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PARAGUAY: Women Growing in Politics – at Pace Set by Men

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCION, Apr 7 2009 (IPS) - The global tendency towards greater participation by women in politics has reached Paraguay, but the pace continues to be set by men, and there are still tough barriers to equal access to elected posts.

Meeting of Women Politicians for Democracy and Development Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

Meeting of Women Politicians for Democracy and Development Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

"It is still men who make the decisions, even about whether a woman who wants to run for a post will end up on the list of candidates or not," Minister of Women’s Affairs Gloria Rubín told IPS.

Women’s participation in politics in Paraguay has grown in recent years, but it is far below the levels hoped for in 1996, when a 20 percent quota was set for women on candidates’ lists.

Paraguayan women who get involved in politics run into two different scenarios: that of the traditional parties, which hold a majority in parliament and are still characterised by heavy resistance to women’s participation; and the situation in emerging social and popular movements and parties, where it is easier for women to play a role.

María Justina Fokuoka of the centre-right Partido Patria Querida (PPQ – Beloved Fatherland Party) ran for senator in the 2003 and 2008 elections. The first time, she was the 11th name on the list, and seven senators were elected; the second time, she was in seventh place, but the party only won four seats in the Senate.

"This is a problem in all of the parties; political activity is seen as a man’s business, and there are more men active in politics than women," said Fokuoka, a pediatrician who is active in movements linked to the Catholic Church.

But in the April 2008 general elections, Aída Robles, parliamentary deputy for the Central department (province) representing the leftist Tekojoja ("egalitarian life" in Guaraní) People’s Party, had a different experience.

Her party forms part of the centre-left Patriotic Alliance for Change, whose candidate was current President Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop and social activist described as a moderate leftist who took office in August 2008.

Robles competed with another woman to head her party’s list of candidates for the country’s most populous department. Both candidates, a nurse and a social worker, were active in trade unions representing employees of the Hospital de Clínicas, the teaching hospital in Asunción.

In the late 1980s, the hospital’s student interns, nurses and doctors led protests against the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989).

"It wasn’t easy to compete against each other," Robles told IPS, attributing the fact that she was elected to support from women voters.

"We had very pluralistic participation in the movement, which led to the inclusion of many women candidates on the list. Sadly, they couldn’t all be elected," she said.

One particularly significant development occurred in the 2008 elections: the presidential candidate of the Colorado Party, which governed the country for more than 60 years, was a woman.

But the candidate, Blanca Ovelar, faced resistance from within, and was disparaged by some of her own fellow party members.

Ovelar, a former education minister, was the protege of then president Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008), who according to many analysts backed a female candidate for electoral purposes.

Paraguay was the last country in the Americas where women gained the right to vote, in 1961. And it was not until Stroessner was overthrown, in 1989, that Paraguayan women were free to organise to fight for their rights.

Two major women’s organisations emerged: the Coordinación de Mujeres del Paraguay (CMP – Paraguayan women’s coordinating committee), made up of 11 groups, and the Multisectorial de Mujeres (multisectoral women’s group), which no longer exists.

María Inés Ferreira, director of the Centro de Promoción de la Mujer y de Gestión Social (centre for the promotion of women and social administration), said Paraguayan women have played a leading role in the democratisation of this landlocked South American nation of 6.7 million people which is surrounded by Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil.

"It’s hard to imagine that democracy can be achieved without the active, conscious participation of 50 percent of the population: women," she said.

Only 21 of the 198 members of the constituent assembly that rewrote the constitution in 1991 were women. But women’s organisations held two public forums and presented proposals to the constituent assembly, and monitored their inclusion in the constitution by lobbying and advising members of the assembly.

Thanks to that effort, the constitution adopted in 1992 incorporated the principle of equality between men and women.

The Secretariat of Women’s Affairs, which has ministerial rank, was also created in 1992, in the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was ratified by Paraguay in 1986.

