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

Q&A: “Quota Laws Have Been Very Successful” in Latin America

Daniela Estrada interviews MARCELA RÍOS, editor of a book on gender quotas

SANTIAGO, Apr 22 2009 (IPS) - Electoral quota laws that set a minimum threshold for women on candidate lists have enabled more women to be elected, contributed to gender empowerment and driven cultural changes, says Marcela Ríos, the Chilean editor of a book that carries out an in-depth analysis of the impact of such laws.

But quotas cannot fix all the problems, says Ríos, who has a masters degree and a doctorate in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States and has written several books and articles on gender and politics, social movements and democracy in Latin America.

The 250-page book “Mujer y Política. El impacto de las cuotas de género en América Latina” (Women and Politics; The Impact of Gender Quotas in Latin America) was launched Apr. 15 by the Chile-based Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).

Affirmative action mechanisms like quotas for candidate lists or political parties, or reserved seats in the legislature, are aimed at accelerating the incorporation of women into the spheres of political power – something that is indispensable for improving “the quality of our institutions” and for shoring up the legitimacy and credibility of democracy, Ríos says in this interview with IPS.

IPS: What is the situation in Latin America in terms of female representation in popularly elected positions? MARCELA RÍOS: In Latin America, in the legislative branch, women hold just over 20 percent of the seats on average. That is slightly above the global average of 18 percent, and we are one of the regions, after Europe, best-positioned in that sense.

Significant, but uneven, progress has been made. Women’s representation has not grown at the same pace throughout the region. There are countries that have made impressive progress over the last decade, and that has driven up the regional average.


IPS: What factors stand in the way of continued improvement? MR: There is a mix of factors. What we observe is that everything that has to do with the electoral regulatory framework plays a key role: the kinds of electoral systems, the kinds of lists of candidates, the existence or not of quotas. All of that has a strong influence on opening up or closing off possibilities for women.

The other key factor is the role of political parties. In those countries where parties have effectively opened their doors and have adopted initiatives aimed at inclusion and cooperation, to increase the presence of women, we have seen very positive experiences. But political parties also operate as barriers in many countries.

A third factor is the problems faced by women themselves. To the extent that women continue to be responsible for child-rearing and have an extra burden of work, dedicating themselves to politics is very costly. There is the question of reconciling the public and private spheres, which also affects women’s participation in politics.

IPS: Sixteen years after the implementation of the first quota law, in Argentina, when another 10 countries have similar laws and the quotas range from 20 to 40 percent, what is your assessment? Have these affirmative action mechanisms worked in the region? MR: In global terms, quotas have been very successful in increasing the number of women elected in the region. In every country, with the sole exception of Brazil, quotas have had a significant effect.

The impact has been very strong in Argentina, Costa Rica and Peru, and increasingly so in Honduras and Ecuador. In these countries, the effect has been stronger because more women have entered politics, and at a faster rate. This has to do with how the quotas are designed and with how they fit in the electoral systems.

IPS: In what kind of electoral system and with what kind of candidate lists, open or closed, have the quota laws shown the best results? MR: All of the literature shows – and our book also confirms – that the quotas work better in systems based on proportional representation, when the districts are larger and the lists are closed. To that is added the use of penalties. That is the best scenario, and it is what has happened in Argentina and Costa Rica.

IPS: In general, have the parties lived up to these laws? MR: Political parties comply with the quotas when they take the form of a law, with sanctions built in. In cases in which quotas are not obligatory, there is a tendency to evade them. That has happened in many countries where parties have adopted voluntary quotas, like in the case of Chile.

Brazil has a quota law that is not fulfilled because there are no sanctions. That is also the case of Nicaragua.

This sharply differentiates Latin America from Europe, where a large number of countries have no quota laws, but parties have self-imposed voluntary quotas, which they have fulfilled – making it unnecessary to impose a law.

IPS: Are quota laws decisive to the empowerment of women? MR: That’s a complex question. It seems to me that the process of debate and approval, the political process generated around the quota laws, undoubtedly contributes to empowerment.

Latin America’s experience shows that quotas have been adopted where strong ties have been forged between women’s movements and the women who are active in political parties.

This strategy of alliances among women is very powerful in bringing visibility to problems of gender discrimination, and in getting certain gender issues on the agenda in the long-term.

But there is also debate on how much of an influence the presence of women (in positions of political influence) has on the forwarding of a gender agenda.

