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No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality

Kristen Sample
4 February 2009

Thirty years after the start of the third wave of democracy in Latin America,  the region's policy-makers and civil society have the "final frontier" of this historic process in sight: to ensure that democracy works for all citizens in equal measure, regardless of gender.  

In Latin America there has in recent years been an increase in both the number and percentage of women in politics - embodied by the rise to power of two female presidents, Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Cristina Fernández in Argentina. Their election has, in turn, generated a renewed debate on the state of women in politics today in the region. The reality, perhaps surprising, is that the progress of women in assuming elected office in Latin America varies considerably: between and even within countries, nationally and sub-nationally (see Table 1).

Table 1 The percentage of women represented in elected office: Country Legislature Mayor Council Argentina 40% 9% n/a Bolivia 17% 5% 19% Brazil 9% 9% 13% Chile 15% 13% 23% Colombia 8% 9% 15% Costa Rica 37% 10% 48% Cuba 43% n/a 27% Dominican Republic 20% 11% 27% Ecuador 26% 6% 23% El Salvador 17% 8% 21% Guatemala 9% 2% 6% Honduras 23% 8% 20% Mexico 23% 4% 28% Nicaragua* 19% 10% 38% Panama 17% 9% 0% Paraguay 13% 6% 21% Peru 29% 3% 28% Uruguay 12% n/a n/a Venezuela 18% 7% 18%

(Legislature = unicameral or lower house; Venezuela does not include results of November 2008 municipal elections)

Show me the code, I'll predict your gap  

If you're curious as to why some Latin American legislatures approach 40% female representation, whereas others are stalled at around 10%, it may surprise you to know that the fields of anthropology, sociology and economics have less to tell us than the little-known - and highly wonky - subset of political science known as "electoral engineering". In short, electoral-system design is both an art and a science, and one which is not gender-neutral. The choice of electoral system has an enormous impact - perhaps more than any other single factor - on the number of women elected to public office.

Kristen Sample is senior programme officer at International ID

Among her research publications is (with Beatriz Llanos), 30 Years of Democracy: Riding the Wave? Women's Political Participation in Latin America (International IDEA, 2008)

International IDEA supports research, policy advice and democratic reform aimed at increasing women's political participation. IDEA works with political parties, legislators, electoral courts and civil society and has recently published a "best practices" guide for supporting gender-equality in Latin American political parties

For instance, one basic ground-rule: "list" systems - in which electors select from lists of candidates - are far better at facilitating the election of women (and minority-groups) than first-past-the-post system systems (as found in the United States, Britain and Canada) as they encourage parties to develop comparatively more balanced candidate lists. When a party has to bet on one candidate for a legislative seat - as in the case of a first-past-the-post system - the slot generally goes to a man. When the party presents a list of candidates to represent a legislative district, however, it is more apt to balance the list by assigning selected slots to women. That's why of the ten countries with the highest percentage of women legislators, nine have some variation of the list system.   

The generally severe imbalance in political representation between men and women mean that some list-systems mandate parties to include minimum levels, or quotas, of women in their candidate-lists. (The day political parties voluntarily and regularly include women in their lists, quotas will become obsolete.) For instance, in Chile - where quotas have not been approved despite the best efforts of President Bachelet - researcher Marcela Ríos has found that less than 10% of candidates presented by parties between 1989 and 2005 were women. In contrast, Ecuador has adopted a parity-based quota system which requires that women and men be equally represented in the candidate lists.  

Two specific examples demonstrate the importance of the design of the electoral system to more balanced representation:

* Why does Argentina have 40% women legislators, while neighbouring Brazil has only 8%? Both countries have list systems with gender-quotas, but they're only effective in Argentina where parties run "closed" lists and are required to alternate men and women in "electable" positions higher up the list. Brazil, on the other hand, allows parties to present a number of candidates equivalent to as much as 150% of the number of seats being contested and there is no sanction for non-compliance with the quota. Additionally, Brazil's candidate-centred "open" list-system makes success more dependent on access to campaign funding, an area in which women face greater disadvantages.

This article is a contribution to an international debate on democracy support co-hosted by International IDEA and openDemocracy

Also published:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

* Why do women account for nearly one in three legislators in Peru, but only one in thirty mayors? There are at least two reasons for this. First, representatives in collective bodies (legislatures, town councils) in Peru are elected from "list positions" while executives  (president, departmental president and mayor) are chosen from a first-past-the-post system. Second, a 30% quota applies to the legislature and local councils, but not to mayors or other executive positions.  

The quota fix

First, the good news: we know what we have to do, and we have both the technology and the capability to build a more equal political system! A reform of the electoral system can catapult women through the political glass-ceiling of their local parliament or town council. In Ecuador, the percentage of women legislators jumped from 3% to 17% in just one election-cycle after quotas were adopted. In that sense, electoral engineering and quotas are the ultimate low-hanging fruit!   

Except when they're not.  

After an initial wave of quota legislation in Latin America (eleven countries between 1991 and 2000), the region seems to have hit a dry spell. There are a number of countries - Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay - where quota legislation has been under debate, but with no clear victory in sight. Equally important, countries with ineffective quota legislation (Brazil being a clear case in point) show little progress toward eliminating the loopholes and technicalities that continue to hinder the election of women.   

