Making political inroads, weakening stereotypes

Latin American women in politics Flickr / UN Women CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This article was originally published on September 14, 2004 by the Miami Herald under the title “Making political inroads, weakening stereotypes.”

Over the past 15 years, Latin American women have made notable political strides. Four have been heads of state and 19 vice presidents. In 2004, 16 percent of national legislators were women; the United States had 14 percent. Eleven countries have enacted quota laws that mandate a minimum of 20 percent to 40 percent of female candidates in legislative elections. Where laws are not in effect, many political parties voluntarily enforce gender quotas.

In 2002, women accounted for 16 percent of cabinet ministers; the US cabinet had 27 percent. The Latin American average, however, masked great disparities among countries: 46 percent in Colombia, 33 percent in Chile, 27 percent in Venezuela and 26 percent in Honduras. In both Latin America and the United States, women hold about 12 percent of top foreign and economic policy positions.

Latin American public opinion generally supports women in government. Surveys conducted by the Inter-American Dialogue and the International Center for Research on Women show that women are considered more capable than men in reducing poverty and promoting education, the environment and women’s rights. Women are perceived to be comparable to men in combating corruption and conducting diplomatic relations, the economy and public security. Taking charge of the military is the one area women are ranked inferior to men. Women have, nonetheless, competently held the defense portfolio in Colombia (2002-2003) and in Chile (currently). Solid majorities rate women as good decision-makers (85 percent) and as more honest than men (66 percent). Overall, 57 percent believe that having more women in office would improve governance. Sixty-six percent see competitiveness and aggressiveness as the hallmark of politicians, the Y chromosome aside.

Mexico and Chile offer robust examples of women who are currently playing high-stake politics.

In Mexico, Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the powerful teachers’ union and an Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) deputy, continues to prove her mettle in the internecine struggles within the party and in the national jockeying for power. After she supported President Vicente Fox’s tax reform in 2003, the simmering conflict between her and PRI President Roberto Madrazo boiled over. The PRI ejected her as leader of the party’s congressional faction.

Gordillo, however, is tough as nails. She still controls a minority of PRI deputies and plays unblinking hardball. In three recent gubernatorial elections, her behind-the-scene maneuvers for the National Action Party (PAN) candidates were notorious. The PRI may yet kick her out but at the cost of losing the Elbistas (her followers) and weakening the party for the 2006 presidential contest. No wonder Gordillo has been dubbed “the most powerful woman in Mexican history.”

Chile will hold its presidential election in December 2005. The standard bearers from the ruling center-left coalition, Concertación, and the right-wing Alliance for Chile will be the major candidates. Joaquín Lavín will head the Alliance’s ticket. Concertación’s has yet to be determined, and two women are the top aspirants. Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet (Socialist) and Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear (Christian Democrat) are vying for the coalition’s nomination. Recent polls have shown Bachelet gaining ground and even topping Lavín. Alvear, however, is revving up her candidacy in a flurry of public appearances. Former President Eduardo Frei, too, has entered the fray and could displace Alvear among Christian Democrats. Still, if Concertación wins in 2005, chances are that Chile will have elected a woman president.

Women in Latin America have made political inroads and are, thus, weakening stereotypes. More daunting is the situation of ordinary women. Violence ruins the lives of far too many: Up to 50 percent are abused psychologically and up to 40 percent physically. Women have higher levels of unemployment and illiteracy, earn considerably less than men and find it much harder to obtain loans to start a business.

Equal opportunity is a lever of democracy, and women politicians are grasping it. The políticas can do their part to extend it to the majority of women who haven’t. Equal opportunity, however, is not primarily an issue of gender but of citizenship. Meeting women’s rights is simply a part of the overall package of challenges that Latin American democracies must meet to fasten their legitimacy beyond the voting booth.