Latin America – are presidential sisters doing it for themselves?
In South America, the continent where the macho culture and the catholic church have influenced the politics for hundreds of years, a feminist struggle has silently been fought. This liberation process has recently caused several female heads of state to emerge. But, does this automatically mean that these women will work towards continued equality between men and women? Both yes and no, says Agnes Walton.
In Latin America, home of macho culture and a region still heavily under the influence of the powerful, male-dominated and patriarchal catholic church, a quiet gender revolution is seeing a generation of women entering politics and making it to the top. When Dilma Roussef, president elect of Brazil, takes office on the 1st January next year, she will be the seventh ever female head of state in the region. She will also, alongside Cristina Fernandéz Kirchner of Argentina and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, be one of three currently serving, closely following the defeat of former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet in the last elections.
As well as female presidents the region is seeing a significant rise in the number of women elected into senates and parliaments, and 15 countries have introduced quota legislation to increase political representation of women to at least 30 % since the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing. Following such affirmative action Argentina has managed to surpass these goals with 38,5 % female representation in the lower chamber and 35 % in the senate, while the surprising second cabinet presented by Bolivian president Evo Morales showed complete gender parity. Undeniably, these are impressive figures for a region dismally ranked 6th of 8 in equality of political representation by the Council of Women World Leaders, and where the influence of the catholic church often ensures that women are denied basic rights such as access to contraception and safe abortions.
But, impressive though they may be, to what extent do these figures represent a challenge to the status quo? To what extent can we assume that the mere presence of women in powerful positions will have an effect on the rights and daily lives of female citizens in their respective societies? This debate, old as it may be, finds new validity in the changing face of South American politics. For, just as male politicians rise from different traditions, backgrounds and parties, the same is equally true for Chinchilla the priviledged conservative socialist, Kirchner the lawyer and former first lady, Bachelet the doctor and military strategist or Roussef the economist and marxist guerilla fighter. Inevitably, different societies and experiences shape the politician and her politics, giving a unique perspective, and this group of powerful women is by no means a well-coordinated sisterhood with a common mission.
In Costa Rica, Chinchilla ensured public support for the progressive National liberation party (PLN) by participating in the conservative catholic ”March for Life and Family”, pledging her opposition to the legalisation of abortion and same-sex unions. In Argentina, relations between the administration and the catholic church are highly strained, due to indications that abortion will shortly be legalised in the country and Kirchner’s recent recognition of same-sex partnerships. However, neither of these candidates have expressed a personal intention or desire to push a feminist or womens rights agenda. Bachelet and Roussef have, on the other hand, seemed far more dedicated to change and improve conditions for women. After her election Roussef declared, borrowing one of the most over-used and over-imitated political slogans of the last few years; ”Yes, women can!”. She has yet to take office as president and therefore yet to be tested on the strength of her feminist credentials, unlike Bachelet, the leftwing paediatrician and military strategist who led Chile from 2006 until March this year. Under Bachelet’s presidency, she also met the challenge of taking on the catholic church, introducing free emergency contraception as a measure to reduce the huge number of illegal abortions being performed in the country, estimated to be twice as many as in Canada, a country with half as many inhabitants. Instead of seeking compromise and reconcilitation with the church, she went further in ensuring equality of access to the labour market and education, building, amongst other things, 3 500 childcare centres for the poor and attempting the eradication of shanty towns through widespread home-building subsidies. Bachelet was driven by the wish to advance social equality, in the belief that this goes hand in hand with advances in gender equality. Could Roussef, who far from promising change is promising a steady course from the hugely popular Lula, inject a similar gender awareness to traditional social-democratic politics, or will she be deliberately vague in order to avoid offending the wrong people? She has already stumbled on the ever-explosive question of abortions, stating her support for legalisation but following up with a pledge to support criminalisation after her campaign was losing support among conservative working-class brazilians, an important group of voters.
Much is made of a female leader’s ability to implement policies for greater gender equality, but one could say that this should not be all we expect of powerful women. Participation in domestic issues and social policies is important, but it is often in the international and economic spheres that power is found and wielded, and one could argue that female politicians who shun these areas risk marginalising themselves and diminishing their own influence. Some even claim that there is a particular perspective only women can bring to these bastions of male dominance. Arguably, when Bachelet served as defence minister she succeeded in injecting some of this ”feminine” perspective to the field, leading the military to seek reconciliation with the victims of the Pinochet regime, focusing on welfare for veterans, schooling the military in respect for democratic values and engaging in widespread relief and peacekeeping missions. Kirchner in Argentina has on her side been highly preoccupied with issues of trade, tolls and territory, none of them traditionally connected with a feminist agenda, and there is no evidence that she has acted any differently than, or displayed differing values to, her predecessor and husband Nestor Kirchner.
At the bottom of these questions lie the issues of difference. Women in politics are as diverse as the men they govern with, and it is incorrect to expect womens rights to be championed by default when female political representation rises. However, when women gain power it is a powerful symbol to other women. In turn, this normalises the event until, in Roussef’s words, ”…this unprecedented fact becomes a natural event”. The greater the body of women in power becomes, the greater the chances are that they will dare to unite over political divides and find common ground. This has happened in Argentina, where female members of parliament united to pass legislation against sexual harassment and gender-based violence, and in Bolivia, where all female representatives have signed a pledge to work for the causes of ”Coordinadora de la Mujer”, an umbrella organisation who represent 200 Bolivian womens groups. One cannot expect a single politician to do, or even care about, everything. Roussef may not be interested in challenging Brazilian social conservatism, but she may, as an economist, want to prioritise women in her own way. Kirchner may not want to seek peace and understanding with the English over the Falkland Islands, but she is a powerful message to women and girls in the whole of latin america that a person they first saw as a wife can also be a president. The lesson of Latin America is one that we have learned in Europe, but may be in danger of forgetting. As we, even in Scandinavia, are preparing to dismantle many of the regulations that gave us our uniquely equal societies, we should look to Latin America and see the fast progress that has grown from political willingness, affirmative action and gender quotas. And we should remember that just because Thatcher was a woman, that didn’t make her a feminist.
by Agnes Walton