What quotas can't do

So as much as one would like to live off the low-hanging fruit, the truth is that a more balanced diet is in order. Even if quotas were passed throughout Latin America, it's important to recognise that they can't do a number of things:Among openDemocracy's articles on women's participation in politics:

Srilatha Batliwala, "Women transforming power?" (5 October 2005)

Justin Vogler, "Latin America: woman's hour" (17 March 2006)

Fred Halliday, "The forward march of women halted?" (4 May 2006)

Seda Muradyan, "A politics of myth" (12 December 2006)

Pinar Ilkkaracan, "Do women and girls have human rights?" (26 February 2007)

Solana Larsen, "How power works for women" (9 March 2007)

Ana Alice Alcântara, "Women and politics: the Brazil paradox" (11 March 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

Plus: the material in our 50:50 section

* Quotas can't guarantee more women presidents, governors or mayors. The Argentinean expert Alejandra Massolo estimates that women hold only 5.5% of the mayoral posts in Latin America. At the regional level, only two of ten countries reach double-digits in terms of women governors. Since quotas cannot be applied to single member posts, they are inapplicable to these offices.

* Quotas can't keep women in politics. With the increasing numbers of women in political office in some countries, it's become clear that getting there is not everything. Women can only make a difference in politics to the extent that they are able to consolidate their political career and capital through re-election and posts with increasing responsibility. Though data is scarce, recent IDEA research in Peru is worrisome: it shows that only 16% of women-elected authorities sought re-election in 2006, compared with 34% of men.

* Quotas can't make women effective politicians. Though the numbers of women elected officials may be on the rise in some countries, there is no guarantee that they will perform well in political life (just as there's been no such guarantee for male political leaders during the last twenty-five centuries, give or take). Their inclusion is important in principle as well as through ensuring the representation of women's interests and perspectives; but ultimately it's up to individual women to maximise their impact on the political process. One strategy widely promoted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union is: "Know the rules, use the rules, change the rules." Often this can be done more effectively, if women are willing to work join together across party lines to mobilise through women's caucuses or other networks. 

The routes of change

The fact that electoral engineering and quotas can only do so much means that change also depends on a series of long-term strategies that involve institutions and civil societies:   

Government As recently as the late 1990s, the Nordic countries were seen as the only examples of gender "nirvana" where women were on the verge of reaching gender-parity with men. Today, Latin American feminists frequently point to Spain as an example of how comprehensive government commitment can help close the gender-gap. Spain's prime minister José-Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a self-proclaimed "feminist", is doing more than talking the talk. Under his leadership, Spain has promoted parity in the cabinet (nine women to eight men at the time of writing), electoral lists and corporate boards. Just as important, the Zapatero government has moved beyond these legislative measures to affect cultural norms and mores, as evidenced by the public-service announcements aimed at ending domestic violence and at reminding men of their responsibility to do an equal share of housework.   

Political parties Parties are the ultimate political gatekeepers in that they define candidate-lists. Although women account for almost half of party membership in Latin America, it is all too common to hear parties lament around election-time that no hay mujeres (there are no women). This discourse reveals parties' longstanding inability either to turn their current members into leaders or to pro-actively identify and recruit women members with political potential. 

In addition, parties need to democratise their leadership structures and reform their financing mechanisms to ensure increased participation by women. It is not just that these changes are the "right" thing to do, they are also in the long-term interests of leaders sincerely interested in party renewal. Success in recruiting and promoting women's leadership may also point the way for engagement of other under-represented sectors in social-change processes. 

Women party members Change in political parties will require commitment from the top and pressure from below. Unfortunately, leadership of a party's "women's wing" is rarely seen as a desirable position in the party hierarchy, perhaps because it's been too often charged with tasks like preparing the holiday-party or the annual charity-drive. Women party-members cannot rely on quotas to bring real change to their political organisation. Rather, they will need to mobilise and organise for change from within, through alliances that may include fellow party-members, women from other parties and feminist civil-society groups.   

Media  The media are no longer mere intermediaries between leaders and voters, but rather often set the agenda around which politicians design their strategies and citizens form their opinions. But this media-driven agenda often extends beyond the thematic; it also defines the main actors on the political stage, and media coverage can determine which politicians and platforms get public exposure. 

Research in Latin America has usually pointed to gender-differences in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Women candidates tend to receive less coverage than men, and media reports are often sexist in nature - highlighting a woman's appearance, for example, or questioning how she balances her career and family life. In short, the media are part of the gender-imbalance problem. In order for them to be part of the solution, it's necessary that they desist from chauvinistic views of politics and give female political leaders equal voice.  

Civil society Feminist organisations have been crucial in the fight for political equality in Latin America. In recent years, however, it appears that the links between feminist organisations and feminist politicians are weakening, mirroring a broader disconnect between civil society and political parties. For women politicians, this distance is particularly devastating. 

In the context of the resistance they face from their parties, women politicians need support from feminist groups - and indeed civil society in general - for votes, volunteers, ideas, institutional support, pressure and funding. The impact of Emily's List (a United States political-action committee) as a vehicle for candidate fundraising is particularly telling. There is too the example of the campaign Mas mujeres, mas política in Colombia - made up of local NGOs and international agencies - which quantified, ranked and widely publicised the degree to which parties fell short on the gender-equity agenda.   

In short, real advances have been made under the third wave of democratisation in guaranteeing the fuller participation of women in political life. Still, progress has been uneven. While electoral engineering and quotas have helped to address how parties and candidates are elected, significant deficiencies remain, both between and within individual countries. The good news is that complementary strategies - working intensively with governments, political parties, the media, civil society and with the candidates themselves - have been tried and tested. With their application comes the hope that full and equitable participation of women as representatives at all levels of government will not take a further thirty years.   

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