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CENTRAL AMERICA: Women Make Headway in Politics – and Want More

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Mar 5 2010 (IPS) - The victory of Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica’s presidential elections, and the growing participation of women in Central American parliaments, point to their progress in the region’s spheres of political power. But they still have a long way to go, experts say.

“The election of a woman president in Costa Rica is a step forward for women in the region’s political arena, and a qualitative advance in terms of political democratisation,” political analyst José Dávila Membreño told IPS.

Chinchilla, of the governing National Liberation Party (PLN), became the third woman president to be democratically elected in Central America, after Presidents Mireya Moscoso in Panama (1999-2004) and Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua (1990-1997).

“Women have been discriminated against, with a view that they should stay at home and that they are not fit for public responsibilities. But this attitude is gradually being overcome, because women have shown that when they occupy public office, the quality of politics can improve,” said the political scientist.

In Costa Rica, the proportion of women in parliament rose from 15.8 to 36.8 percent; in Panama, from eight to 15.3 percent; and in Honduras, from 9.4 to 23.4 percent, according to a study on women’s participation in positions of power and decision-making, by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW), carried out between 2006 and 2009.

“Women’s political participation in the region has improved, although there is still much to be done,” Mayra Díaz, the head of the Costa Rican government’s National Institute for Women (INAMU) and former president of the Council of Ministers for Women in Central America (COMMCA), told IPS.

According to Díaz, women’s entry into politics has been bolstered by reforms of national and international legislation recognising the political rights of women, and by the pressure exerted by women’s movements.

One of the most important measures taken in Costa Rica was the approval of a quota law in 1996, requiring a minimum of 40 percent of all candidates to be women in elections to the national parliament. In 2009, this was increased to 50 percent.

“In order for these measures to be effective, they must be incorporated into the electoral laws. In Costa Rica, the law decreed equality, but it was only when this was included in the electoral legislation that a significant increase in the number of women elected to public positions was achieved,” said Díaz.

Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama are the only three Central American countries to have created a quota system to draw more women into politics. Other Latin American countries, like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay, also have quota laws.

Increasing women’s participation in the political life of the countries of this region is an ongoing process that is vigorous and irreversible, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) concluded in 2009, after consulting 400 civil servants, lawmakers and other decision-makers.

Most of those interviewed in ECLAC’s consultation of Latin American leaders, about the present and future prospects for access by women to positions of political decision-making, indicated that in their countries women’s access to parliamentary, government or municipal positions had expanded over the last decade.

The average proportion of women in Latin American parliaments rose from eight percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2008, while their appointment to government ministries over the last three presidential terms increased from 13 to 27 percent in late 2006, according to ECLAC.

Progress at the local level can be seen in Central America. For instance, in El Salvador 29 women mayors were elected for the period 2009-2012, compared to only 13 women mayors elected for 2000-2003, according to the Salvadoran Corporation of Municipalities of the Republic of El Salvador (COMURES).

A Salvadoran member of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), Gloria Anaya, who belongs to the leftwing governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), told IPS that women in this region have won greater freedom of action thanks to the liberalisation of society, which in turn is owed in large measure to the struggles waged by women.

Anaya said that the signing of the peace accords between the government and the leftwing guerrillas in 1992, that put an end to 12 years of civil war in El Salvador, was a key development that paved for the way for a judicial and institutional framework capable of promoting family, labour, social and political rights.

“We have made great strides, but we are not satisfied yet,” she said.

Within the Central American region, which has a total population of 42 million, Costa Rica boasts the highest participation of women in parliament, with 36.8 percent of the seats. The average proportion of women in high-level government posts for the seven countries in the region was 21.8 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to the Central American Integration System (SICA).

In contrast, women’s share of power in local government is much lower. The proportion of women mayors in the region ranges from 1.8 percent in Guatemala to 11.9 percent in the Dominican Republic, an associate member of SICA.

Guatemalan lawmaker Anabella de León, of the rightwing Patriot Party (PP), told IPS that “machismo”, racism and underlying social exclusion are some of the reasons why her country has one of the worst regional indices for women’s participation.

In fact, Guatemala lacks the conditions for a woman to become president, said de León, although several have stood as candidates, including indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

Guatemala should adopt a quota law, otherwise “the equality laid down in Article 4 of the constitution is merely romantic and utopian, because different sectors in society are treated unequally,” de León said.

The assistant head of the Central American Institute of Political Studies (INCEP), Renzo Rosal, told IPS that quota laws could contribute to equalising political participation by women and young people in the region.

If this step is not taken, “we will probably have to wait a very long time for the institutions to mature and become aware of the importance of women’s participation in a democratic society,” Rosal said.

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