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South America and Women in Government

Will more female politicians in South American improve the lives of everyday women?

March 10, 2006

Will more female politicians in South American improve the lives of everyday women?

On Saturday, March 11, 2006, the socialist Michelle Bachelet will be sworn in as Chile's first woman president. Honoring a campaign pledge, she brings with her a cabinet with equal numbers of men and women.

Figures from the Inter-American Development Bank show that in the ten years since 1995, the number of women ministers in South America has more than doubled compared to the previous decade.

No one raised an eyebrow when President-elect Bachelet named women to head the economic and defense ministries. Such things — unheard of in Chile and the rest of the region a few years ago — are now common place.

Indeed, across the Andes in Argentina, President Kirchner in December 2005 appointed Nilda Garré to the defense ministry and another woman, Felisa Miceli, as Argentina's all powerful finance minister. In the last four years, women have been named defense ministers in Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay — and twice in Chile.

To boot, the feisty first lady — or "first citizen", as she likes to be called — and senator for Buenos Aires, Cristina Fernandez, is tipped to become Argentina's next president.

Further north in Peru, Lourdes Flores, the candidate for the conservative Popular Christian Party, is consolidating her lead in the polls ahead of the first round presidential election on April 9, 2006. Flores came in third in the 2001 election.

Sara Beatriz, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Latin American History in Lima, believes that the success of women in the region reflects a desire for change, as well as widespread disenchantment with male politicians.

"Many people are simply fed up with the way men have been running politics," says Guardia. "In the last few decades, government has become a hierarchy based on clientelism and corruption.”

In this context, she adds that, people are asking, “Why don't we see if women can do any better?"

Marta Lagos, the director of Latinobarómetro, Latin America's first continent-wide opinion survey, agrees with that perspective.

She explains that, "Most Latin Americans do not consider the gender gap to be the most significant source of discrimination. Poverty is foremost, maybe followed by race — and perhaps then you are discriminated against as a woman."

She attributes the success of women like Bachelet to the affinity they inspire in other traditionally marginalized groups. In fact, a pattern is emerging across Latin America where those long excluded from power — for reasons of class, gender or race — are now storming the governmental strongholds.

Marta Lagos also finds the U.S. and western media coverage of the region misleading — if not outright false. To her, the real headline from South America is not about "a leftist takeover" she says. "Much less a feminine takeover: What's happening today in South America is a takeover of the democratic majority."

How did this shift come about? In the 1990s, many countries, like Argentina and Peru, passed quota laws regulating female representation in parliamentary elections.

"The electoral rules of the game are important," says Kristin Sample, programs officer for the Andean region and women's political participation for International IDEA. "Look at the United States, which the UNDP ranks as the eighth-most gender-equitable country in the world.”

Yet, women account for only 14 or 15% of the members of the U.S. Congress. Compare this to Argentina, where women occupy over a third of all parliamentary seats."

Others doubt that the sharp increase in the number of female politicians will translate into increased political representation for women. Maria Emma Wills, a Colombian political scientist, cautions against token representation.

"Just bringing representatives of marginalized groups — be they women, Indians or people of color — into the political elite does not automatically make that elite more democratic," argues Wills. "It certainly doesn't mean that government policies will be more inclusive or fairer."

Kristen Sample is more upbeat. "Flores' lead in the Peruvian poll has motivated other parties to compete for the women's vote, whether by putting women on their tickets or by focusing on 'women's issues'," she says.

But do more women in politics mean more effective representation for women? "Not always," admits Sample. "But it is certainly a necessary first step."

I asked Marta Lagos whether the number of women in power reflects a change in attitudes towards women in South America. "Politics is changing much quicker than society," she replied. "It will take generations before fundamental attitudes change, but it is a step forward."

Angelica Vargas is 18 years old. She lives in a lower-middle class neighborhood in the Chilean port of Valparaiso and wants to study accounting. I asked her if a female president would change men's attitudes towards women in Chile.

"Nothing changes," cried Angelica. "What does it matter who the president is? The men around here are all terribly sexist — and they are going to go on being sexist." She paused for an instant and then added: "What might help is if they elected a woman Pope."