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World's Leaders: Men, 187 Women, 4

From Albania to Yemen, the number of females in power plummeted after the transition from socialist governments, which had helped them get the access and funding they needed to win elective office.


NEW YORK — Dinner was deliberately light fare--acorn squash soup and lamb, with dessert of green-apple sorbet and berries. Guests described the evening as cozy and autographed each other's calligraphic menus as souvenirs. But conversation at the opening session of this powerful new group with members from four continents centered on weighty world problems, from human rights to environmental dangers.

Hosted by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the dinner Friday night at the National Historical Society in New York marked a threshold in the world of politics, for the guest list was limited: female foreign ministers only.

"Guiding the world is no longer an exclusively male sport," one attendee noted with a chuckle. "Today there are enough of us that we can form our own unofficial club."

Yet the exclusive party underscored the bad news as well as the good about women and political power at the end of the 20th century.

In a world with 191 countries, just eight female foreign ministers sat around Albright's table. They came from Colombia, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Lichtenstein and Sierra Leone. (Two other female foreign ministers, from Barbados and the Bahamas, were not in town.)

"The number of foreign ministers is growing, but the line in the women's toilet is still not too long," said Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen.

While women have made progress in some quarters, as is evident in Ireland, where four of the five candidates in next month's presidential election are women, female politicians remain on the periphery in major powers such as Russia and China, and in the minority globally.

Worldwide, there are just four female heads of government, 10 U.N. ambassadors and 17 speakers of parliament. None of the prime ministers today are as powerful as past leaders such as Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi of India or Golda Meir of Israel.

And the trends are not encouraging for women.

Exactly 90 years after Finland became the first country to elect women to public office, the number of women in 173 parliaments worldwide has declined from almost 15% in 1988 to less than 12% today, according to a survey this month by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva.

The reason does not speak well for the outbreak of democracy. Open societies, it turns out, haven't been as generous as socialism and communism to women who want to serve in public office.

From Albania to Yemen, the number of women in power plummeted after the transition from socialist governments, which sought to develop female as well as male proletariats. As those governments died, so went the socialist ideals of equality and the subsidies for social programs that aided women. In many countries, traditional patriarchal cultures resurfaced.

Together, those forces made it more difficult for women to get the access and funding they needed to win elective office.

Setbacks in the East

The biggest setbacks for women in power have been in the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe, where representation has plummeted from highs of between 25% and 35% during Communist rule to as low as 4% in some of those countries today, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

From 1987 to 1994, the number of women in Albania's parliament dropped from 28% of the total to 6%; in Romania, the comparable number plunged from 33% to 4%, according to U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt. In a recent article in the periodical Foreign Affairs, she warns of disregard for "talented and highly educated women in post-Communist democracies" in Eastern Europe.

Under free-market reforms in Vietnam, competition for resources has mushroomed, and women have suffered. "When resources are limited, men get priority," said Tran Thi Mai Huong, head of Vietnam's National Committee for the Advancement of Women.

The number of women in Vietnam's National Assembly dropped from 32% in 1975 to 18% in 1996, according to the U.N. Development Program. Representation on provincial, district and communal bodies is even lower.

The reason, officials agree, is that Vietnam's doi moi, or "economic renovation," has reduced social services, from child care to free education, that were key in freeing and promoting females. The ebbing of a socialist culture has also brought back the strongly patriarchal practices of Confucianism.

Both trends do not bode well for the future. The number of Vietnamese women in college, for example, has dropped from 43% in the early 1980s to 30% today. "Fees for secondary school and university are now high, and families prefer to use money to pay for males, so sons are getting priority," Tran said.

Turning to Quotas

The worldwide slump in female leadership would be far worse but for a counter-trend that has seen participation grow in some countries. An increasing number of countries, even democracies, are turning to a controversial technique to ensure women are empowered--quota systems.

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