The creation of a specific women’s ministry had been a demand of women’s groups since 1989.

Only one of Lugo’s 10 ministers is a woman – the minister of public health and social welfare. But women’s organisations underscore the presence of two of the country’s leading women’s rights activists at the head of secretariats with cabinet rank: Rubín herself and Minister of the Civil Service Lilián Soto.


The countries of Latin America that have a quota system for women are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. Uruguay just approved a quota law as well, but it will not go into effect until 2014. The proportions of candidates that must be women range from 20 to 50 percent.

The Shadow Report presented to CEDAW by civil society groups in 2004 says the quota system is the only affirmative action measure adopted by the Paraguayan state to improve women’s access to positions of influence.

But the report also maintains that the quota system itself is an obstacle to the continued growth of the number of popularly elected posts held by women.

"The 20 percent quota has become a ceiling to be reached, not a minimum to be overcome," Carolina Thiede, UNIFEM (U.N. Development Fund for Women) national officer in Paraguay, told IPS.

The report also complained that less than 20 percent of the names on the party’s final lists of candidates are women.

In practice, the parties make a show of living up to the quota by reserving 20 percent of spots on the lists for the primary elections for women, or by arranging election slates where female candidates are unlikely to actually be elected.

Rubín said, "The number of registered women voters and the number of women who vote have increased in the last few elections. But women’s political representation has not grown; in fact it has leveled off."


The electoral court’s figures show the wide gap between the number of men and women in popularly elected posts.

In 1993, just five women were elected to the 45-member Senate, while only seven were elected in 2008. In the 80-member lower house, two women were elected in 1993 and 10 in 2008.

Not a single woman governor was elected in 1993 in the 17 departments into which Paraguay is divided, and in 2008, only one was.

In the regional legislatures, a total of 159 men and eight women were elected in 1993, compared to 170 men and 40 women in 2008.

At the municipal level, six of the 223 mayors elected in 1996 were women, compared to 13 of 230 in 2006, the last year that municipal elections were held.

And while 320 of the 2,268 city council members elected nationwide in 1996 were women, in 2006 the proportion was 513 out of a total of 2,475.

"The percentages are better in some areas than others, but they are still not considered desirable levels of representation," said Rubín.

To accelerate the empowerment of women in politics, the Secretariat of Women’s Affairs launched a "political participation for gender equality" project, with support from UNIFEM and the UNDP, in March.

The project is aimed at bolstering the political representation of women and strengthening gender equality policies by working with the different political, social and institutional actors involved.

The plan complements the efforts of activists in the political parties that have created Mujeres Políticas por la Democracia y el Desarrollo (women politicians for democracy and development), which emerged to promote actions and train female leaders. The PPQ’s Fukuoka is the group’s general coordinator.


Asunción city councilor Rocío Casco of the Movement to Socialism Party, which forms part of the centre-left governing alliance, said the "culture of patriarchy" is deep-rooted in Paraguayan society.

"We will only be able to change these concepts by means of a profound moral and ethical change. We are participating, gaining spaces, but it does not mean that discrimination has come to an end," she said.

Asunción city councilor Augusto Wagner of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, Paraguay’s second-largest traditional party, told IPS he was a staunch defender of women’s participation in politics, as a decisive factor in the consolidation of democracy.

His party, which heads Lugo’s Alliance, has an internal rule that 33 percent of its candidates must be women, as was the case in 2008.

To promote equality, his party decided to go beyond the minimum quota, and in the 2003 elections 25 percent of its candidates were women. However, none of the three seats it won on the city council in the capital are held by women, and there are only nine female city councilors in all. "There is still a lot to be done," said Wagner.

Casco pointed to another problem: it is still common for women active in political parties to be assigned to clerical or other internal work, rather than positions in which they can contribute to the political debate.

But women must continue the struggle, she said: "Women leaders are here to stay, and we are going to form a growing part of Paraguay’s political landscape."

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