As affirmative action mechanisms, quotas are fundamentally aimed at overcoming the exclusion of women in terms of presence and of being able to exercise a citizen’s right to stand for election in equal conditions. Quotas also seek to influence the makeup of the candidate lists that the parties offer voters.

Thus, as a mechanism, it does not resolve a number of other problems that have to do with the quality of politics and with what the parties offer citizens, nor does it guarantee that certain issues are going to be on the agenda.

What is true, and this is shown by the evidence, is that the more women there are in decision-making spheres, the more likely it is that questions of gender inequality will be addressed and tackled. There is more debate and legislation on certain issues, but that is not the same thing as saying that quotas fix the problem of representation of women’s interests.

I believe that quotas help, and are necessary but not sufficient.

IPS: What obstacles do women politicians face in performing their representative function? MR: Once they are in positions of power, women continue to face discrimination with respect to their male peers. In many countries, because they are very few in number, they tend to be relegated to questions that have traditionally been identified as women’s issues.

So women lawmakers often have difficulties in getting on committees like defence or the economy, or in attaining positions of influence within the parliamentary structures. In the case of Argentina, the researchers who contributed to this book show that women have had quite a lot of difficulty in becoming chairs of congressional committees.

They also receive different treatment in the media. Women are continually questioned or grilled about issues with regard to which men are never questioned.

The media are endlessly preoccupied with the physical appearance of women politicians: are they heavy-set or slim, do they dress well, do they go to the hairdresser to get their hair styled, are they good-looking or unattractive, are they married or single, do they have children, are they good mothers. So women are subject to this additional pressure, on top of the already complex job of politics.

IPS: Do you think quota laws have driven cultural changes? Have they raised awareness among the dominant male leadership on the need to share power and policy-making spaces with women? MR: I think they have. At least in some countries there have been significant moves, especially among young male leaders and in some political sectors, towards adopting a discourse and strategy that seek gender parity, above and beyond quotas.

That is the case of Costa Rica, where a constitutional reform aimed at achieving gender parity in all spheres has been proposed, based on the concept that women should be represented in all spheres in proportion to their share of the population.

IPS: In Latin America, do women vote for women? The myth is that they don’t. MR: Yes, that’s a myth. The evidence shows that it is a lie. The problem is that statistics aren’t available in all countries for studying the issue, but where they are available, like in Chile, Peru and Mexico, women increasingly show a gender gap in their electoral behaviour.

Women systematically vote for women, more than men vote for men. That is clear in the case of Chile, where we see that in all elections – presidential, legislative and municipal – there is a gender gap of between five and seven percent. If women have female candidates who they identify with from an ideological standpoint, they prefer to vote for them.

What we also see in most countries is that men, as voters, are discriminating less and less against women. All of this shows that for women in the region, the obstacle is not gaining votes, but being nominated as candidates by the political parties.

IPS: If there is already quite a lot of evidence on the validity and effectiveness of gender quotas, to what would you attribute the continued resistance to them in some countries? MR: I think there are different kinds of resistance. There is ideological resistance, in the sense that significant sectors are opposed to affirmative action policies in general, whether on gender questions or for indigenous or black people. There is a big legal and political debate with respect to what these measures imply. The opposition is also to state intervention in resolving questions that are based on structural inequalities.

On the other hand, there is strong political resistance from the elites, especially men, because quotas necessarily imply sharing power, losing some posts so that women can enter. That involves a much more immediate strategic calculation of interests, where those involved tend to oppose any reform that questions their hold on power. That is a key factor in many countries.

Finally, there are those who believe that quotas run counter, in some sense, to a “meritocracy.” But that reflects a lack of understanding of how these mechanisms work, because what quotas do in most countries is simply enable women to be nominated. Voters continue to decide who makes it to the legislatures.

This discussion is based on a mistaken supposition, which is to think that the processes by which candidates are currently nominated are based on a meritocracy, which is not true. We know that in the countries of Latin America, nomination processes generally tend to be not very transparent, and that social, political, family and friendship networks play a very important role. It’s not that men make it on their merits and women don’t.

IPS: How can progress be made towards gender equity in the executive and other branches of power? MR: There have been different experiences. In the case of Chile, a policy of gender parity has been applied; a quota for the hiring of executive branch public employees is being applied in Colombia; and in Costa Rica progress is being made towards making gender parity a constitutional requirement, in all public spheres.

It is possible to look for a set of mechanisms. But yes, affirmative action is important, and it is important to get the gender dimension incorporated for posts that are not popularly elected, like hired or appointed positions.

 
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