Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

Women Make Their Mark on South American Politics

Marcela Valente*

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 16 2010 (IPS) - If Brazilian voters elect a woman president next month, what might have appeared to be isolated developments in Chile and Argentina would start to look more like a trend in the southern countries of South America.

Argentina's presidential palace Credit: Marcela Valente/IPS

Argentina's presidential palace Credit: Marcela Valente/IPS

On Oct. 3 Brazil could become the third country in the subregion to elect a woman president within the space of just a few years. Dilma Rousseff, the candidate of the governing Workers’ Party (PT), is ahead of her closest rival, social democrat José Serra, by 20 points in the polls.

The question is whether she will win in the first round with over half the vote, or have to go to a runoff.

But having a woman at the head of the country’s government does not necessarily mean that gender issues, like equal political participation, sexual and reproductive health, equal opportunities or redistribution of family responsibilities, will have greater weight, women politicians and experts told IPS.

“Living in a woman’s body does not guarantee concern for women’s issues,” said Natalia Gherardi, of the Latin American Justice and Gender Group (ELA), in Argentina. “What it does ensure is a better quality of democracy.”

In addition, seeing women become presidents “reinforces the idea that women’s leadership in politics can be the same as men’s, which is a good thing; it comes to be regarded as natural, just part of the landscape,” she said.

Luiza Erundina de Sousa, a lawmaker for the Brazilian Socialist Party and former mayor of São Paulo (1989-1992), said that having a woman as president “is not enough to drive changes towards gender balance, however capable she may be. She needs support from men and from civil society organisations.”

However, Rousseff’s likely election to the presidency “is in itself a sign of change in Brazil’s sexist politics,” she said.

The trend began with Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president (2006-2010) and the first leader to form a cabinet with gender parity in Latin America. Her administration promoted numerous measures to combat discrimination against women. On Sept. 19 she will formally be appointed as the first head of UN Women, the new United Nations agency created to fight gender inequality.

One year later came the election of current Argentine President Cristina Fernández, previously a prominent lawmaker. Her path to electoral victory was smoothed by the administration of her predecessor and husband, Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007).

Their triumphs were the result of a process of political participation by women that is much broader than the simple enforcement of quota laws, introduced in several Latin American countries over the last 20 years to enable women’s access to publicly elected posts.

Argentina was a global pioneer in adopting a quota law, and ranks second after Costa Rica among Latin American countries for having the highest percentage of women in parliament: 38.5 percent in the lower chamber and 35 percent in the senate.

But affirmative action does not explain the ascent of Bachelet in Chile, where there is no quota law and the present percentage of women in parliament is low: 14 percent in the lower chamber and 13 percent in the senate.

And quotas have failed dismally in Brazil, where women have 8.8 percent of the seats in the lower chamber and 12.3 percent in the senate, and the situation is even worse at the level of state governors and mayors.

De Sousa, who is standing for reelection to parliament, explained that in Brazil quota laws “were only a formal conquest” because, unlike in Argentina, compliance was voluntary.

But starting with the October elections, parties will be penalised if at least 30 percent of their candidates are not women. However, candidate lists are not closed (that is, the order in which candidates are elected is not fixed), so women will have a harder time being elected.

In any case, “parties have to put their faith in women, remove the barriers they face and give them political education, because only then will quotas be effective,” she said.

Patricia Rangel, of the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA) in Brazil, pointed out there is no automatic correlation between “more women in power, and more collective rights for women.” And she stressed, “it’s no good just electing more women; what’s needed are women with gender awareness.”

Argentine lawmaker Marcela Rodríguez, of Coalición Cívica, a political coalition, said she agreed with Rangel’s views, but highlighted that the more women participate in politics, the more likely it is that issues important to them will be considered.

She described how their common agenda had led women lawmakers belonging to different Argentine parties to come together on several occasions to help pass laws against sexual harassment, gender-based violence and tubal ligation (surgical sterilisation of women).

But coordination is easy when women’s rights are at stake, she said. In contrast, if budget issues are involved, in spite of the existence of a gender perspective, many women lawmakers toe the party line, she added.

De Sousa said the other side of this coin is that “women are relegated to social issues” when they reach government or parliament, “as if they didn’t have the aptitude for more strategic areas,” like economic policy.

“This reflects shortcomings in democracy and society,” and hinders women from “contributing their special ability to combine the economic with the social,” she said.

There are a range of scenarios in other countries of the southern part of South America, but they are all making progress in women’s participation and towards equity on candidate lists.

In January, Bolivia became the second country to have a cabinet with gender parity, and a woman, Ana María Romero, is president of the senate, the second highest institutional post in the country.

Furthermore, women hold an unprecedented 28 percent of the seats in parliament, and most have formally committed themselves to promote an agenda of women’s issues that has been agreed with the Coordinadora de la Mujer, a Bolivian umbrella organisation of more than 200 women’s groups, said its head of advocacy and lobbying, Mónica Novillo.

In Uruguay, a quota law will come into force in 2014. At present, 15.2 percent of the lower chamber and 12.9 percent of the senate are women. But women lawmakers have found a way to promote gender issues together by creating the Bicameral Women’s Caucus in 2002.

Paraguayan law has provided for 20 percent of candidates to the legislature to be women since 1996, but only 12.5 percent of seats in the lower chamber and 15.6 percent in the senate are presently occupied by women.

Minister for Women’s Affairs Gloria Rubin said that in Paraguay, it is still “men who decide, even whether or not a woman should be included on a candidate list.”

But she stressed that, in spite of this, women have made gains in political participation and prominence in recent years, and recalled that in the 2008 presidential elections, the candidate for the then governing Colorado Party was a woman, Blanca Ovelar. *With additional reporting by Mario Osava in Rio de Janeiro.

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