The increased participation of women in traditional politics in Latin America has made headlines for several years now. Last month, The New York Times published an analysis of the 2012 Women in Politics Survey of UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union by Luisita Lopez Torregrosa. Torresgrosa highlighted the rising percentage of women in parliament and female heads of state in the region, including Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina. She and other experts attribute some of the advances to electoral quotas adopted in many countries and more general factors such as democratization, education, and public policies.
The analysis falls short, for it fails to recognize that these gains are the result in large part of decades of struggle by women’s social movements for progressive change. Women’s rights organizations have created spaces for women to transform their concerns and priorities into actions and policies, with women as active and equal participants in decision-making and political power. This is unquestionably a milestone for a region with deeply rooted traditions of patriarchy.
Currently, however, the presence of women in politics is more symbolic than anything else. These new women leaders are not transforming their societies in fundamental ways. Indeed, the feminization of politics in the region has not yet translated into the incorporation of feminist and women’s rights agendas, or even into improved conditions for the majority of women.
Costa Rican Example
The election of Laura Chinchilla on February 7, 2010 marked a historic day in Costa Rica’s political life. The fact that Chinchilla is the first female president of the Central America nation is significant for women. Whether she as president represents a stepping-stone toward gender equality, however, depends on factors other than Chinchilla simply being a woman; it depends on her political decisions.
A social conservative, she has publicly opposed same-sex marriage, safe and legal abortion, and the legalization of the morning-after pill. She has pledged to continue the neoliberal policies of her predecessor by courting international investment and expanding free trade, at the expense of investments in social well being, which typically benefit women and children more.
Costa Rican feminist and jurist Alda Facio notes, “Laura Chinchilla has publicly expressed her reservations with regard to the feminist movement and philosophy, thus denying more than 200 years in the struggle for human rights of women, which are those that have in fact created the conditions to allow her to [hold] the Presidency of the Republic today. She represents the economic-political establishment that has driven neoliberal policies in this country in the last decades, which have caused social exclusion, inequality and the deterioration of living conditions, in particular of women.” Chinchilla’s positions renew the debate on whether the election of women in positions of political power by default leads to positive changes for women.
Power and Policy
According to a special edition of the Foreign Policy Survey: Women in Politics, only seven out of 43 top female politicians around the world indicated that they give priority attention to women’s issues in their work. Even in the so-called “progressive” governments led by women in Argentina and Brazil, women’s rights issues have not been a priority for Cristina Fernandez or Dilma Rousseff. Argentina’s Fernandez has openly stood against the inclusion of policies that would promote reproductive justice, such as the right to abortion.
Rousseff of Brazil seems to be of two minds. On the one hand, she has appointed more women in her cabinet, including Eleonora Menicucci as minister for women policies. Menicucci is a well-known feminist who has publicly admitted having had abortions and bi-sexual relationships.
On the other hand Rouseff has distanced herself from a more progressive gender justice agenda, like her previous pro-choice position. She continues to toe the Catholic Church party line on abortion and LBGT rights. It was just last year that she signed a law requiring all women to register their pregnancies with the state. Without the ongoing pressure of women’s movements, female politicians will rule much like their male predecessors.
Gains in women’s leadership over the last two decades can be attributed to the region’s educational expansion, cultural changes, democratization and adoption of women‘s rights-related legislation and affirmative action measures. Yet they have not benefited all women. Indigenous, afro-descendent, poor, and rural women have limited opportunities to access decision-making positions. Practically all women in Latin America still face economic, social, cultural and political barriers to participation. Dismantling those barriers requires prioritizing resources to build women’s capacity to be community leaders and prepare them to effectively push for progressive women’s rights agendas.
Latin America’s experience suggests that the full exercise of women’s rights will come from elected and other women leaders who can break state patriarchy. Feminist and women’s rights organizations have been and must continue to be crucial in this fight.
Throughout the region, there is a clear offensive against the rights of women, particularly those related to their sexuality, bodily integrity, and reproductive health. In the current conservative environment there is an urgent need to expand women’s civic and political participation, leadership and advocacy to overturn policies and practices that negatively affect women’s integrity and rights. For real change, women in politics must be equipped with tools to exert power in a way that advances their own gender to a state of genuine equality.