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Q&A: “Politics Is the Key to All Doors to Equality” for Women in Latin America

Estrella Gutiérrez interviews GLADYS ACOSTA, UNIFEM chief for Latin America and the Caribbean

CARACAS, May 8 2009 (IPS) - “People have to imbibe with their mother’s milk the idea that women have an equal right to participate in politics,” says Gladys Acosta, UNIFEM head for Latin America and the Caribbean, who underscores that politics is the key that opens all doors to equality.

Gladys Acosta, UNIFEM chief for Latin America and the Caribbean  Credit: Courtesy of UNIFEM

Gladys Acosta, UNIFEM chief for Latin America and the Caribbean Credit: Courtesy of UNIFEM

Acosta, a Peruvian lawyer and sociologist, has been an activist for women’s rights since the 1970s. Until she assumed her post in UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) in late 2008, she represented UNICEF (the U.N. Children’s Fund) in various countries for a decade.

In this interview with IPS on a visit to Venezuela, Acosta says access to education is the biggest achievement of women in Latin America, but one that is overshadowed by inequality in the labour market and workplace.

With respect to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be met by 2015, the worst progress in the region has been made towards reducing maternal mortality, while strides have been made in cutting infant mortality rates, says Acosta, who also discusses the third MDG – gender equality and the empowerment of women.

IPS: The international community began to tackle discrimination against women in the 1970s. What has been learned in these three decades? GLADYS ACOSTA: After 30 years, it is clear what the situation is and what needs to be done; analysis should continue, but we know enough to act. And what is clear is that systemic action is needed, because discrimination is systemic.

Isolated action does not break the phenomenon of discrimination. It is not enough, for example, to only focus on the issue of violence against women while ignoring the incorporation of girls and women in education, their access to health services, to politics, the achievement of the labour standards to which they are entitled.


Discrimination has an inertia of its own; discrimination is what emerges if nothing is done.

IPS: In what area have women made the most progress in Latin America? GA: Indisputably in education. The wave of democratisation that put an end to the military dictatorships in Latin America prompted the massive insertion of women in education. In fact there is a risk that women will outnumber men in the educational system.

The problem now is in the sphere of work. The wages and salaries earned by women are still far below their abilities and contributions.

The idea that women’s salaries are complementary to those of men is still prevalent, when reality has shown that women heads of households already represent 30 percent of the total in the region, and that even women who have husbands are sometimes the heads of their families.

Women have to be considered a labour force that is equal to men in every respect, while dismantling visible and invisible barriers. But in this and other spheres, reality is distorted by stereotypes, and as a result, misguided solutions are applied.

IPS: Could you mention an example of that outdated perception in the field of labour? GA: Migration. It continues to be seen as a male phenomenon, but it has become more and more a female one, and women now account for nearly 50 percent of all migrants. And we’re talking about highly skilled migration. It’s not true that the women leaving are domestic employees, for example; what is happening is that in the destination country, they often take jobs far below their qualifications and skill levels.

The result is that countries are losing educated female workers, who could contribute a great deal with their work, and who end up in another country in better-paying but lower-skilled jobs.

The investment in that person is lost, and it is a process with a specific gender aspect. Of course, there is also brain drain among men, but in the case of women, they had just begun to reach the educational and labour systems and now they’re leaving.

UNIFEM’s conclusion is that the phenomenon of female migration has to do with a failure of accountability in terms of labour policies, because if there were labour policies aimed at holding onto educated women, they would not leave.

IPS: Are public policies on women in Latin America still full of flaws? GA: There are many gaps, because what should be done is not done, the necessary follow-up is not carried out, and the authorities are not held accountable for enforcing the laws.

Public policies are still welfare-, rather than socially-, oriented, and that is very evident at times of crisis like today. Health, education and work must be strengthened, and welfare-oriented policies should be reserved for very specific segments of society and periods of time.

But if the view of women is that they are a vulnerable sector of society, public policies are going to be misguided.

IPS: You emphasise that strengthening women’s rights has a positive repercussion on other rights. GA: Of course, because promoting women’s rights has a positive cross-cutting effect on all other rights, and that is also true in the case of the MDGs (adopted by the international community in 2000).

