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LATIN AMERICA: Political Parity for Women Still a Long Way Off

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Aug 7 2007 (IPS) - Legislation in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean has not succeeded in ending discrimination against women in political and public life, say participants at the 10th Regional Conference on Women being held in the Ecuadorean capital.

The meeting was inaugurated Monday by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and addressed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Spanish Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega. Delegations from more than 30 countries were present.

The present governments of both Chile and Spain began their administrations with gender parity in their cabinets: equal numbers of women and men in charge of ministries.

Bachelet said that although her election as president was a “defeat for exclusion and a victory for inclusion,” and in Chile her government is making efforts to achieve “parity in political and public representation” for men and women, there is still much to be done to overcome the remaining “prejudices.”

Every initiative that promotes women’s access to “public and political representation” must be encouraged, because gender equity “is not a question of numbers, but of democratic principles,” she added.

Quota laws to establish mandatory proportions of women in political bodies and on lists of electoral candidates, as well as other affirmative action initiatives, all help towards finally overcoming exclusion, she said.

Therefore, Bachelet will send a draft law to the Chilean Congress in September to establish minimum quotas for women candidates for elected posts, she announced.

In her view, women’s participation in the workforce, the changes in their domestic relationships, and their opportunities to hold “positions of authority” in many countries, constitute the main revolution of the 20th century.

“More women, more democracy, more justice. Equality is not just a dream,” Bachelet concluded, to applause from the hundreds of participants.

Fernández de la Vega, meanwhile, said she subscribed to a “democratic and feminist” world view, and said that millions of women are heavily burdened by injustice because they are regarded as second class citizens.

In addition to political parity, equality in employment is needed, to end “the old sexual division of labour,” said Fernández de la Vega.

Implementing laws and state policies that do away with unpaid domestic labour, which is carried out by millions of women, is a fundamental requirement, she said.

“Women have taken on responsibility for caring for others, and people have assumed that this is natural, whereas it is not, so it is essential to develop policies to address society’s public responsibility” for this work, she said.

“We need to recognise the value of women’s contribution to the economy and to social cohesion through the unpaid domestic work they do, and at the same time we need to put forward proposals for it to be solved and shared differently. These tasks are a priority,” she said.

Similarly, “it is essential to continue to work for a full, inclusive democracy, characterised by gender equity, that incorporates women at all levels of decision-making, in order to end an injustice that has lasted for centuries, and to restore women’s full citizenship rights,” Fernández de la Vega said.

A study by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) found that, although political participation by women has increased over the last decade in Latin America, the situation is still a long way from gender parity.

In the executive branch in the region, the proportion of women rose from nine to 14 percent in 10 years. In the Senate, it grew from five to 13 percent, and in the lower chambers from eight to 15 percent.

But at the municipal level, where representation and governance is closest to the populace and to everyday life, the proportion of women is much lower and has not grown significantly in the last 10 years, according to UN-INSTRAW.

Data collected by UN-INSTRAW in 16 Latin American countries indicate that only 5.3 percent of mayors are women, in 842 out of 15,828 local governments.

“In the local sphere, there is a worrying paradox: the municipality is the space where women participate most in economic, social and cultural life. But also it is where few occupy political positions,” said Carmen Moreno, head of UN-INSTRAW.

In countries where there are quota laws for the inclusion of specified proportions of women on candidate lists for municipal elections, there has been a marked increase in the number of town councillors, Moreno said.

However, the mechanism does not apply to mayoral elections, where candidates stand as individuals. The office of mayor continues to be almost exclusively dominated by men.

Ecuadorean indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso told IPS that discrimination in the political and public sphere is much greater for women who are poor and of indigenous or African descent.

Inequality in politics also has “a social class and ethnic component which needs to be taken into account,” Chancoso said.

The long-time leader of the Ecuadorean indigenous people’s movement said that poor indigenous and black people have far less chances of being elected to a public position.

This is corroborated by another UN-INSTRAW study, which says that indigenous women experience access to resources and positions of power in a different way from non-indigenous men and women.

Women account for nearly 60 percent of the 50 million indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean, and they face triple discrimination: as women, as indigenous people and as poor people, the study says.

In Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru, where at least half of women are indigenous, the obstacles are related to conservative traditions, lack of basic identity documents, a low literacy rate, lack of access to financial resources, lack of opportunities for capacity-building, and centralised exercise of power, among other aspects, the study says.

The conference in Quito, which runs through Thursday, is the most important intergovernmental forum for analysing public policies on gender, and is convened every three years by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

This year the conference is focussing on the contribution of women’s unpaid work to the economy and social protection, and on political participation and gender parity.

In his welcoming speech, President Correa said he hoped the next Ecuadorean government would have a woman president.

“We cannot talk about development while gender discrimination continues,” he said. “‘On the street, arm in arm, we are so much more than two,’ (Uruguayan poet) Mario Benedetti said. You are the women’s faces of this region, and you are welcome,” he said.

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