Women Make Their Mark on South American Politics
By Marcela Valente*
Inter Press Service (IPS)
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
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
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 Sao 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
However, Rousseff's likely election to the presidency "is in
itself a sign of change in Brazil's sexist politics," she
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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