50.50: Analysis

Paraguayan elections pose uncertain future for women and LGBTQ people

ANALYSIS: What’s at stake as Paraguay gears up for a poll tainted by misinformation and anti-rights discourse

Jazmín_Acuña (1)
Jazmín Acuña
28 April 2023, 5.36pm

Colorado Party's presidential candidate Santiago Peña (left) and his running mate Pedro Alliana at their closing campaign rally in Asunción on 27 April 2023


LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

Paraguay, a country that rarely makes international news, will hold general elections on Sunday after a campaign marked by misinformation and failures to progress discussions on women’s, children's and LGBTQ rights.

If Paraguay has been in the headlines in recent months, it has been because of sanctions launched by the US government against former president Horacio Cartes, a tobacco businessman and leader of the right-wing National Republican Association (ANR). America has accused Cartes of corruption and links to terrorism for acts committed before, during, and after his term in office, between 2013 and 2018.

But, far from the spotlight, this South American country has long been a laboratory for the discourse and actions of the conservative movement closely linked to the continent’s right wing.

Here, for example, an education minister threatened in 2017 to burn books in the public square and banned the use of the word “gender” in the public school programs.

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Paraguay’s abortion ban is “draconian”, according to Human Rights Watch – abortion is only legal when the pregnant person’s life is at risk. On average, two girls between the ages of 10 and 14 give birth every day; 80% of child sexual abuse cases occur in the family environment; and there is neither equal marriage nor the right to gender self-determination.

This weekend, more than four million citizens will be able to choose the president and congress for the next five years. And although the future of women and queer people is at stake in every election, this cycle stands out for the use of gender misinformation, hate messages towards female candidates and the near-absence of promising projects for the full exercise of rights of these populations.

The main forces vying for the presidency presented themselves as conservative when debates on gender equality emerged in the campaign.

The ANR, which is known as the Colorado Party and has governed for almost 70 years, has in its ranks several members of groups opposed to equal rights for women and LGBTQ people. Their influence has been apparent in the Colorado Party’s discourse in recent years.

Its presidential candidate, Santiago Peña, moved from defending equal marriage in 2017, when he was finance minister, to his current electoral commitment “against abortion and equal marriage”.

Other ANR candidates have taken the same turn, such as former finance minister and senatorial candidate Lea Giménez, who had voiced her support for legal abortion when she was a member of Cartes cabinet, but today remains silent on this issue.

On the other side of the aisle is Concertación Nacional (national agreement), a wide coalition of several right, centre and left parties led by the main opposition force, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), whose presidential nominee is PLRA leader Efraín Alegre, former senator and former minister of Public Works.

Concertación Nacional includes respected female politicians with ties to the feminist movement, such as senator Esperanza Martínez and congressional candidate Johanna Ortega. Its presidential ticket includes Soledad Núñez, a former housing minister who seeks to capture the younger vote.

But even when demands for greater equality are reflected in its government programme, Concertación dodged public debate on fundamental and overdue rights, such as abortion. This silence did not prevent the government party from seeking to discredit the Concertación’s main figures by associating them with “gender ideology”, conspiracy theories around the “UN 2030 Agenda” for sustainable development, and other hobby horses of fundamentalist groups.

An average of 36 femicides are committed every year in Paraguay, according to data from the last four years. More than 90% of the perpetrators were known to the murdered women, such as partners and former partners. Nearly eight out of ten women in the country have experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lives, and sexual violence was the most reported offence in a national survey on the situation of women in the country.

Women’s political participation remains low. They hold only 16.8% of seats in Congress, and only one of the country’s 17 departments (provinces) is governed by a woman.

Paraguay lacks procedures to recognise people’s gender identity. In 2020, when the Organisation of American States’ General Assembly adopted a resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights, Paraguay expressed its opposition to the terms “gender identity and expression” being included in the clause on prevention of violence against LGBTQ people. So far, there is no legislation protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. Impunity is the norm. Civil society organisations have registered 60 hate murders of transgender people since the return of democracy in 1989. But only in 2019 did courts hand down the country’s first conviction for the murder of a trans person.

Misinformation and hate speeches, main players

While misinformation has been around in previous elections, it became one of the main electoral tools in the current campaign. During primary elections last year, deceptive messages on gender soared as Cartes’ faction within the Colorado Party weaponised the anti-abortion movement. This led to online harassment, doxxing and hate against activists and feminist leaders, and demonstrations across the country against an education reform plan proposed by the government, allegedly for containing “gender ideology”.

An analysis of 211 statements by anti-abortion activists during a public hearing on this plan at Congress revealed a narrative of Paraguay supposedly confronting an “internal enemy” that is foreign, LGBTQ and feminist, advocates for human rights and obeys the dictates of a hidden global agenda.

As a result of this campaign, opportunistically supported by politicians and echoed by Cartes-owned media, Paraguay’s lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) rejected a funding agreement for education reform, signed by the government and the European Union, jeopardising a €38m (nearly £34m) donation.

Although the education reform plan itself did not fall, this win empowered the far-right’s leaders. One of them, ultra-conservative activist Juan Vera, doxed renowned journalist and girls and women’s rights advocate Mercedes Barriocanal, publishing her personal phone number on social media and urging his followers to harass her for having criticised the deputies’ vote. The journalist received an avalanche of hate messages.

Now, the targets of such misogynistic and homophobic messages are the National Concertación’s female candidates, particularly vice-presidential hopeful Núñez, with misinformation that seeks to associate her with “globalism” and the LGBTQ movement, as if the latter were reprehensible.

There are also ultra-conservative actors running for congressional office and presenting themselves as “pro-life options”. One of them, attorney Dannia Rios, proposed to draft a bill to “criminalise any conduct that alters or harms a child’s natural perception of their sexuality or identity”, with long jail terms for publishing content on gender diversity.

Although these actors will test their popularity in votes this Sunday, their strength is visible in circumstantial political alliances and lobbying actions, street demonstrations and a steady flood of misinformation on social media.

Poor electoral manifestos

Last month, the image of a woman giving birth on the floor at a public hospital as she had been denied proper healthcare assistance made headlines, prompting a massive outcry. It summed up public health precariousness, especially for women, the most visible consequence of almost 70 years of Colorado governments. But it did not bring into public conversation solid proposals to end this deprivation. In fact, few issues related to the quality of life of half of the country’s population have managed to attract attention.

One of these issues was the electoral promise by both ANR and Concertación candidates to establish “childcare facilities” to support working parents. After analysing this promise, journalist Juliana Quintana found that childcare centres “are already a right contemplated in the Labour Code”. What remains to be done is to enforce it.

Concertación’s candidates have focused on more ambitious proposals, such as widening and reinforcing ongoing efforts to set up a national care system. And the Concertación’s manifesto includes public policies to achieve the more equitable distribution of household chores, increased political representation for women, and tackling male violence.

Yet none of these projects made it into the electoral conversation as prominently as a bizarre proposal to mandate vaginal birth (as opposed to Caesarian sections) and up to 24 months of breast-feeding – launched by a wayward former senator who is seeking to return to politics with his presidential candidacy.

Amid such troubling proposals and a crisis of misinformation, the future of children, women and LGBTQ people hangs in the balance.

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