In preparation for the inaugural Summit of the Americas in Miami, Florida, the Inter-American Dialogue and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) convened the first Roundtable of Western Hemisphere Women Leaders on October 7, 1994. Frustrated by the absence of women on the agenda in the lead up to the summit, roundtable participants issued a Communiqué to the heads of state who would meet at the summit, urging them to address the need to expand investment in women’s education, health care and economic opportunities; to support the full range of human rights for women; and to promote national and regional policies to empower women. As ambassador of Costa Rica to the White House, one of the roundtable participants had a role in planning the summit with direct access to summit participant, President Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua. Chamorro shepherded the communiqué to her fellow heads of state and advocated for its inclusion on the Agenda of the First Summit of the Americas. The demands of the communiqué were reflected in Initiative 18 of the summit’s final Plan of Action.
While the heads of state were receptive to the roundtable’s communiqué and committed to enact concrete measures to strengthen the role of women in society, the implementation of these measures fell short. At the urging of participants in that first roundtable, the Dialogue and ICRW partnered to establish the Women’s Leadership Conference of the Americas (WLCA), a network of 100 women leaders from diverse sectors and ideological perspectives who shared a commitment to advancing women into leadership positions and public policies to improve the lives of women in the hemisphere. The first meeting of the WLCA was convened on July 10 and 11, 1997, right before the second Summit of the Americas was to be held in Santiago, Chile. The group issued a second communiqué that called on governments to establish mechanisms to monitor, measure, record and report on their compliance with commitments made to women at the Summits of the Americas and other international forums, like the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, convened by the United Nations in Beijing.
Monitoring Progress on Women’s Leadership
The WLCA adopted as its mission to monitor progress governments made on their promises to advance women’s status. In 2001, the WLCA published a report on women in political power in the hemisphere, citing their belief that the number of women in political leadership is a concrete indicator of a country’s progress (or lack thereof) toward fulfilling its commitment to women’s equality. The report recommended that presidents and prime ministers appoint more women to their cabinets and take action to encourage equitable representation of women on election ballots. At the time, women’s participation in political power averaged 20 percent or above in only two countries in the region. At 22 and 20 percent, however, Canada and the United States were still far from the 30 percent benchmark set at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.
Throughout the 2000s, the Dialogue continued to utilize the WLCA as a platform to commission research and advance policy recommendations on women’s leadership, including on women in global leadership and women in corporate power. Additionally, in 2007, the Dialogue partnered with the Inter-American Development Bank, the League of Women Voters, the Inter-American Foundation, and the Organization of American States to convene a group of women political leaders for the joint conference, Women in the Americas: Paths to Political Power. This discussion of background research commissioned on women’s political participation in Latin America and the Caribbean offered diverse women leaders a unique opportunity to strategize on how to increase women’s representation and effectiveness in politics.
The productive partnership between the Dialogue and League of Women Voters continued into the 2010s as the two organizations joined forces with the International Association of Women Judges to convene experts and women jurists from the region for a conference on women in judicial leadership in the Americas. In the resulting report, the authors stressed that a strong and representative judicial sector requires that women judges be present in all courts at all levels and that there be merit-based institutionalized processes in place that allow those women judges to rise through the ranks.
Shifting Focus: Sexual & Reproductive Rights in the Region
The 2010s also introduced a new focus of the Dialogue’s work on gender, beyond women’s leadership. In partnership with the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Dialogue organized a 2014 Symposium on Reproductive Rights in Latin America. This initiative brought important attention to the troubling consequences of restrictive abortion laws for the lives and human rights of Latin American women and examined the forces promoting more progressive laws in some countries. Following this symposium, the report “Abortion and Reproductive Rights in Latin America: Implications for Democracy” was published in the hopes of improving the understanding of the crucial connections among reproductive rights, democracy, and citizenship in Latin America.
In an ongoing effort to follow up on this report, the Dialogue and the Center for Reproductive Rights hosted another forum in 2016 that compared advances and setbacks on the status of sexual and reproductive rights in several countries, “Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean: Where Are We Now?” Panelists acknowledged that progress has been made in countries like Chile, where legislation passed lifting its total ban on abortion and legalizing therapeutic abortion. They also recognized, however, that countries like El Salvador have experienced dire setbacks, imposing a total ban on abortion where once exceptions were made to save the life of the mother, and imprisoning women found guilty of abortion, even in the case of miscarriage.
Program Work on Violence through a Gender Lens
In recent years, the Dialogue’s work on gender rights has expanded its focus to include violence against women. In conjunction with the Seattle International Foundation, the Dialogue hosted a panel in 2019 entitled, “Nowhere to Turn: Gender-Based Violence and its Impact on Migration.” Panelists highlighted the triple threat faced by women: a culture of gendered victimization, an ecosystem of organized crime, and a president of the United States who is closing the doors to migrants and asylum seekers. These women have nowhere to turn.
In 2020, the Dialogue published an analysis of violence against women in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The article emphasized the need to take an intersectional approach to devising measures that address domestic violence and violence against women, given that migrant, indigenous, older, and transgender women are vulnerable groups who are often overlooked by these policies.
Then in April 2020, the Dialogue held a webinar on the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the state of human rights in Latin America featuring former Dialogue co-chair and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. The event drew attention to the impact of the crisis on women and girls who are at high risk due to pre-existing discrimination and inequality. Specifically, Bachelet emphasized that during the confinement period, many countries experienced an increase in cases of domestic violence. Bachelet stated that support services related to gender-based violence, like emergency shelters and hotlines, should be declared essential and remain open, and victims should be informed about such services.
The Future of Gender Rights at the Dialogue
As the Dialogue considers launching a new decade of programming and policy recommendations in the field of gender rights, it is mindful of approaching the issues through an intersectional lens. Gender cannot be analyzed in isolation, rather it must be approached in concert with other ascriptive identities, such as sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, ability, and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, gender-based analysis should not remain siloed in a gender rights program. All Dialogue programs will be encouraged to approach their subject matter through a gendered lens to diversify and enrich the quality of their analysis. Finally, although the Dialogue’s pioneering work has made significant contributions to the advancement of women in leadership, the promotion of reproductive rights and health, and the reduction of violence against women, these issues remain extant in the region, the Dialogue therefore remains committed to conducting research and analysis in each of these key areas of concern to women and crucial to the health of the region’s democracies.
Sarah Galbenski is an undergraduate student at Notre Dame University majoring in Spanish and Global Affairs with a concentration in International Peace Studies. She was an intern with the Office of the President.