For example, children’s rights cannot be defended without defending the rights of women, because a woman who is not aware of her rights is not going to be able to properly defend those of her children.

And in the area of child malnutrition, it is extremely clear that women with more information and a higher educational level have a better understanding of what their children should eat. In general terms, better educated women take better care of their children.

With respect to maternal mortality, it is clear that lower levels of education among mothers correlate with higher death rates.

Politics is a little blind, the state needs a clearer view of what is going on with women, a superdynamic sector.

IPS: Can political participation by women correct that shortsightedness? GA: Political participation is a central factor. People have to imbibe with their mother’s milk the idea that women have an equal right to participate in politics. And women must clearly understand that political participation is a key – a key to having a voice, a key to exercising full citizenship.

Several things have to be done at the same time. Laws on violence must be passed, because that is really an enormous obstacle for political participation, for development and for individual human beings.

But at the same time, progress has to be made in terms of women gaining a greater voice in politics, because that is where decisions are made, and this has to happen at all levels of the state: in the executive, the judiciary, where electoral rules are made – everywhere.

Only a small group makes it into positions of political power. Women already have the necessary critical mass to accelerate access to their rights, and the best accelerator is politics. Their presence in the realm of political power is essential.

IPS: Are quota laws the right instrument for fuelling that increased presence? GA: Quota laws (reserving a proportion of candidacies for women) are affirmative action measures, they are temporary, and men who get so nervous about these laws should be told the following: the day that parity is achieved, the quotas will be gone.

The biggest problem is that progress is so slow. At this pace, around 40 years will be needed to reach that parity. Tools to speed things up are needed, and that’s what quota laws are.

IPS: What is the role of men in achieving gender equality? GA: They have a fundamental role to play. The participation of men is needed to dismantle gender inequality, at the level of politics as well as in society and in the home.

Patterns have to be modified; the chip has to be reset. A woman and her partner, both of them working and both of them educated – there is no reason why she should be solely responsible for the domestic chores.

It’s a question of sharing roles, and that doesn’t happen yet anywhere in the world. Men “help out,” they don’t share, and the lower you go on the social ladder, the worse that is.

Women in lower income sectors have to secure the food as well as prepare it, get clothing for the kids, raise them, take charge of the home, bring in money. The burden is exhausting for them, and especially when tasks that should be the responsibility of the state have been left to families.

IPS: With regard to the MDGs, and to gender equality in particular, in what aspects is the region doing the best and in what aspects is it lagging? GA: There are countries that are going to reach important goals. But one goal that is very difficult to fulfill is the MDG on maternal mortality.

The average maternal mortality rate in the region is 130 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to nine in Europe and other developed countries. That is a huge gap.

The goal to be met by 2015 implies a drastic reduction, which many countries are not going to accomplish because if discrimination has an inertia of its own, that is even more true of maternal mortality.

The reason for that is prejudice. Maternity is seen as a natural phenomenon, and deaths in childbirth, because there have been so many, are also seen as natural.

It is necessary to closely follow what is going on with maternal mortality, because it has an enormous effect on countries like Guatemala, where 70 percent of births take place at home, but also on countries like Argentina, where 95 percent of births occur in health facilities.

Maternal health policies must once again become a priority. Bolivia and Ecuador have provided an example to be followed, by offering free maternal health coverage: the health system has the obligation to provide care to any pregnant woman. That is how it should be; it is unacceptable for maternal health care to depend on a woman’s ability to pay.

More progress has been made in reducing the infant mortality rate, a problem that has not completely been resolved, although huge strides have been made on that front and much more has been invested in that area.

IPS: Do the mainstream media reflect the growing role of women as actors and protagonists in society? GA: No, the mass media have not undergone the necessary shift; their agenda very much revolves around commercial questions, and is based on stereotypes. One example: anything related to violence against women is treated as crime beat news. They have to discover that there is potential in a market of thinking women who are demanding another kind of offer.

Even the world of fashion has made much faster progress in internalising the idea of the liberation of women, and has made them freer in their clothing. The media, on the other hand, remain trapped by stereotypes. They only see women in very specific roles, as victims or villains.

 
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