Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ELECTIONS-CHILE: Still Far from Gender Equality

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 21 2008 (IPS) - “I had high hopes” that the quota bill introduced a year ago in parliament would be passed before the Oct. 26 municipal elections, Laura Albornoz, Minister of the National Women’s Service (SERNAM), told IPS. But the bill has not even been debated yet.

At a press conference with foreign correspondents Monday, Albornoz announced that in the coming week, in order to speed up the process, the government would be calling for urgent consideration of the draft law, “which stipulates equal participation of men and women in politics,” with a view to resolving the issue before the 2009 legislative elections.

“What we want is to start debating the issue. I can’t guarantee a positive result,” as there are many conflicting opinions, even within the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, the centre-left coalition in power since the country returned to democracy in 1990, she said.

The draft law would make it mandatory for political parties to nominate at least 30 percent female candidates, in addition to allocating more public funds to the women candidates and to parties that exceed the quotas.

“This is actually a pretty light bill. Besides the minimum 30 percent quota, it rewards with more money the parties that choose to nominate a greater number of women. We drafted it with those provisions in the hope of overcoming all the obstacles that exist, but it hasn’t been easy,” Albornoz told IPS.

A look at election-related figures reveals the need for a quota law: 90 percent of the candidates nominated by political parties for positions elected by popular vote between 1989 and 2005 were men, according to data supplied by the minister.

For next Sunday’s municipal elections, the statistics show little improvement: only 20 percent of all candidates for the positions of mayor or town councillor are women. A total of 1,015 men and 216 women are up for the country’s 345 mayoral posts, and 7,057 men and 2,429 women are running for the 2,146 town councillor positions.

But in the case of legislators, the situation is even worse: only five percent of the current 38 senators are women, and 12 percent of the 120 members of the lower house.

For Albornoz, parliament’s failure to debate the quota bill is added to the stagnation of other initiatives that seek to broaden political participation in general in the country, such as a proposal to enable Chileans living abroad to vote and the reform of the current electoral system, which effectively excludes both small parties and women candidates in parliamentary elections.

In her opinion, “this proves that there are still many people interested in preserving Chile’s political system unchanged, and at the same time it reflects a male chauvinist culture.”

The SERNAM minister currently stands to hold the position of president of the Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW) in the Organisation of American States (OAS) for a two-year term.

Santiago will host the Nov. 10-13 Thirty-fourth Assembly of the Delegates of the Inter-American Commission of Women and the Third Meeting of Ministers or Highest-Ranking Authorities responsible for the Advancement of Women in the Member States (REMIN-III).

In terms of political participation, “Chile has a lot to learn from fellow Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica,” she said.

According to Albornoz, the only visible change in the run-up to the municipal elections in Chile is that voters view women candidates in a more favourable light. “People are no longer afraid of voting for women,” she says.

She also believes that there is greater social diversity among the candidates for positions elected by citizen vote. “It’s not just women from a social elite who are getting involved now,” she added.

Lorena Fries, president of Corporación Humanas, a centre for women’s studies and political advocacy, agrees with the minister.

“Our study ‘From Class Demands to Gender Demands,’ a statistical analysis of the country’s municipal elections from 1990 to 2004, concludes that women are good candidates, because they’re favoured by both male and female voters, and that political solidarity among women is a growing trend,” Fries told IPS.

This means that “many women decide to vote for other women because they believe that a woman can do a better job in the position she aspires to,” she explained.

The January 2006 election of President Michelle Bachelet was proof of that, said Fries. “She won by a margin that came from women who had traditionally been less inclined to vote for the (governing) Coalition than men,” she said.

The latest survey by Corporación Humanas, released in September, which polled 1,038 women, also reveals the importance that gender equality in politics has for Chilean women.

Sixty-six percent of respondents said that women were discriminated against in politics, although 51 percent maintained that the participation of women in high decision-making positions “has improved.”

This was no doubt influenced by the fact that Bachelet’s cabinet was originally made up of an equal number of men and women (the breakdown is currently 13 men and nine women), and that the president applied the same criterion in appointing undersecretaries, governors and other authorities.

For 70 percent of the women surveyed, guaranteeing gender equality throughout the state apparatus is an “urgent” need, while 67 percent said they would not vote for a legislative candidate that rejects a bill aimed at achieving that goal.

In Fries’s view, parliament’s failure to discuss the bill establishing equal participation in politics “is a disgrace, as most countries of the region, which supposedly are less developed than Chile, have laws setting quotas for positions elected by popular vote.”

But she is not optimistic about the bill’s approval, “as the very people who will be affected by the law are the ones who will be debating it.”

The Corporación Humanas survey also found that 63 percent of the women surveyed would elect a woman president again.

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