Latin America Advisor

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Are Women Closing the Gender Gap in Brazil’s Politics?

Photo of Marília Arraes Among the women on the ballot in Brazil’s November municipal elections is Marília Arraes, who is running for mayor of Recife. // File Photo: Facebook page of Marília Arraes.

A record number of women have registered as candidates in Brazil’s municipal elections scheduled to take place next month. Also setting a record, this year for the first time, the number of candidates who identified themselves as Black or brown surpassed the number of white candidates, Folha de S.Paulo reported. The elections will determine mayors, city councilors and other local officials in more than 5,500 cities. What’s at stake in Brazil’s local elections this year? Is the country’s taxpayer-financed electoral fund intended to increase the number of women in politics working well? What are some best practices Brazil and other countries might consider when trying to encourage more diverse and inclusive candidates to run for office?

Jacqueline Pitanguy, executive director of Citizenship, Study, Research, Information, and Action (CEPIA) in Brazil and a member of the Inter-American Dialogue: “The historical underrepresentation of women in Brazilian federal and local assemblies makes the country among the most unequal in terms of the gender balance in the exercise of political power in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, this lack of representation contrasts with the strong participation of women in civil society organizations, as well as their influence in advocating for equal rights. Why are women so underrepresented in formal political institutions? There are several factors. Brazil’s political institutions have always been in the hands of men, and women were never welcomed as candidates. It was necessary to introduce a 30 percent gender quota law. However, being a candidate does not mean having a chance to win, unless you have access to funds and are placed as a visible candidate which, most of the time, has not occurred. A major step toward the effective implementation of this quota law was a 2018 Supreme Court decision, which ruled that 30 percent of the electoral funds should support female candidates. For the November elections, 13 percent of the mayoral candidates are women, and they are strong candidates in Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador. As for the city councils, there is no significant increase in the number of female candidates. In the coming elections, women represent 34 percent of the candidates, while in 2016 they represented 32 percent. Money talks; the main difference now is to assure that these candidacies are for real, that they have access to the funds, and have visibility and a voice in the election. A very important cultural phenomenon is the growing denunciation of structural racism in our society and of the weight of the intersectionality of gender and race in electoral representation. The activism of Black women’s movements might make a difference in the coming elections.”

Débora Thomé, associate researcher at LabGen-UFF in Brazil and professor in Columbia University’s Women’s Leadership Network in Brazil: “Brazil faces a challenge concerning gender diversity in politics: it has among the region’s lowest rates of women’s representation in the Congress. Because of this disparity, many institutional efforts have not succeeded so far. Brazil’s 30 percent gender quota for legislative elections has not changed much. Since 2018, parties must also allocate 30 percent of their portion of the Electoral Fund to the campaigns of female candidates. However, since the parties have the control of that money, they concentrate their efforts on women who already have a chance to win. These are women who already hold office or who have strong political capital. Therefore, this distribution of money, which could increase women’s participation, has not occurred as much as expected. This year, according to female candidates, money is, again, been delivered to specific women running for city councilor and women who are running for vice mayor. That is, a large portion of the money is going to male mayoral candidates. The Covid crisis poses another problem. Difficulties in campaigning in-person will mostly affect first-time candidates, including many women. Some of these female candidates have created a collective candidacy or, as they call it, a ‘mandata,’ a group of women with similar agendas who work together to be elected. They consider it less relevant who is actually elected if all of them work together. Brazilian institutions have, and reinforce, a strong gender bias. So even if we have seen a rebirth of the feminist movement in recent years and the number of female candidates has risen, Brazilian parties are still very misogynist institutions that protect their male candidates through informal institutions. The upcoming elections may surprise me, but I don’t believe we will see things change quickly in this country for women in politics.”

Daniela Chacón Arias, executive director at Fundación TANDEM and former Quito vice mayor and city council member: “In Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the rest of the world, the numbers clearly show the structural inequalities women face in fully participating in the political arena. According to CEPAL, in the region only 28.5 percent of cabinet ministers are women, 29.8 percent of legislators at the national and local levels are women, and only 15 percent of mayors are women. Even with these very worrying numbers, Latin America leads the world in female representation in legislative branches. Some of the best practices have been affirmative actions that require political parties to include 50 percent of female candidates equally distributed in the ballot (vertical parity). Some countries are now requiring this affirmative action for mayoral races. Affirmative actions such as percentages of female candidates without the vertical parity requirement are bound to fail as women are usually positioned in the last places with no electoral possibilities. The same happens with percentages of funds allocated to women. Political parties are still directed by men and men only, and they make the decisions on how to include women and allocate those funds. According to experts, this has been the case in Brazil. For advocates of affirmative action, vertical parity has proven to be one of the most effective measures to increase the number of women in politics, but true equality requires a transformation in the decision-making structures of parties, equal access to opportunities for women within the party, political programs with a gender focus and firm actions to eradicate gender-based political violence.”

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