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URUGUAY: Women Join Forces in the Parliamentary Trenches

Silvana Silveira

MONTEVIDEO, Jul 1 2010 (IPS) - Women lawmakers in Uruguay have joined forces across party lines, in spite of criticism from colleagues in their own parties, and have built majorities to approve laws in favour of gender equality and other rights that have been denied for years.

It all started in 2000, when the few women elected to the lower house of parliament decided that together, they had a chance of advancing an agenda for women without regard for party loyalties. They formed the women’s caucus, which in 2005 became the Bicameral Women’s Caucus (BBF) when some women were elected to the senate.

Thanks to pressure and support from the BBF, laws were enacted allowing women to choose a person to be present when they give birth, ending the description of murders resulting from domestic violence as “crimes of passion”, providing sex education in primary schools, giving domestic employees the same labour rights as other workers, and penalising sexual harassment in the workplace.

Diana González, a lawyer who specialises in gender issues, emphasised that the women’s caucus achieved parliamentary approval of a bill on sexual and reproductive health, which was ultimately vetoed by then president Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010) because he personally disagreed with the article that decriminalised abortion.

A law favouring women’s access to a retirement pension by counting an additional two years of contributions for every child, and a set of new judicial powers to combat trafficking in persons and sexual exploitation, are also fruits of the BBF’s work.

“There is no doubt that the BBF was behind the success of these bills. Examining the approval processes of each of these laws shows that including equity and gender elements was due to women lawmakers who united beyond their political positions to contribute shared criteria,” González told IPS.

But much remains to be done since “the laws were the product of negotiation, and so are not of the highest possible quality,” said González, the author of the book “Producción legislativa en materia de equidad de género y generaciones durante el periodo febrero 2005-noviembre 2009” (Legislation on gender and generational equity from February 2005 to November 2009).

This document, created within the framework of a project to reduce gender and inter-generation inequities that is part of the “Unidos en la Acción” (Delivering As One) initiative of the Uruguayan government and United Nations agencies, was presented to parliament Jun. 24.

The exercise of re-examining structures, including different views and democratising power, was not welcomed by all, and according to two women lawmakers who pioneered the initiative, some women paid a very high political cost.

Beatriz Argimón, a congresswoman for the rightwing opposition National Party from 2000 to 2010, was excluded from the list of candidates for last year’s elections because she had backed the “quota law”. She told IPS that her party “has serious problems with the fact of women in power.”

Meanwhile Glenda Rondán, a lawmaker for the opposition Colorado Party from 2000 to 2005, suffered similar consequences for supporting the decriminalisation of abortion, and is now excluded from her party’s power structures. “When you want to change things, you pay a cost, and if you are a woman you pay three times over,” she told IPS.

Senator Mónica Xavier, of the governing leftwing Broad Front coalition, agreed that “although the women’s caucus is to some extent an institution, we suffer attacks from our colleagues who resist our having such a powerful space.”

“There are true misogynists among the congressmen,” Xavier told IPS.

De facto inequality

The BBF is a way of making up for the lack of women’s representation in parliament, the lawmakers told IPS. The presence of women in Uruguayan political life continues to be markedly low, according to Niki Johnson, the coordinator of politics and gender at the Department of Political Science in the state University of the Republic.

One of the reasons preventing women from competing on equal terms is the electoral system, that was “designed and is dominated by men, which gives an unfair advantage to the existing male leaderships,” the expert told IPS.

And women’s low level of participation will continue until at least 2014, when the quota law will come into force for national and municipal elections. From then, political parties’ candidate lists for parliament and provincial legislatures will have to include at least one-third of candidates of the opposite sex.

The law was approved in 2009, but so far has only been applied to internal party elections.

The World Classification of Women in Parliaments ranks Uruguay far down the list in Latin America, where the average proportion of women is 23.3 percent, and in the world, with an average of 18.9 percent.

Instead of improving its ranking for women’s representation, Uruguay lost ground after last year’s elections, when the left won for the second time in history in this country of 3.3 million people.

Its percentage of women in parliament is 14.6 percent, barely higher than Chile with 13.9 percent, and well below Argentina, with 37.8 percent, and Costa Rica, with 36.8 percent, according to a study presented in June titled “Una mirada feminista a las elecciones uruguayas 2009” (A Feminist Look at the Uruguayan Elections of 2009), by Johnson and her political science colleague Verónica Pérez.

Blazing a trail

The BFF claims direct descent from the Concertación Nacional Programática, a multi-party forum set up in 1984 to forge a common legislative agenda during the transition to democracy, which was restored in March 1985 after 12 years of dictatorship.

The BBF’s nature as a “symbolic political actor” is derived from this forum, and is important for women, whether organised or not, when they need to influence public policies, Margarita Percovich, a Broad Front lawmaker from 2000 to 2005 and then a senator until this year, told IPS.

“Traditional politics, with its endless fighting, had us all tired out. The men emphasised differences, but we did exactly the opposite,” said Percovich, who resigned from political office voluntarily.

Rondán said they learned that “in spite of differences, we will always have common concerns.”

The BBF has subverted the traditional male supremacy of the parties, opened political debate to gender issues, promoted legal initiatives to improve women’s quality of life, repealed laws that violate women’s rights, and demonstrated that the defence of women should matter to everybody, over and above party differences, Argimón said.

Now the women’s caucus holds workshops all over the country together with the Network of Women Politicians, with the support of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as part of a project to support public policies for reducing gender and inter-generational inequity, in a framework agreement between parliament, the government and the U.N..

Xavier told IPS that their first activity this year was a seminar on “An Equitable Budget,” with a view to incorporating gender equity into the government’s five-year financial plan. “That would really be a wonderful achievement,” she said.

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