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PERU: Parties Thwart Public Demand for Women in Politics

Maritza Asencios

LIMA, Nov 24 2009 (IPS) - Women already make up 44 percent of the active members of the country’s parties, but Peruvians want to see more women in political posts. Party structures and a lack of funding for women candidates, however, conspire to hinder and even obliterate women’s participation in public decision-making bodies.

Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda surrounded by women officials. Credit: Courtesy of Calandria

Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda surrounded by women officials. Credit: Courtesy of Calandria

With 29 percent of the national legislative seats occupied by women, Peru’s single-chamber Congress has the third highest level of female participation in Latin America, behind Argentina and Costa Rica.

But taken in isolation, this figure is misleading.

In the 2006 general elections, women’s participation suffered a great setback at the regional level as no woman was elected to head any of the 24 departments (or provinces) into which the country is divided, down from the 12 percent representation they had before. Moreover, while there are some women mayors, they are a rare exception: 97.5 percent of all municipalities are headed by men.

“Opinion polls reveal a favourable attitude towards women’s participation in politics. But there is still strong resistance within political parties, which is where candidate slates for decision-making positions are decided,” Mirtha Correa, executive director of the non-governmental Calandria Association of Communicators, explained to IPS.

“Political parties represent the first space for accessing positions of power. If parties fail to open up that space, the road (to public office) becomes very difficult. Funding is also key, because everybody knows that the more money you put into a campaign the better the chances of getting elected to top positions.”

In 2008, with the aim of doing something about the low presence of women in local and regional governments, a group of women who occupy elected positions at all levels – town council members, mayors, regional council members, governors and deputy governors – formed the National Network of Women in Executive Positions (RENAMA) to further a common gender agenda.

RENAMA represents the demands and specific problems of women politicians, in addition to being a space for learning and taking joint action.

“It supports women in their political careers and even promotes their candidacies to regional government positions. It’s a space for coordinated action. The network helps them strengthen their skills,” Correa, also a member of RENAMA, said.

“They feel alone because they have no backing from their families,” Correa added, identifying an obstacle that doesn’t affect male politicians.

“There are huge expectations surrounding women’s participation in politics, and there’s popular support from both men and women, because their image is associated with transparency, honesty and an ethical approach. We need more women in politics because our society has a high tolerance for corruption,” she said.

According to Correa, “Women are thought to be better equipped for promoting democracy, because whenever they’ve held public office they’ve been instrumental in bringing about change.”

Another reason for the favourable attitude towards women’s involvement in government is the widespread idea that women advance social-related agendas in politics, promoting health and education issues, for example.

“People expect these issues to be placed on the political agenda by women, because, even though there are men who are concerned about these issues, women are more sensitive to them,” Correa said, drawing on her experience in training women for local office.

Twelve years of the quota law

Peru has been boosting the political participation of women since it passed its gender quota law in 1997, establishing that 30 percent of the spots on candidate lists must be reserved for women. This was complemented a decade later with the 2007 Equal Opportunities Act.

But “there’s still no law that stipulates male-female alternation on candidate lists for parliament and municipal and regional governments, which would prevent women from being relegated to the last positions,” Anel Townsend, former Women and Social Development Minister, said to IPS. Townsend was the most-voted female candidate elected to congress in 2001, and in her parliamentary activity she has promoted several gender-related initiatives.

Party leadership positions in Peru are still predominantly occupied by men, who are very reluctant to relinquish any of their power, so they place women far down on the slates of candidate where they have little chance of being elected, she added.

For Townsend, while an increased presence of women in politics does not guarantee a gender agenda, it is a sign of greater democracy, and certain issues – such as discrimination in the workplace for maternity reasons, or differences in wages paid to men and women with the same qualifications – are given more attention when women participate in government, as women are more sensitive to them because of their life experience.

Another key element for expanding the political participation of women, according to Townsend, is training at the activist level, which is necessary both for women active in political parties and for those who participate in social organisations, trade unions, companies and executive management positions.

In this Andean country of 28.7 million people, it’s only “a matter of time,” Townsend said, before the percentage of women occupying public office – from the municipal level to the presidency – is proportional to their numbers. She cites two-time presidential hopeful Lourdes Flores as having provided key lessons and “paved the way” for women candidates running for high office.

“Parties are not fielding women as candidates for mayor because there are no mandatory quotas at that level, and women are not backed by the parties,” researcher Kristen Sample, head of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA International), an intergovernmental organisation active worldwide, said to IPS.

In fact, women represented a mere 7.7 percent of all candidates for mayor in the 2006 elections, which explains why only three percent of the country’s municipalities are currently headed by women. Town and regional council seats are closer to the 30 percent quota, with women holding 28.3 percent and 27.2 percent of these positions, respectively.

Closed gateways

Political parties continue to claim “there are no women,” despite the fact that women make up 44 percent of the active members of these organisations, Sample told IPS.

However, steps are being taken to change this. For example, some parties have gone to IDEA for assistance in amending their bylaws and training their internal leaders, Sample said.

“Political parties are instances of power, and the issues of gender equality, quotas, and the position on candidate lists are issues of power; so this process will take time,” she admitted.

“Parties are the gateway into politics, because it is there that candidate lists are prepared. Which is why, even though they’re difficult spaces, women must organise from within parties, and pressure them to change. And civil society must do its bit by demanding women candidates,” she said.

“Women are heading processes of change at the community level, where they are highly regarded as leaders. But they haven’t made the leap to political leadership,” she said. In order to achieve this, parties must be proactive, they must open up and offer spaces that are more inclusive of women.

Inequality is most acute when it comes to financing. Men candidates spend on average 4.6 times more than women candidates in campaigns, the IDEA representative said.

But, even so, when voters are given the chance, they do not hesitate to vote for women. In the last legislative elections, women made up 39 percent of the candidates, and they received 38 percent of the vote.

In order to address the inequality of opportunities, Sample proposes that mandatory positions for women be established by law in all the lists of candidates to collective bodies, as has been done already in Costa Rica and Argentina, where out of every three candidates at least one must be a woman.

The researcher pointed to the different treatment that the media gives men and women candidates. Women are asked questions that no man is ever asked – for example, if they have children or how they plan to reconcile their various responsibilities – and they are often judged by their appearance.

“There are very powerful stereotypes in the media, which we need to combat, not just complain about,” she said.

This situation entails an additional problem that affects women: the discouragement they feel in the face of all these obstacles, which leads many to abandon politics after only one period in office. In Sample’s opinion women must learn that it is possible to consolidate a career in politics even from a minority position.

Women will only overcome their eternal status of “newcomers” if they stop abandoning their posts after one term. “Peruvian politics has a high turnover rate, especially among women,” the expert said.

Political parties anywhere in the world are moved by interests, and they only concede to give women a more prominent space if the law forces them to, voters demand it, or women pressure from within the parties. “These three factors are all necessary to achieve progress,” Sample said.

With this in mind, IDEA trained 200 women who are active in political parties, drawing on the experience of Scandinavian countries, where the pressure for change came from within political parties.

An encouraging aspect of the women currently holding seats in Congress is that they come from 15 different departments and that in three of these they are the majority, while in the past only women from Lima made it to parliament.

Fifteen of the current 35 congresswomen were elected on the same ticket – the Unión por el Perú party. “This party selected their women candidates well. They’re all recognised social leaders, so they used the political and social backing they had to win,” fielding candidates who are mostly from outside the capital, the IDEA representative said.

This refutes the idea that the provincial vote is conservative or that only more affluent or more educated voters choose women. According to Sample, the key is to select “candidates who are well-known and who enjoy the trust of their communities.”

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