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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In South Asia, Women Take the Reins of State

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- They were propelled into politics by executions and assassinations. Many endured imprisonment, exile and death threats. Together, they have become the most powerful female political leaders in the world.

South Asia, where the status of women is often ranked among the worst in the world, now has more female heads of state than any other region of the globe.

In Pakistan, Bangladesh and now Sri Lanka, an expanding widows' and daughters' club has taken charge of national governments and in some cases, opposition parties as well.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, 49, whose husband and father were victims of political violence, was elected Sri Lanka's first woman president this month and is expected to make international political history by appointing her 78-year-old mother prime minister.

The Sri Lankan women join Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, 41, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, 49, at the pinnacle of power in their countries.

And in neighboring India the legacy of slain prime minister Indira Gandhi continues, with the women of the Gandhi family remaining prominent in national politics. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Indira's son Rajiv, is considered one of the most influential behind-the-scenes politicians in the country.

Although their ascents were occasioned by violence and buttressed by family political dynasties, these women are all the more extraordinary because they have succeeded in one of the most chauvinistic, male-dominated regions of the world.

"They are not here by virtue of their names alone," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a Colombo-based political analyst. "They have earned it by standing up to insurgencies and coups."

South Asia's female leaders are products of political systems and societies so dominated by violence that bullets and bombs often decide more elections than do voters and ballots.

Kumaratunga was 14 when her father, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, was gunned down by a radical Buddhist monk in 1959. Her husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, who was a popular movie star and political figure but never held an elected national office, was shot dead by a right-wing extremist in the driveway of his home only seconds after he spotted the gunman and managed to shove their two young children out of the line of fire.

After a campaign in which her chief opponent was assassinated by a presumed suicide bomber two weeks before election day -- and replaced on the ballot by his wife -- Kumaratunga said, "I am aware that I can be killed at any moment. Every time I leave the house, I don't know if I will come back to it."

Bhutto's life story is just as chilling. She was 25 when her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto -- who had been overthrown as prime minister in a military coup -- was hanged while she and her mother huddled in a cell in the same jail.

But while these women have risen to the top, often in the face of adversity, they have been condemned by many critics for all but ignoring the plight of women in their countries. Throughout the region, the presence of women in the highest elective offices has not trickled down to the middle and lower levels of government, and female prime ministers have not had any measurable impact on the low education and literacy rates, poor health and economic status of women.

"I haven't seen any correlation between the rise of women to top positions with any change on the part of the masses of women in South Asia," said Howard Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.

And, if South Asia's women leaders did try to implement policies designed to specially benefit women, said Pran Chopra of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, they would be taking a major political risk.

"Women per se are not sufficiently politically mobilized in these countries, and it does not pay to focus the benefits for women in a male-dominated society," he said.