The Crisis of Democracy and Women’s Rights in the Americas

Irene Estefanía González / Inter-American Dialogue

On June 4, the Inter-American Dialogue, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation co-sponsored an event titled “The Crisis of Democracy and Women’s Rights in the Americas.” Following opening remarks by Michael Shifter, the discussion featured panelists Julissa Mantilla, professor at Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Perú; Catalina Botero, dean of Universidad de los Andes; Larissa Arroyo, director of ACCEDER Costa Rica; and Miriam Kornblith, LAC director at National Endowment for Democracy. The discussion was moderated by Catalina Martínez-Coral of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Maria Antonieta Alcalde of IPPF offered closing remarks. Conference speakers brought attention to the inextricable link between guaranteeing women’s human rights, in particular their sexual and reproductive rights, and a truly functioning democracy.

The discussion began with a consensus that over the last decade there have been significant institutional advances in securing rights for women. Women’s movements were a crucial component of the forces that supported the turn toward rule of law in the lead up to the democratic transitions that swept the region in the 1980s. Counting on a democratic institutional environment and new instruments for the defense of rights (separation of powers, creation of Constitutional Tribunals, etc.), feminist movements seized the opportunity to partner with human rights organizations to spearhead legislative, constitutional and judicial reforms on sexual and reproductive rights, especially on liberalizing abortion laws.

Despite institutional advances, the panelists pointed to a stubborn culture of machismo that has hindered the implementation of these laws and the effective protection of women’s rights. Botero explained that judges need to be trained to be aware of gender stereotypes and how it affects their decision making and undermines impartiality. Mantilla added that not only do judges need training to root out persistent cultural assumptions, but all of society is affected by gender stereotypes. She gave the example of the expectation that all women become mothers. If people believe that it is women’s destiny to have children, then they are less likely to recognize all the deleterious effects of sexual violence. For example, having children at a young age restricts girls’ opportunities for further schooling and stunts their professional development.

Kornblith built upon this idea and brought up the phenomenon of the feminization of poverty, that women experience poverty at rates that are disproportionately high in comparison to men. She indicated that globally for every 100 men in poverty, there are 107 women. Many women spend hours in lines waiting for food, which limits their ability to join the workforce. Pointing specifically to the democratic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, Kornblith explained how the State has failed to protect women’s basic rights like access to healthcare.

Panelists also talked about the rise of the concept “gender ideology”, a term created by conservative religious groups to cast same-sex marriage, access to abortion and other reproductive rights, and gender equity policies as threats to traditional families. Gender ideology is used to cast aspersions on advocates for sexual and reproductive rights by both Evangelical and Catholic groups, who have formed alliances with right-wing political parties across the region. This cultural wave promotes an anti-feminist policy agenda harmful to women and other marginalized groups.

While each panelist referenced topics related to their countries, the speakers agreed that lack of access to information regarding women’s rights was impeding progress. Both Arroyo and Botero talked about how, although abortion is legal under three conditions in Costa Rica and Colombia, the lack of access to information about legal abortion among citizens and some medical providers effectively denies women these rights. Withholding information about health services undermines democracy and freedom of expression. Panelists emphasized how this freedom, along with the strengthening of other democratic institutions, is crucial to protecting women’s rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a response to the lack of information, Alcalde advocated for the implementation of campaigns through NGOs that educate women on their rights.

The speakers also agreed that resources and energy need to be allocated to the prevention of violence against women, not just to responses after the fact. One of the questions from the audience addressed the need to dedicate resources to creating programs for women to learn self-defense. Although the panelists supported this initiative, Julissa warned that focusing on women’s protection leaves space for institutional complicity and the normalization of violence against women. She argued that although a necessary step, self-defense could only represent one step in the fight for women’s rights.

The power of women to control their sexual and reproductive lives is fundamental to gender equality, empowerment, and the health of democracy. In the context of democratic crisis, where the agenda on human rights is broader, speakers agreed that we should maintain sexual and reproductive rights as a priority, because without access to reproductive rights, women are not able to build their life´s projects, their citizenship, or their professional capacity, nor to exercise political decision-making -both in private and public spaces.

Watch the full recording of this event here