus packages and shortening working hours, whereby workers worked less but had their earnings topped up by the government rather than businesses. As a result, Germany flourished in the crisis (helped also by being able to take advantage of other favourable conditions such as low interest on bonds and Germany’s strong position as an exporter).
Very soon after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, Merkel made the surprise announcement to shut eight of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors and the remaining would be phased out by 2022. The exit was part of a long-term transition to alternative energy sources dubbed so-called “Energiewende” and won Merkel considerable support from across the spectrum. This boosted Germany’s place as a world leader in energy reform in an effort to tackle global warming.
While this aspect might not be a policy achievement, Merkle’s stance as a Protestant, childless, an East German woman at the helm of the Christian Democratic Union amid a male-dominated, largely Catholic party has changed the party and German society. She is Germany’s first female political leader and famously helped evolve the deeply traditional party into “one of the pillars of the new German consensus”, according to the European council on foreign relations.