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POLITICS-LATIN AMERICA: Gender Equality Requires Quotas

Tito Drago

MADRID, Jun 17 2009 (IPS) - Laws stipulating a minimum number of women in public posts are essential for achieving gender equality, according to a meeting of women legislators from Latin America and the Caribbean, held this week in Madrid.

The meeting, “Towards a Political Agenda for Gender Equality in Latin America and the Caribbean”, was organised by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with support from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

More than 60 women parliamentarians from 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a further 20 from Spain, attended the two-day conference, which ended Tuesday.

Eleven of the 20 Latin American and Caribbean nations represented at the meeting already have quota laws, whose effectiveness can be seen in the proportion of women lawmakers, who held 20.5 percent of total seats in 2008, compared to just 14 percent in the other nine countries.

Argentina adopted the world’s first national gender quota law in 1991, and this country and others in the region such as Chile, Nicaragua and Panama have or have had women presidents.

Without these laws, it would take until 2052 for women to gain 40 percent of parliamentary seats, said Rebeca Grynspan, UNDP regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

But none of these countries has reached the degree of equality that prevails in Spain, which has equal numbers of men and women in the cabinet presided by socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and where political parties are required to include at least 40 percent female candidates on electoral lists.

Latin America has made some progress in the composition of cabinets: in the 1990s only nine percent of ministers were women, a proportion that has climbed to nearly 22 percent this year. A particularly positive sign is that women are increasingly being appointed to ministries traditionally seen as male preserves, such as the ministries of defence, interior, economy, industry, science and technology.

Spain’s First Vice President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega told the meeting it must never be forgotten that exercising and showing the value of political freedom is a contribution to the values of equality throughout Ibero-America – the community of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic.

“There are still many doors to be opened and many seats in parliament to be occupied” by women, who should have “at least half, fifty percent, in all the world’s governments,” she said.

Fernández de la Vega called on participants to conquer a public space in which women can be part of the solutions to the global economic crisis. “Today, women are part of politics, we are a central element and we continue to claim the public space that we should always have occupied,” she said.

UNIFEM executive director Inés Alberdi stressed the need for “accountability from a gender perspective” in politics, the justice system, public services and the markets, “to ensure that policies on women’s rights do not remain empty rhetoric.”

This accountability, she went on, should be structured in such a way that “women themselves can demand and get answers from the decision-makers, at the national and international levels.”

Although women do not yet have equal participation at the legislative level in Latin America and the Caribbean, significant progress has been made in the proportion of women lawmakers in lower (or single) chambers, currently an average of nearly 21 percent.

The highest proportion of women in such posts is found in Cuba (49 percent), followed by Argentina (40 percent) and Costa Rica (nearly 37 percent), while the lowest participation is found in Colombia (8.4 percent), Panama (8.5 percent), Brazil (nine percent) and Guatemala (12 percent). However, in local governments women’s presence is much lower. Only six percent of mayors are women.

The women parliamentarians gathered in Madrid laid the foundations for a legislative agenda on gender equality issues for the region, and strategies to make it effective.

They emphasised that women’s leadership is a key to development with a view to overcoming the global economic crisis. Proposals were also made focusing on employment, social protection, and shared responsibility for personal and family life and work outside the home, as well as for sexual and reproductive health.

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