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SANTIAGO, Jul 20 2006 (IPS) - What factors continue to prevent women from becoming members of parliament? How well have quota laws worked in Latin America? How close is Chile to passing a law of this kind to fight the continuing under-representation of women in the legislature?
Quota laws, or affirmative action to remove the obstacles for women to gain access to decision-making positions in the executive or legislative branches, consist of setting a percentage or minimum number of posts reserved for women, whether in government designated positions, or as candidates on the election slates of political parties.
“In general, quotas have worked well in Latin America. They have significantly accelerated the presence of women in parliament, particularly when the quota laws have been well thought out,” Marcela Ríos told IPS. Ríos is one of the authors of the study “Gender Quotas: Democracy and Representation,” published in June by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), with the support of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Statistics confirm this. In countries in the region that have approved quota laws for parliament, women hold on average 20.3 percent of the total seats, whereas in countries lacking quota laws only 13.7 percent of the seats are held by women.
The quota mechanism is highly regarded by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which believes that without gender quotas in Latin American countries, by 2052 women would only occupy 40 percent of parliamentary seats.
Gender quota systems can be created through the constitution, by law, or by the initiative of political parties themselves, and they are based on the view that social conditions alone cannot overcome the inequalities that exist in society, so it is incumbent on the state to intervene.
Argentina was the first country in the region to approve such a system for the legislative branch in 1991, when it set aside 30 percent of the seats in both the lower chamber and the Senate for women.
Costa Rica, Mexico and Paraguay followed suit in 1996, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru in 1997, Venezuela in 1998 (although later it abandoned the quota system), and finally Honduras in 2000.
Colombia is the only country to have a quota law for the executive branch, which established a proportion of 30 percent of women in high-ranking decision-making posts in all organs of the state.
FLACSO’s study of 18 countries in the region, 11 of which have quota laws, showed that in countries with such legislation, the presence of women in the legislature grew by 9.5 percent between 1995 and 2004, while in countries lacking this mechanism, women’s parliamentary participation grew by only 2.9 percent.
However, the laws alone do not ensure an increase in the political participation of women, the study says. The effectiveness of the established quota depends on the nature of the electoral system in each country, and on the dynamics of the parties, which serve as the “gate-keepers” to participation in elections.
Quota laws are most effective within proportional representation systems, which use closed candidate lists, and when the law stipulates that women’s names must be placed at or towards the top of the election slates, so that they have a real chance of being elected.
These measures explain the very successful growth of women’s presence in the bicameral Argentine legislature between 1995 and 2004, which increased by 28 percent, and in the Costa Rican Congress, where seats occupied by women increased by 19.5 percent.
However, the impact of the quota laws was weaker in Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Bolivia and Peru, where the number of women in parliament grew between seven and 15 percent.
Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic achieved a slight increase, 5.6 percent, while in Brazil and Honduras no growth has been seen so far, and the proportion of women legislators is below the world average of 16.6 percent.
In the opinion of the researchers, the situation in Brazil “is a dramatic example of the need to draft this type of laws very carefully indeed,” and to include penalties for nonfulfilment.
In Chile the proportion of women in Congress, at 12.6 percent, is also below the world average.
“At present, women cannot compete on equal terms to get elected into parliament in Chile,” because of the country’s electoral system, and the behaviour of the political parties, which have no incentive to include a greater number of women, Ríos said.
Although the electoral system in this country is considered to be proportional, the lists of candidates are open-ended, and since only two representatives are elected in each district, it is difficult for women to gain access to Congress.
President Michelle Bachelet’s programme of government includes a proposed quota law, but criticisms of the proposal have led the executive branch to consider alternatives, such as promoting a protocol by which political parties would commit themselves to include more female candidates, National Women’s Service Minister Laura Albornoz told IPS.
Bachelet’s cabinet, meanwhile, is made up of equal numbers of men and women.
“Half the Chilean population has no access to the places where the country’s decisions are taken, and the origin of this problem is the traditional segregation of women, who are largely confined to the domestic sphere. That’s why we, as a government, are looking into different mechanisms to reverse this situation,” Albornoz explained.
Now, thanks to a draft constitutional reform presented by the government to Congress a month ago, changes to the Chilean electoral system are being debated. The motion includes a financial incentive to encourage political parties to nominate more female candidates.
But whether this or other measures will be approved is still uncertain. A survey carried out by the Humanas Corporation, asking 111 male and female lawmakers whether they were in favour of a law to correct women’s under-representation and guarantee their presence in Congress, found that 84.8 percent of representatives of the far-right Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party were against the idea.
Even in the centre-left governing coalition, support was lacklustre. Only 52.4 percent of Christian Democrat Party (PDC) members of Congress, for example, were in favour.
“We think the discussion is back to front. Before creating a quota law, which would benefit an élite in the country, we should pay attention to the real conditions which keep women out of politics,” Karla Rubilar, a deputy for the centre-right National Renewal (RN) party, remarked to IPS.
Rubilar, whose party has publicly stated its opposition to the proposed quota law, said that political parties do not discriminate against women, but that it is women themselves who do not want to run for office, being deterred by the “high level of personal sacrifice,” late night meetings, and the prospect of working on weekends and holidays.
A similar position was taken by former UDI presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín, who said in an opinion column published in the newspaper El Mercurio that participation in politics was not a priority issue for Chilean women, as they had more serious problems, such as finding jobs and fighting salary inequality and domestic violence.
But none of these issues excludes the others, said Rios, who thought there was a great deal of ignorance about quota laws and the results they have had in countries where they have been implemented. Added to this, there was “resistance from some sectors that don’t want to change the rules of the game,” said the FLACSO researcher.
Former legislator Lily Pérez, the national secretary of RN, said in an interview that quotas “create a situation that demeans women” by casting doubt on their abilities. Pérez pointed to Bachelet’s election as an example, saying she had become president thanks to her own “merits, hard work, recognition and qualifications.”
Nevertheless, Ríos hoped that a law of this kind will be passed during the current administration, “because it’s a mechanism that has proved itself in other countries as a swift and effective remedy for the problem of women’s under-representation in democratically elected positions.”
Albornoz confirmed that this is a high priority for the present administration, which finishes its term in 2010.
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