Latin American culture is usually associated with being a chauvinistic society (known as machismo), particularly when it comes to how male individuals have historically been in positions of political power. This situation has changed over the past two decades, as several female politicians have become presidents of their respective nations. Prominent examples include Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Nevertheless, while political empowerment of women in the Western Hemisphere is certainly a positive development, the tragic other side of the coin is that violence against women and lack of educational opportunities remain a chronic problem. Bolivia’s recent law on violence against women demonstrates that while the region has taken a giant leap forward regarding female political empowerment, treatment of women in Latin America generally still needs to change.
Women in charge
The good news is that many Latin American countries have elected a growing number of female citizens to their nation’s presidencies in the past few years. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to enter into a discussion of whether each female head of state has been a competent one, or whether she has done better than her male counterparts, though it would certainly be an interesting topic.
Apart from the aforementioned current Latin American female heads of state, other examples include Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla, Panama’s Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004) and Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997), among others (such as Isabel Peron, Argentina’s interim president from (1974-1976). In addition,former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet(2006-2010) recently announced her candidacy to her country’s 2014 elections.
There have also been several female presidential candidates in Peru, like Lourdes Flores and Keiko Fujimori (the daughter of former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori). Furthermore, there is speculation that Nadine Heredia, Peru’s current First Lady, may run in her country’s 2016 presidential elections. An early April poll shows that Keiko leads with 24 percent of the votes, while Heredia is second with 23 percent. In other words, there is a strong possibility that the next Peruvian head of state could be a woman. The 2016 elections are symbolically important, as the next president will rule until 2021, when the Andean nation celebrates its bicentennial anniversary. Besides being presidential candidates, women have also begun to occupy other important political positions in Peru. For example, Susana Villaran is Lima’s current mayor.
Another positive development is that, Bolivia’s 2009 constitution mandates that women must occupy at least 50 percent of all elected government positions. As for Guatemala, even though Rigoberta Menchu unsuccessfully ran for her nation’s presidency in 2007 and 2011, she remains an inspiration to women across the continent for her work as a defender of indigenous rights (she’s a 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner).
Regarding women in influential positions in Mexico, Beatriz Paredes was Secretary General of the powerful PRI party from 2007 to 2011 and is currently theMexican ambassador to Brazil. Meanwhile, Ambassador Patricia Espinosa was Secretary of Foreign Affairs during Felipe Calderon’s presidency. It is also worthy to note that Josefina Vazquez Mota was the PAN’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in the country’s 2012 presidential elections.
Finally, Venezuela, under the leadership of the lateHugo Chavezand now with its new leaderNicolas Maduro, appointed a number of women to high-profile positions. These include Iris Varela, Minister of the Prison System, who recently declared that she had a jail cell ready for opposition figure, Governor Henrique Capriles. Another prominent Venezuelan is Carmen Melendez, the country’s first female admiral and current Minister of the Presidency (loosely translated from: Ministerio del Despacho de la Presidencia).
Regarding hemispheric organizations, the OAS has had an Inter-American Commission of Women since 1928. Nevertheless, this agency’s effectiveness at successfully promoting women’s rights is debatable. In 2010, Canada took a more active role in the OAS to “promote gender mainstreaming across the [OAS’s] Secretariat.” The necessity for such an initiative may signal that the organization itself still has much to learn about the benefits of gender diversity within its own agencies. If the OAS ever appoints a female Secretary General, it would signal that the organization is leaving its male-dominated history.
The tragic other side of the coin
Unfortunately, political empowerment hasn’t meant an improvement for women’s rights in Latin America’s civil society. Numerous analyses and reports have already demonstrated that women remain in a particularly disadvantaged state when it comes to access to educational opportunities as compared to men. Female illiteracy is tragically high in several Western Hemisphere countries. Furthermore, analyses by the Inter-American Development Bank have argued that even if women are better educated than men, they’re paid less when they enter the job market.
Finally, violence against women remains a troubling issue. Rape, violent attacks and other kinds of abuse, often coming from their husbands, are still very common. In order to address this situation, Latin American governments have passed laws condemning violence against women; the latest has come from Bolivia. Nevertheless, the law is only effective if citizens are aware of it and of their rights (not to mention the need for a professional and competent police force and judicial system to properly enforce this law). In this case, the Bolivian government and grassroots organizations should promote awareness of the law so that women across the landlocked country know their rights under the new law and are encouraged to report violence acts committed against them. It’s particularly tragic that Bolivian women continue to suffer violence despite the important contributions they’ve made to Bolivian society, which was best demonstrated by the role of Bolivian women in the2000 Water Warsin Cochabamba.
Latin America has taken a giant leap forward in overturning the machismo stereotype through political empowerment of women. But ongoing women-related violence demonstrates that more initiatives are necessary.