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

LATIN AMERICA: Quotas Alone Won’t Give Women Equal Power

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 22 2008 (IPS) - A collection of studies published in Argentina shows that quotas for women on electoral candidate lists have been successful in achieving a certain level of gender balance in the parliaments of many Latin American countries. However, it says that more tools are needed to accelerate the process.

“Quota laws may exist and be enforced, but still be ineffective, in terms of producing meagre results,” Argentine sociologist Nélida Archenti, co-author and compiler of the book “Mujeres y Política en América Latina. Sistemas electorales y cuotas de género” (Women and Politics in Latin America: Electoral Systems and Gender Quotas), recently published in Argentina, told IPS.

According to the 2008 Report on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which has just been released, the proportion of women in the lower house (or single chamber) of parliaments in countries of Latin America and the Caribbean has increased from 11.9 percent in 1990 to 22.2 percent – an improvement basically due to quota laws stipulating minimum ratios of women to men.

The book presents research by different authors in 10 countries in the region: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru, which have quota laws, and Chile and Uruguay, which do not.

In spite of having a woman president, Michelle Bachelet, and a cabinet in which about half the ministers are women, Chile has no quota law and women hold just 15.8 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, and 5.2 percent in the Senate. In Uruguay, women hold 11 and 10 percent of the seats in the lower and upper chambers, respectively.

The studies analyse the keys to success in countries like Argentina and Costa Rica, and attest to extreme cases of electoral fraud in countries with quotas.

In Bolivia, for example, male candidates stood for town councils using women’s names in the 1999 municipal elections, using the quota law. Not only did they get off scot-free, they even took up the positions they had “won” in the elections.

Another failure of the quota laws occurred in the Dominican Republic, where women related to male political leaders became parliamentary candidates, under the quota law, in the last legislative election, and when they won their seats, they gave up their places to their husbands or other male relatives.

Quota laws are affirmative action measures recommended since the 1980s by the U.N. to promote gender balance in the branches of state power. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the campaign in favour of such laws has demonstrated their effectiveness for increasing the proportion of women lawmakers.

Argentina pioneered quotas in the region. In 1991, it became the first country in the world to enact a law stipulating that at least 30 percent of candidates on electoral lists must be women. Later on, by means of reforms, decrees and legal rulings, the law was further improved to ensure effective compliance.

“Political parties are reluctant to implement gender equity; what they usually do is to comply with the minimum requirements of the quota law, but no more,” said Archenti, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires.

After the law entered into force, the proportion of women in the lower house of the Argentine parliament rose from 5.4 percent in 1991 to 35.4 percent in 2005, and in the Senate from four percent to 43 percent over the same period.

The research studies in the book unanimously conclude that a law requiring a minimum number of women candidates is not sufficient to ensure higher levels of participation by women in positions of political power.

The laws must be effectively enforced, non-compliance must be punishable, and the female candidates must be placed high enough on party candidate lists so that they have a real chance of being elected, not just piled up at the bottom of the list or named as alternates for the main candidates.

In Brazil, a quota law was introduced in 1998, but it is not binding, which means women are “very poorly” represented, said sociologist Clara Araujo. Only 14 percent of senators are women, a proportion that is below the regional average.

Araujo, a researcher at the Rio de Janeiro State University, said that although its non-binding nature is the “main weakness” of the law, other factors also conspire against its effectiveness, such as the “open list” electoral system in which voters can use their own discretion in selecting candidates.

The authors agree that “closed list” electoral systems benefit women candidates more.

Quotas are also more effective if they stipulate that women candidates must be placed in positions on the list where they can actually be elected. Because of the patriarchal nature of Latin American political culture, voters tend to prefer male candidates, Archenti said.

If the lists are “open,” the order of the candidates can be changed at will by the voter, said Archenti. Closed lists, where the candidate order cannot be altered, are preferable, as is the obligation to place women candidates in electable positions, although only six countries in the region apply this rule.

In Mexico the quota law has had little impact, but for other reasons, said Diego Reynoso, who holds a doctorate in social sciences from a Mexican university. He said the system of only one candidate (male or female) per party in each electoral district inhibits more women being elected to parliament.

Mexico’s quota law was passed in 1993, and successive reforms were adopted to make it effective, as occurred in Argentina and Costa Rica. However, the proportion of women stands at 23 percent in the lower house and 16 percent in the Senate – still a far cry from the 30 percent minimum stipulated by law.

In Costa Rica, women lawmakers made up six percent of the total in 1986, compared to 47 percent in 2002.

“Laws that merely exhort political parties to increase participation by women just fall on deaf ears,” said Mark Jones, from the University of Michigan in the United States.

In the Andean countries, quota laws have had varying effects on the proportion of women in parliament. In Bolivia, it rose slightly from 25.8 percent in 2001 to 28.3 percent in 2006. In Ecuador, which has many single-candidate electoral districts, it declined from 27 to 26 percent over the same period, and in Peru it rose from 18.3 to 28.3 percent.

Finally, the book analyses the cases of countries where affirmative action laws have not been passed. One of these is Uruguay, which still has no quota for women in parliament, in spite of having been the first country in the region to grant women the right to vote, in 1932.

If it had a quota law, the number of women in parliament would nearly double, according to predictions from a simulation performed in the research study.

The other case is Chile, where women made great strides in terms of participating in the executive branch, says co-author Susan Franceschet, from the University of Calgary in Canada. Former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) appointed five female ministers, whose visibility played a key role in women’s progress in politics.

Lagos was succeeded by one of his ministers, Bachelet, who appointed a cabinet made up of equal numbers of men and women. But the “binominal” electoral system, in which the two most-voted candidates per electoral district make it to parliament, a legacy of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, is a “crucial barrier” to a truly effective quota law, Franceschet said.

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