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LATIN AMERICA: Women Lawmakers Find Strength in Unity

Ángela Castellanos*

MONTEVIDEO, Sep 23 2006 (IPS) - More and more women legislators in Latin America are setting aside their differences and coming together around the cause of women’s rights, in women’s caucuses. The last to have done so are female congresswomen in Colombia and Peru, who say they realised there is strength in unity.

Since July, when the Colombian legislature was sworn in and Dilian Francisca Toro of Colombia’s Social National Unity Party (known as the Party of the U) became speaker of Congress, Toro has been leading efforts to get the country’s 26 female lawmakers to work together.

The women’s caucus, which has emerged at a time of strong political polarisation in Colombia, has brought together 12 senators and 14 deputies from across the political spectrum, ranging from progressive lawmaker Cecilia López Montaño, a former government minister who has worked hard for the rights of women, to Gina Parody of the party of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe.

“They are working hard and with enthusiasm, and meet religiously every Wednesday” with the aim of strengthening the representation of women in Congress and promoting initiatives in favour of women, Senate press relations officer Adriana Cabiedes told IPS.

Women hold 11.7 percent of the seats in the 102-member Senate and 8.4 percent of the seats in the 161-member Chamber of Representatives.

A bloc of women legislators has also been established for the first time in Peru, with the support of the speaker of Congress, Mercedes Cabanillas of the governing APRA Party.

The 35 congresswomen who took office on Jul. 28, accounting for one-third of the current legislature, say they will push for laws guaranteeing equal opportunities for Peruvian women at all socioeconomic levels.

The women lawmakers belong to eight different political parties, with the single largest group (12) coming from the alliance made up of Union for Peru and the Peruvian Nationalist Party, which backed nationalist anti-establishment candidate Ollanta Humala in the presidential elections.

“This time, the women legislators who were elected have more progressive views with regard to gender equity,” Cabanillas, who is serving her third term in Congress, told IPS. “In the last Congress, there was a great deal of conservatism that curbed progress on this issue, which cuts across all sectors and requires a broad, unified effort.”

The women’s caucus will debate equal opportunity initiatives, in order for each congresswoman to promote the proposals in their respective parliamentary commissions. “We don’t want everything to be channeled anymore only through the Women’s Commission,” explained Cabanillas. In the previous legislature, women held 21 seats. But they now hold 35, making up 30 percent of the total – the minimum set by Peru’s quota law aimed at guaranteeing women’s representation in Congress.

A similar law implemented in Brazil in 1996 stipulated that all political parties were to reserve 20 percent of the places on their lists of legislative candidates for women. The following year the quota was expanded to 30 percent.

However, the law did not establish penalties for incompliance, and very few parties actually live up to it.

Women legislators in Brazil are now pushing for public financing for election campaigns, in order to guarantee that female candidates receive at least 30 percent of party campaign funds and radio and television coverage.

There are currently 51 women in the Brazilian Congress, who represent 10.7 percent of the Senate and 8.2 percent of the Chamber of Deputies. The majority of the women lawmakers are leftists, with four female senators and 16 deputies belonging to the governing Workers’ Party (PT).

Women legislators played a strong role in the constituent assembly that rewrote the Brazilian constitution in 1988. With the aim of incorporating the rights of women, the female lawmakers came together in what some pejoratively referred to as “the lipstick caucus.”

The women’s caucus tends to vote as a bloc, regardless of the positions taken by their parties. But it is divided on questions like abortion and same-sex civil unions, where religious and moral beliefs take precedence, Almira Rodrigues, a researcher at the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA), a non-governmental organisation that proposes to Congress initiatives of interest to women, told IPS.

Besides voting together to push their initiatives through, Brazil’s female lawmakers organise and take part in seminars, debates and public events. This year they launched a major political offensive, including public hearings around the country, to press for passage of a bill on violence against women, which was signed into law in August.

They also mobilised in support of a bill on budget guidelines, which protects funding for social programmes and gender equality initiatives.

The women’s caucus has chalked up major accomplishments, especially the quota law and the law against gender violence, said Rodrigues.

A 2003 law providing for restriction orders in domestic violence cases was also one of the biggest achievements of the women’s caucus in Uruguay, along with legislation that gives all women the right to take a day off work for their annual gynecological exam, Uruguayan Senator Margarita Percovich commented to IPS.

The bicameral women’s caucus was formally created in Uruguay in 1992, on the initiative not only of women belonging to political parties but also women in academia and social movements, who had already been working together during the years of transition to democracy after the 1973-1985 military dictatorship.

Uruguay has four women senators and 11 female deputies, making up 11 percent of the seats in Congress.

“We have a common agenda, which includes both draft laws and public policies, whose central aim is gender equity,” said Percovich.

Besides making progress with respect to political participation by women through training courses organised jointly with female city councilors, “the women’s caucus has made the issue a question of public debate; there has been a change in culture, and we are more visible in the media. But there is still a long way to go, such as the terminology that is used,” added the senator, who belongs to the Vertiente Artiguista, a party that forms part of the ruling leftist Broad Front coalition.

Women legislators have also begun to work together in Central America. According to Deputy Irma Amaya of El Salvador, female lawmakers from different factions “decided in August to set up a women’s caucus in parliament to promote legislative initiatives that favour Salvadoran women.”

The group is made up of 13 women deputies, who account for 15 percent of the country’s single-chamber legislature. Eight of the women lawmakers belong to the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), four belong to the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and one is from the Party of National Conciliation (PCN).

In the 2006-2007 legislative budget, the women parliamentarians obtained 25,000 dollars for training programmes on the rights of women, gender issues and participation by women in politics.

They will also organise a forum for women in politics, aimed at congresswomen, female public employees and party leaders, women’s movement activists and other public figures.

But it has not been easy. Milena Calderón of ARENA says that when the creation of a women’s forum was being discussed, “many men, from every faction, walked out of the plenary session because they don’t care about the problems facing Salvadoran women. There are still many things that they just don’t understand.”

* With additional reporting from Mario Osava (Brazil), Helda Martínez (Colombia), Raúl Gutiérrez (El Salvador) and Milagros Salazar (Peru).

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