Advanced new legislation and constitutional reforms on women's rights are paving the way for equal opportunities for women in Latin America and the Caribbean. But application and enforcement remain a distant goal.
That gap between paper promises and reality has a very real impact on the daily lives of millions of women in this region, where "poverty has a woman's face," in the words of Laura Chinchilla, who is about to become the first female president of Costa Rica.
To highlight the importance of creating laws and institutions to bolster gender equity, the theme of International Women's Day, Mar. 8, this year is "Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All", because "while gender-sensitive legislation and policies have addressed inequalities and discrimination against women, overall progress remains uneven," according to the United Nations.
This was the "the first region where all states are party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW - adopted by the U.N. general assembly in 1979)," Venezuelan university professor Evangelina García Prince, former vice chair of the United Nations Committee for CEDAW, pointed out to TerraViva.
According to García Prince, "there have been promising changes over the last 15 years in the region, although they have fallen short in addressing the state's outstanding debt in terms of equality between women and men."
Enforcement of the new legislation and constitutional articles "is hindered by the complex economic, social, cultural and political fabric of our societies, a lack of funds and other resources, and the weakness of many of the institutions in charge of enforcing them," Virginia Olivo, the head of the Venezuelan Observatory of the Human Rights of Women coalition, told TerraViva.
"Application of the laws, which are not felt at the level of the day-to-day reality of women, is something we think about constantly. The state and its institutions do not comply with them, but we have allies - committed public officials and employees," Carmen Morales, programme director for the Mexican Society for Women's Rights (Semillas), remarked to TerraViva.
In García Prince's view, "the main threat to the possibility of more and better legal provisions and laws that are feasible in an administrative sense is a male-centred legal and political-administrative culture that is clearly reactionary towards initiatives that threaten the traditional power relations between the genders."
Strengthening institutions and laws in favour of women was precisely one of the 12 priorities established 15 years ago by the Platform for Action Adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing.
In Latin America today, the constitutions of nearly every country recognise the international or regional treaties and conventions that require the adoption of equality and non-discrimination provisions. And all countries in the region have institutions dedicated to promoting gender equality.
In addition, "the number of countries that have passed laws on gender equality, equal opportunity, non-discrimination and violence against women has grown, and there is interest in adopting provincial or municipal laws and statutes as well," said García Prince.
New constitutions that have been adopted in several countries not only reflect these principles, but the terminology used highlights the question of gender equality, by referring specifically, for example, to "venezolanas" or "bolivianas" (the feminine form of the noun) and "venezolanos" or "bolivianos" (the masculine as well as generic plural form), or to "presidenta" (feminine) or "presidente", "vice-presidenta" or "vice-presidente", "ministras" or "ministros", etc.
One of the most recent constitutional reforms was passed by the Dominican Republic, which states the right to gender equality and prohibits any action that undermines it, and calls for the promotion of measures necessary to guarantee the eradication of gender inequality and discrimination.
Ecuador's newly rewritten constitution, which upholds gender equality and bans discrimination of any kind, orders the state to design and implement policies aimed at achieving equality between women and men, and to incorporate an obligatory gender focus in all public plans and programmes.
In Bolivia, the new constitution stipulates that the government must be democratic, participative and representative, with "equal conditions between men and women," while it prohibits and orders penalties for any discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.
In Bolivia's newly elected parliament, 46 (28 percent) of seats are held by women, and recently reelected President Evo Morales named a cabinet made up of 10 women and 10 men - gender parity for which the only precedent in the region is the Chilean government of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.
That gender empowerment is needed especially in a country like Bolivia where six out of 10 women are poor, 29 percent of households are headed by women on their own, and women make up 40 percent of the workforce but earn 57 percent of what men earn for the same tasks.
Similar gaps are found across the continent. The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports that in the region, the poverty rate is 1.15 times higher among women than men, while the difference is especially marked in Panama (1.37 times), Costa Rica (1.3), the Dominican Republic (1.25), Chile (1.24) and Uruguay (1.21 times).
And according to the regional United Nations agency, women professionals in Brazil and Mexico earn half of what their male colleagues earn; in Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica the gap is between 30 and 40 percent; and regionwide, where 200 million people are poor, 85 million women have no income of their own.
Between 1990 and 2008, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Peru and Nicaragua passed equal opportunity laws for men and women that identify specific situations that undermine the conditions faced by women.
But while the laws stipulate the design of plans and programmes by different state agencies, they provide little clear direction with respect to the material support needed to translate the good intentions into reality.
To illustrate the obstacles in the male-centred political culture to which she referred, García Prince pointed to penal, civil, labour, trade or electoral codes that are "frankly obsolete or replete with discriminatory provisions.
"I could cite the case of Mexico, where there is abundant legislation on the issue (four specific laws) but it is not adequately implemented, as demonstrated by the controversy raging in that country over sexual and reproductive rights, with the gaps between the legislation of the different states of the republic," she said.
Mexico "is a country that invests in these issues, and where there have been government efforts to come up with a well-defined policy, but they have been clearly insufficient to live up to the guarantees outlined in the country's abundant legislation on the matter," she added.
Mexico's law on violence against women applies in 28 of the country's 32 states, but has failed to eradicate "femicide" or gender-based murders. In December, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Mexican state responsible for violating the right to life of three young women murdered in 2001 in the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez.
A report by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights praised the region's legislative advances as strategic initiatives that are useful for moving towards equality and respect for the rights of women, despite which real equality is still a pending challenge in every country.
Furthermore, governments put only relative importance on the issue, as shown by the weak influence and limited budgets of the women's agencies responsible for applying the laws, says the report, which warns that in the face of the slightest oversight, the progress made could be rolled back.