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Some development experts hope to see more women enter politics and government, with the idea that they can do for their countries what they do for a household. Eighty-one countries have set aside certain positions for women, typically a share of seats in parliament, to boost their political participation. Eleven countries now have women as top leaders, and women hold 16 percent of national legislative seats around the world, up from 9 percent in 1987.

A former member of the U.S. Congress, Marjorie Margolies- Mezvinsky, has led a promising effort to get more women into governments around the world. In 1993, Margolies-Mezvinsky was a newly elected Democrat in the House of Representatives when the Clinton budget—complete with tax increases to balance the accounts—came before the chamber. In retrospect, that budget is often seen as a landmark that put America on a solid fiscal footing for the 1990s, but it was ferociously controversial at the time. As a newly elected member, Margolies-Mezvinsky was vulnerable, and Republicans vowed to defeat her if she voted for the tax increases. Yet in the end she cast the deciding vote for the Clinton budget. A year later, she was indeed defeated, by a slim margin. Her career as a politician was over.

Now Margolies-Mezvinsky runs Women's Campaign International, which coaches women grassroots activists on how to get attention for their causes, run for office, and put together coalitions to achieve their goals. In Ethiopia, where Women's Campaign International trained women to run effective campaigns, the proportion of women in parliament rose from 8 percent to 21 percent.

One rationale for seeking more female politicians is that women supposedly excel in empathy and forging consensus and thus may make, on average, more peaceful and conciliatory leaders than men. Yet we don't see much sign that women presidents or prime ministers have performed better, or more peacefully, than men in modern times.

Indeed, women leaders haven't even been particularly attentive to issues like maternal mortality, girls' education, or sex trafficking. One reason may be that when women rise to the top of poor countries—think of Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Corazón Aquino, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—they are almost always from elite families and have never directly encountered the abuses that poor women suffer.

On the other hand, the conventional wisdom in development circles is that women officeholders do make a difference at the local level, as mayors or school board members, where they often seem more attentive to the needs of women and children. One fascinating experiment took place in India after 1993, when the Indian constitution was amended to stipulate that one third of the positions of village chief were to be reserved for women. These were allocated randomly, so it became possible to compare whether villages run by women were governed differently from those ruled by men. Indeed, spending priorities were different. In villages run by women, more water pumps or taps were installed, and these were also better maintained. This may be because fetching water is women's work in India, but other public services were also judged to be at least as good as in men-run villages. The researchers could find no sign that other kinds of infrastructure were being neglected. Local people reported that they were significantly less likely to have to pay a bribe in the villages run by women.

Excerpted from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas D. Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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