Asia has provided some leading examples of women taking top roles in government. These include Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000) of Sri Lanka; India's Indira Gandhi (1917-1984); Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007); Begum Khaleda Zia-ur-Rahman (b.1945) and Sheikh Hasina Wajed (b.1947) of Bangladesh, who all served as prime ministers and played an influential role in their countries.
Bandaranaike become the world's first elected woman prime minister in July 1960 following the assassination of her husband Solomon in 1959. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga became president of Sri Lanka in 1994. Gandhi, who was the first woman to be elected as Prime Minister in India, was also considered to be one of the greatest political leaders of the country although her period in office was controversial. She was criticized for imposing a state of emergency in 1975 after opposition parties demonstrated over rising inflation and concerns about corruption.
The Bhuttos are perhaps one of the most famous political dynasties and Benazir, like her father and brothers, decided upon a life of politics. She was Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, serving from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996. Bhutto - the first woman premier in an Islamic state - had a large following in Pakistan although she faced allegations of corruption, which she denied. She was sent to jail and spent five years in solitary confinement. Bhutto was a high profile public speaker and gave lectures at universities and met with overseas government officials. Political analysts believed she would make a comeback to power but she was assassinated in December 2007.
Khaleda Zia-ur-Rahman was the "first lady" to President Zia-ur-Rahman and became politically active after the assassination of her husband. She was Chair of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and in 1991 became Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She held the position three times. The other influential woman of Bangledeshi politics was Hasina Wajed, who had a political row with Zia-ur-Rahman amid allegations of inciting violence. Hasina Wajed was the President of the Awami League, a major political party, and was first elected as Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 1996. She has faced numerous death threats during her political life.
Corazon Aquino (1933-2009) was Asia's first women president and took up the role as leader of the Philippines in 1986 after "people power" saw dictator Ferdinand Marcos deposed. She faced several coup attempts during her time as president and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Aquino was well respected for her human rights work and for her efforts to promote democracy to her people. There was a 10-day period of mourning following her death in August 2009 and American President Barack Obama paid tribute to her "courage and moral leadership."
Aung San Suu Kyi (b.1945) has spent much of her life under house arrest in Burma. She has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1991) and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. As General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi led her party to election victory although the military authorities declared the result void. She urged supporters around the world to help her people seek freedom and democracy by declaring: "Please use your liberty to promote ours." In November 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest to be greeted by the world's press and thousands of jubilant supporters. On her release, American President Barack Obama admitted she was "a hero of mine."
Despite the success of some influential women in Asia, there are some persistent challenges that women face, including access to education. Although Asian women have won the formal right to education, the extent to which they use this right is limited. This can be attributed to numerous factors, such as gender prejudices, the need to work or to take care of a family. Data from UNESCO (1999) reveals that Asian women are much less likely to attend university or college than a secondary school. In South Korea, for example, 38 percent of women were enrolled in university in 1995, compared with 66 percent of men. In India, 5 percent of women were enrolled, compared with 8 percent of men. There are exceptions, including in Thailand and the Philippines where there are more women than men in higher education.