With President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's win in Sunday's Argentine's election all but assured and a woman leading the largest country in Latin America, it might appear that the political glass ceiling in the hemisphere has finally been cracked. But from Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C., women still have a long way to go to achieve parity in politics, according to recently completed gender studies and political analysts. Only about half of Latin American women are affiliated with any party. And a database compiled by the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance shows that when women run for office, they're less likely to be elected than men and they still hold relatively few key positions in political parties.
“Political parties play a key role in placing women in political office,'' said Vivian Roza, coordinator of the IDB's Program for the Support of Women's Leadership and Representation. “They are the starting point for greater participation.'' The database, which includes responses from 94 of the most important political parties in Latin America, also shows that the higher women move up party ranks, the lower their representation. Similar comparative data isn't available for Caribbean countries, but current figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union show women also are woefully underrepresented in most Caribbean parliaments. Only 16 percent of the party president and general secretary posts were occupied by women in 2009 when the Latin American survey was conducted. Women made up only 19 percent of the national executive committees of the parties, and in Chile, Argentina, Panama and Brazil, which all have elected female presidents since 1999, even fewer women were in the party hierarchy. It's difficult to achieve gender equality “when women can't participate as equal partners in political parties,'' said Roza, who spoke during a recent conference on women and empowerment in the Americas organized by the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy.Thirteen Latin American and Caribbean countries have created electoral gender quota laws, which have been employed in some European countries since the 1970s, to fast-track female representation. Argentina led the way in 1991. Colombia has a quota law that sets targets for women in top administrative posts. Most of the laws have a target of about one-third female representation, but some have goals as low as 20 percent and Bolivia sets its goal at a high of 50 percent. It has almost achieved that goal in its senate but falls far short in the lower chamber. While female representation is better in countries with quotas, it still hasn't achieved the targets in most countries. Argentina and Costa Rica, which is led by President Laura Chinchilla, have been “leaders'' in implementing gender quotas, said Leslie Schwindt-Bayer, a political science professor at the University of Missouri.
About 39 percent of legislators in the two countries are women. Argentina is exceeding its 30 percent quota and Costa Rica is close to its 40 percent goal. More than 43 percent of the members of Cuba's parliament are women — although the country doesn't have a quota system. But Schwindt-Bayer said Colombia and Brazil, which elected its first female president — Dilma Rousseff — last year, aren't doing nearly as well. In 2010, she said, only 8.6 percent of those in Brazil's lower Chamber of Deputies and 16 percent of senators in the region's largest country were women. “Although Brazil has a quota law for Congress, it's relatively weak and not very well enforced,'' Schwindt-Bayer said.
The IDB/International IDEA database, however, shows that overall the Latin American countries with quotas have more women legislators than those that do not. In quota countries, women made up 20.2 percent of lower house members compared to 14.4 percent for those without quotas. In upper houses, the figure was 18.9 percent female members for countries with quotas compared to 11.1 percent for those without.
But women are nowhere near achieving parity in the U.S. Congress, either. Women account for 16.8 percent of voting members in the House of Representatives and 17 percent of U.S. senators.
The quotas seem to work best in systems where parties are required to place women toward the top of candidate lists.
“Without a quota law, parties tend to place women on the lower echelon of lists,'' said Roza. And clustered down at the bottom, women have a hard time getting elected. Another problem in some countries is finding enough female aspirants to political office. In Haiti, for example, it has been difficult to come up with female candidates to run for governorships, said Danielle Saint-Lot, who is president of Femmes en Démocratie (Women in Democracy), a nonprofit that works to improve Haitian women's lives. “The women would be telling me: ‘Why don't you take my husband, why don't you take my brother?''' she said. And while a woman judge was appointed interim president of Haiti in 1990 and women served briefly as prime minister in 1995 and 2008, Saint-Lot emphasized these were appointments rather than elected positions. To get more women involved in politics, her organization plans to create a database of women leaders interested in pursuing political office and help them prepare for elections.Maria Isabel Rueda, a journalist and former Colombian congresswoman, said it's difficult to come up with enough female candidates in her country and women still account for less than 20 percent of Colombian legislators. Mayra Buvinic, a consultant who formerly worked with the Gender and Development Group at the World Bank, said the region doesn't provide a nurturing enough environment for women's participation — even at a time when women are the main drivers of economic growth and poverty reduction. The highest ranked Latin American country on the Women's Economic Opportunity Index, a project of the Economist Intelligence Unit that was funded by the World Bank, is Brazil. It ranks 38th, just edging out Chile and Mexico. “Yet, growth in the region has been driven by women,'' said Buvinic, because they are joining the labor force in far greater numbers, which is also helping reduce poverty. “Investing in gender equality is smart economics,'' she said. Argentina, where Fernández is heavily favored to win Sunday, is ranked 47th on the index. The latest polls show Fernández may even win outright, avoiding a runoff against a splintered opposition and gaining working majorities in both houses of Congress.