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February 11, 2009
Gender equality varies wildly in Latin America

Cristina Fernández, the president of Argentina.

Latin American leaders like Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández — both the first elected female presidents of their countries — have been heralded as examples of gender equality in politics and inspirations to women worldwide. But other Latin American countries retain cultural stereotypes about gender and few women hold office.

Kristen  Sample is senior programme officer at International IDEA and writes at “OpenDemocracy” exploring how different electoral systems have resulted in such varying levels of power for Latin American women.

No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality

Thirty years after the start of the third wave of democracy in Latin America,  the region’s policy-makers and civil society have the “final frontier” of this historic process in sight: to ensure that democracy works for all citizens in equal measure, regardless of gender.

In Latin America there has in recent years been an increase in both the number and percentage of women in politics – embodied by the rise to power of two female presidents, Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Cristina Fernández in Argentina. Their election has, in turn, generated a renewed debate on the state of women in politics today in the region. The reality, perhaps surprising, is that the progress of women in assuming elected office in Latin America varies considerably: between and even within countries, nationally and sub-nationally.

[…]The choice of electoral system has an enormous impact – perhaps more than any other single factor – on the number of women elected to public office.

Chart detailing the percentage of women representatives in elected office in Latin America. Chart: OpenDemocracy

For instance, one basic ground-rule: “list” systems – in which electors select from lists of candidates – are far better at facilitating the election of women (and minority-groups) than first-past-the-post system systems (as found in the United States, Britain and Canada) as they encourage parties to develop comparatively more balanced candidate lists. When a party has to bet on one candidate for a legislative seat – as in the case of a first-past-the-post system – the slot generally goes to a man. When the party presents a list of candidates to represent a legislative district, however, it is more apt to balance the list by assigning selected slots to women. That’s why of the ten countries with the highest percentage of women legislators, nine have some variation of the list system.

Two specific examples demonstrate the importance of the design of the electoral system to more balanced representation:

Why does Argentina have 40% women legislators, while neighbouring Brazil has only 8%? Both countries have list systems with gender-quotas, but they’re only effective in Argentina where parties run “closed” lists and are required to alternate men and women in “electable” positions higher up the list. Brazil, on the other hand, allows parties to present a number of candidates equivalent to as much as 150% of the number of seats being contested and there is no sanction for non-compliance with the quota. Additionally, Brazil’s candidate-centred “open” list-system makes success more dependent on access to campaign funding, an area in which women face greater disadvantages.

Why do women account for nearly one in three legislators in Peru, but only one in thirty mayors? There are at least two reasons for this. First, representatives in collective bodies (legislatures, town councils) in Peru are elected from “list positions” while executives  (president, departmental president and mayor) are chosen from a first-past-the-post system. Second, a 30% quota applies to the legislature and local councils, but not to mayors or other executive positions.

To read more, see the original post.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user ¡Que comunismo! under a Creative Commons license.

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yes, but as the article says kirchner was the first ELECTED female pres. i think the elected part is the key point here.


Hi. Actually, I don’t want for this comment to be published.I simply want to point out a tiny mistake: Cristina Kirchner is Argentina’s second female president, not the first as you say. The first was María Estela Martínez de Perón, Juan Perón’s third wife and vice-president in his third term. She took over when he died in 1974.

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