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

URUGUAY: Women Breaking Out of Political Corset

Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, May 28 2009 (IPS) - When Uruguay returned to democracy in 1985, “a political corset was put on women,” said a member of the opposition Colorado Party.

In the first parliament to emerge from the 1984 elections that put an end to the 1973-1985 dictatorship, “there was not a single woman lawmaker,” said Glenda Rondán, a city councilor for Montevideo and former member of the lower house of parliament, at a breakfast held this week for women politicians by the Foreign Press Association in Uruguay (APEU).

The democratic state “was born crippled in that respect,” because women “did a great deal to bring about the return to democracy,” she said.

Twenty-four years later, Uruguay is in 91st place on a list of 134 countries drawn up by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, ranked according to women’s participation in the legislative branch.

With four women in the Senate and 11 women members of the lower house among a combined total of 130 parliamentary seats, 11.5 percent of Uruguayan lawmakers are women, considerably lower than the 21.5 percent average for the Americas and the world average of 18.4 percent.

Few as they are, these women lawmakers have just foiled another attempt to limit women’s participation, this time by the Electoral Court, in charge of defining the regulations for the “quota law” that will govern the internal party elections to be held on Jun. 28.

The quota law aimed at equitable gender participation in elected national and provincial bodies and in the leadership of political parties, approved in late March and promulgated Apr. 3, stipulates that one out of every three candidates nominated for these posts must be of a different sex than the other two.

Candidate lists must include persons of both genders all the way down the list, the law states.

Uruguay’s parliamentary electoral system is party-list proportional representation: political parties present a list of nominees in order of preference, who are elected to parliament in proportion to the votes obtained by the parties. Each permanent candidate has one or more alternates.

According to the rules approved by a majority of the Electoral Court, the groups of three candidates could include both permanent and alternate nominees, without differentiating between them, which meant in effect that the women candidates could all have been substitutes.

The bicameral women’s caucus, a multi-party bloc which lobbied for the quota law, reacted immediately to what it called a “misogynistic and perverse” act, and in the space of a few days presented a draft interpretative law to block the Electoral Court’s regulations.

The interpretative law was pushed through parliament at top speed and came into force on May 5. The deadline for presenting the lists of candidates for the political party internal elections is May 29.

Getting the quota law approved “was an uphill battle for us, so we were very harsh in our criticism of the majority opinion of the Electoral Court, and we had no hesitation in immediately presenting an interpretative law,” socialist Senator Mónica Xavier, of the governing leftwing Broad Front, told APEU.

The law will apply to the primary elections in June, when the political parties will hold their conventions and decide their presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the October national elections. However, it will not apply to national and local parliamentary elections until 2014.

The new law makes it clear that the Electoral Court must reject any list that “does not conform to the quota requirements,” Xavier said. “We did not seek legal penalties or economic sanctions; instead we made sure that the supervisory body has to check the lists for the inclusion of both men and women.”

“After so many failed attempts to open doors to participation by more women, this law has finally cut through what we call the ‘Gordian knot’ that was frustrating women’s participation, which is the political parties themselves,” she said.

The quota law is one of the fruits of the bicameral women’s caucus, which has operated since 2000 on the basis of voluntary attendance. It meets once a month and has a secretariat and a three-woman committee. Its agenda and links with civil society and academia are growing apace.

The women’s caucus “has taken formal shape because of the political will” of its members, Xavier said. Because of its “persistence and achievements, and because no woman lawmaker is excluded,” it is regarded as a pioneering model in Latin America.

In terms of women’s representation, “we are very badly off compared to other countries and compared to other periods in our history,” added Xavier, a medical doctor who was the first Latin American to chair the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians from 2006 to 2008.

Quoting an expression coined by local historian José Pedro Barrán, Rondán said that women “in Uruguay have gone through corseted and uncorseted periods.”

Women were at the forefront of the early struggles against Spanish colonialism, said Rondán, a former literature teacher, mentioning several outstanding women.

“In the first period of our national history, which Barrán describes as ‘barbaric,’ women had complete freedom,” she said. “Foreign visitors to Uruguay were astonished to discover the freedom women enjoyed, and their position in society.”

Then came a time of “discipline,” and women were the most heavily disciplined, by the family and by the Catholic Church. “It must have been one of the few times that Catholics and Masons joined forces to discipline women,” said Rondán.

In 1932, Uruguayan women won the right to vote. But although “civil rights in this country were won very early on, the 1900s put women into a corset, which we are still wearing,” Rondán said.

Uruguay’s image as a liberal democracy, with a divorce law since 1913 and a high level of participation by girls and women in education and the labour market, was at odds with the closed doors of its political system.

And during the transition to democracy “they really trussed women up tightly into corsets,” she stressed.

However, in 1984 the Concertación Nacional Programática, a multi-party forum designed to forge a common legislative agenda, gave rise to the Network of Women Politicians, which took on formal status in 1985 and is still in existence.

Since then, the conservative Colorado Party “has undergone a huge setback” in terms of gender equality, which could be attributed to its “meagre voting results” in the 2004 elections, when it fell from power, said Rondán.

In the previous term, from 2000 to 2005, during the administration of former President Jorge Batlle of the Colorado Party, there were “four women members of the lower house, and not one woman senator, minister or deputy minister,” she said.

None of the Colorado Party woman lawmakers was reelected in 2004. Today Rondán is the only woman on her party’s 15-member National Executive Committee.

By contrast, incumbent President Tabaré Vázquez of the Broad Front brought about change from the outset of his term by appointing an unprecedented number of women to his cabinet, Xavier said.

He named female ministers in areas previously identified as the exclusive domain of men, like the ministries of defence and the interior, as well as to the ministries of health and social development. “There’s no going back now,” she said.

The socialist senator pointed to a string of 17 laws touching on gender issues that have been approved since 2007.

One of these is the law on sexual and reproductive health, which Vázquez modified, however, by vetoing the decriminalisation of abortion, going against his own party on the issue.

There are still a lot of corsets to be discarded.

In this country of 3.3 million people, women make up 60 percent of the university student body, yet they still earn, on average, 30 percent less than men.

Currently, one woman is killed by her partner every 13 days. In 2008, one woman died every nine days.

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