Maia Sandu is making international headlines as the first woman president in Moldova’s history. Sandu, a Harvard-educated economist, served as Moldova’s Minister of Education from 2012–2015 and Moldova’s Prime Minister in 2019 before being elected president in November of 2020. She’s famous for her anti-corruption and anti-poverty advocacy, which landed her the presidential victory in 2020. As a proponent of democratic values, including political and economic freedom, the rule of law, and freedom of speech, Sandu prioritizes closer ties with the European Union and aims to build a Moldova where citizens can trust the state again and have the opportunity to lead normal and dignified lives.
Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with oligarchs having controlled the country’s economy and state institutions for more than a decade. The “theft of the century” was Moldova’s most recent and perhaps biggest corruption scandal revealed in 2014, when oligarchs transferred an estimated $1 billion, roughly 12% of Moldova’s GDP, to offshore accounts under the guise of loans underwritten by government guarantees. The still rampant corruption (the Corruption Perception Index ranks Moldova 115th of 180 countries) and the increasing rate of depopulation places considerable weight on Sandu’s shoulders to set Moldova on the right track. Sandu’s overwhelming victory in 2020 attests that Moldovans living in the country and abroad trust Sandu to lead Moldova toward prosperity.
How She Got Here
Sandu’s road to the presidency was far from smooth. As the first female president of Moldova, Maia Sandu is the epitome of breaking gender-based barriers to become a leader in the male-dominated world of politics. Despite constitutional guarantees for gender equality, Moldova remains a highly patriarchal society, with women facing significant barriers to gender parity due to implementation and enforcement gaps. With some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in Europe, at least 60% of Moldovan women have experienced psychological, physical, or sexual violence from an intimate partner during their lifetime. A recent study showed that 90.5% of men and 81.5% of women consider women’s most important priority to be domestic work in Moldova. However, Sandu’s election in 2020 and the unprecedented voter participation (especially among youth and women) are signs of change in the country.
Sandu prioritizes closer ties with the European Union and aims to build a Moldova where citizens can trust the state again and have the opportunity to lead normal and dignified lives.
When Maia Sandu first ran for the Moldovan presidency in 2016, the notion of having a female leader was met with much contempt from her political opponents and negative coverage in the local media. A recent study analyzing the misogynistic and sexist language used in media and popular discourse surrounding the 2016 elections reports that Sandu was targeted for being a woman – especially given she was a single woman. Sandu’s marital status and the support she received from women’s rights and LGBTQ groups in Moldova often drew fire from traditionalist opposition forces. Such gender stereotypes, popular bias, and mistrust toward women in leadership ultimately contributed to Sandu’s defeat in 2016. However, Sandu’s position on gender equality was clear in an interview following her 2016 loss. “People should be judged on the basis of professionalism, not on criteria of gender, religion, spoken language, ethnicity,” she said. “[Women] are no less prepared than men for these [leadership] positions.”
During her 2020 campaign, Sandu called for increased youth and women’s involvement in the presidential elections and local politics. Indeed, women played a crucial role in electing Sandu as the president of Moldova. During the second round of voting, both in the rural and urban sectors of Moldova and among eligible voters living abroad, women were well represented, constituting 53%, 54%, and 51% of voters in the respective bases.
As a newly elected president, Sandu brings much promise to Moldova and its women in particular. In Moldova, the female employment rate is the lowest among other European countries, with only 44.6% of women engaged in the labor force. Moreover, women account for around 27% of Moldovan entrepreneurs and are mostly segregated into lower-paying occupations where they are less likely to assume business leadership positions. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these challenges by threatening the existence of small and medium enterprises where most Moldovan women are employed, further limiting opportunities for women and keeping them out of the workforce at a time when domestic violence has dramatically surged.
Women also suffer from indirect impacts of corruption since corruption undermines economic development and perpetuates poverty, dependence on male family members, and gender inequalities. Anti-corruption policies such as the ones proposed and initiated by Sandu can help address the wider societal, economic, and political concerns of gender inequality in Moldova. Moreover, research shows that women leaders and policymakers are effective at reducing corruption in a country because of their policy and spending choices that reduce misappropriation of funds and invest more in public services, which, in the long run, increases human capital and decreases corruption.
As women continue to take on more leadership roles in Moldova, and as public support grows for gender equality, CIPE supports women’s organizations to further advance women’s leadership in the economy and society. In October 2020, as part of the Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) consortium, CIPE launched the “Reducing Barriers to Women’s Economic Empowerment in Moldova” project in partnership with the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative. With this project, funded by the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, CIPE aims to support women’s civil society organizations and women’s business associations to engage in national advocacy efforts to improve the enabling environment for Moldovan women involved in economic activity. Now, with the first woman president taking office, the stage has been set for a new era of women’s economic empowerment in Moldova.
Thanks to Elena Ratoi for significant contributions to this piece.