If you want to make the world a better place, focus on women 

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Women are slowly gaining leadership around the world. Slovakia elected a female head of state, Zuzana Caputova, in 2019 — the first woman president and the country’s youngest. Sadly, she is dealing this week dealing with the shocking news of the shooting of Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico. 

2024 will see a record number of elections worldwide: 42. But of those elections, both parliamentary and presidential, just 18 have women running for the top leadership spot with many countries struggling with gender parity. From the Americas to Asia, from Africa to wars in Ukraine and Gaza, this year is like no other for women and girls — and elections have consequences. 

First, wars affect women in unique and disproportionate ways.

The war in Ukraine has continued for more than 800 days. The United Nations estimates that more than 8 million women and girls in Ukraine will need humanitarian assistance this year. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of the country, an estimated 3,238 women and girls have been killed and 4,782 injured. One out of two Ukrainian women are displaced. And accounts from Ukraine reveal women being beaten and harassed under Russian occupation. A U.N. report details the human rights violations in grim detail. 

But despite the hardships of war, many Ukrainian women are enlisting in the army — increasingly in combat roles. According to the Defense Ministry, about 65,000 women are serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 30 percent more than when the war first started in February 2022. 

On the Russian side, women are being drafted from inside prisons with promises of pardons to fill the ranks, and a new recruitment drive is underway across the country. 

Vladimir Putin, having been “elected” to a new term as Russia’s president, is promising change, according to in-depth analysis by The Washington Post, including rolling back women’s rights, bombarding them with messages to give birth while curtailing access to abortion, and arresting women activists for challenging the government’s ideas. 

The war in Gaza has passed its 200th day. Women intelligence officers in the Israel Defense Forces warned of an impending Hamas attack before Oct. 7 — but they were ignored. There are no women prime ministers, nor presidents, making decisions on this war from within the conflict zone, and yet women are victims on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the divide.  

According to a recent “Gender Alert on Gaza,” “more than one million Palestinian women and girls in Gaza are facing catastrophic hunger, with almost no access to food, safe drinking water, functioning toilets or running water, creating life-threatening risks. Access to clean water is especially critical for breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women, who have higher daily water and caloric intake requirements. It is also essential for the ability of women and girls to manage their menstrual hygiene with dignity and safety.” 

We are also now learning more about the sexual violence endured by women held captive by Hamas. In a new documentary, “Screams Before Silence,” Sheryl Sandberg interviews survivors about the cruel torture they experienced, as well as watching or hearing other women being raped. 

Then there is Iran, where women and girls are protesting for freedom despite being met with morality police, crackdowns and death in a misogynist culture. 

Women in Asia face challenges and opportunities with wide variance. 

In China, women are struggling to find their voice in public expression and leadership while being subjected to quiet waves of harassment and violence with limited political power. (There are no women in the inner circles of the Politburo.) 

Japanese women, on the other hand, are powering up the country’s economy with a jump in employment opportunities opened to them by a government looking to scale up its labor market.  But they still face discrimination in sectors like the military, where women comprise only 9 percent owing to ongoing harassment issues. 

Women in India may turn out to be a key voting bloc for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ironically, sexual violence against women in the country has grown in recent years. 

The good news is that, in many parts of the world, women are stepping up to lead. 

Last October, the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Narges Mommadi, an imprisoned Iranian scientist, journalist and human rights activist, for her campaign against the Iranian regime.  

In June, Mexicans will choose between two women candidates for president.

Women hold the prime ministership in all three Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. (Of the 194 countries in the United Nations, 25 have a female head of state.) 

Women have a sacred responsibility to tell these stories — both good and bad. The lives of women are intertwined with struggles of different types and magnitude. Regardless of where we are, our individual and collective voices must be heard.  

Tara D. Sonenshine is nonresident fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. 

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