Defying the Macho

Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogota, introduced a novel attempt at reforming Colombia’s male-dominated society one week in March 2001: from 7.30pm to 1am, only women were permitted to walk about town. To maintain parity, he handed over the city’s nightlife to men the week after.

Quirky mayoral measures aside, gender equality in Latin America has recently made some progress, especially in politics, encouraging for women all over the continent.

Four women have risen to high office in South America over the last decade. When Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won the presidency in 2007, many commentators compared her career to that of Isabel Martínez de Perón, who in 1974 became the world’s first female president. Both were married to the preceding president: Cristina took over where husband Nestor Kirchner (2003-07) left off, and Isabel succeeded Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955 and 1973-74). But doubters have been silenced by Kirchner’s victory in last October’s elections — she is the first Latin American woman to be re-elected, with 54 per cent of the vote in the first round. And she is no longer referred to as “Cristina Kirchner” but by her maiden name “Cristina Fernández”.

In Chile Michelle Bachelet, an ex-political refugee and single mother of three, led her Socialist Party to power in the 2006 elections when divorce had only been legal for two years. In Brazil Dilma Rousseff, divorcee and a leftwing guerrilla activist during the 1960-70 dictatorship, won the presidency in October 2010. Earlier that year Costa Rica’s voters defied traditional machismo by electing the centre-left Laura Chinchilla.

Affirmative action has encouraged changes in mindset. Argentina led the way in 1991 with a law requiring that 30 per cent of political party candidates be women. Its parliament is among the most gender-progressive in the world, with women accounting for 38 per cent of legislators. Other countries in the region  — Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay — are fast catching up.

Will reform last?

Voters favor women such as Bachelet because they are perceived as less corrupt, says Maria de Los Angeles, director of the Fundación Chile 21, a thinktank based in Santiago. Having been excluded from power until recently, they have escaped association with embezzlement scandals — though this distinction was lost upon their arrival on the political scene. Gender parity did not survive Bachelet’s departure from politics: women made up 50 per cent of her first cabinet, but only 18 per cent of that selected by Sebastian Piñera, her Conservative successor.

Executive goodwill is not enough to change engrained attitudes. On her arrival to the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Rousseff announced her intention to raise the profile of women in the workplace, a call derided by the press which dismissed her government as a “stiletto republic”. The Brazilian president was only able to fill 24 per cent of ministerial posts with women, and 21 per cent of lower-level government and government enterprise posts. The ruling lulista coalition selects all political nominees; apart from the majority Workers Party (PT), headed by Rousseff, most parties do not support affirmative action. According to a report published by the Inter-American Development Bank, only 16 per cent of party president and secretary-general posts in Latin America in 2009 were filled by women, who also held 19 per cent of executive committee positions.

In Venezuela, women have been the most active in the participatory democracy structures instituted by President Hugo Chávez over the past decade. According to the sociologist Margarita López Maya of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, who was a candidate in the 2010 legislative elections for the centre-right opposition party Patria Para Todos: “Most middle-ranking government posts are filled by men. Women are less interested in political hustling and more focused on concrete issues.” The handful of women at the head of government agencies “are there because of their loyalty to the president, and to attract the feminine vote,” she explained.

The Issue of Choice

Women in power do not automatically back women’s rights, as Maria Flórez-Estrada Pimentel, a sociologist at the University of Costa Rica, pointed out: “They upset the traditional social order, but that doesn’t mean that they take a progressive stance. In Central America, female presidents have been — and continue to be — very conservative on economic and social issues, including those affecting women directly, such as the right to abortion.” Aside from Cuba and Mexico City, which have legalized the voluntary termination of pregnancy, abortion remains taboo throughout the region, except in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger.

Feminist activists in Brazil were surprised at the fierceness over the subject during the 2010 presidential campaign, with videos of dead foetuses posted on the internet, showcasing evangelical pastors who called on the public to vote against Rousseff, who had expressed her support for decriminalizing abortion. Her opponent in the elections, José Serra, spotted an opportunity to exploit public opinion to his advantage, despite his reputation for socially progressive views. He began campaigning, Bible in hand, while his wife visited working-class neighborhoods, vilifying those who would “murder our children”. Rousseff gave in under the pressure and signed a letter stating she would not sponsor a bill to legalise voluntary abortions if elected.

Backroom abortions are rife (around 800,000 a year in Brazil alone) often with tragic consequences: around 250,000 women suffer from infection or a ruptured uterus, while the mortality rate is 65 women for every 100,000 pregnancies, making unsafe abortions a public health issue. “I think our chances of making progress in this debate were better 20 years ago than they are now,” said Maria Luiza Heilborn, a researcher at the Latin American Centre on Sexuality and Human Rights at Rio de Janeiro State University.

By forcing a written concession from Rousseff, the churches have ensured that the decriminalization of abortion is off the legislative agenda. Religious parties have doubled their share of the legislature to 63 in the last elections, and plan to submit up to 30 bills to Congress to curtail existing forms of legal abortion, to the point of making it illegal under any circumstances, even in cases of rape or where the mother’s life is in danger. Heilborn says that, although these laws have no hope of being passed, they will “block all progressive debate on the issue”. The difficulty is that conservatives have adopted sophisticated arguments, portraying themselves as “foetus-rescuers” and protectors of human rights, rather than falling back on the old polemics of family sanctity and moral values.

“ It’s terribly hypocritical,” said Heilborn. “Abortions are readily available — to those who can afford it. Private clinics don’t make any effort to conceal their activities; they even enjoy the protection of corrupt policemen.” According to a study by the University of Brasilia in 2010, one in five Brazilian women has had an abortion. “Despite the reality on the ground, the right to voluntary abortion does not figure on most people’s list of top priorities. Even those women who have resorted to it say they oppose it, and that their experience was an exception,” said Maria José Rosado, founder of the Catholics for the Right to Decide group.

Nicaragua has been the one country to take a retrograde step. In 2006 the Catholic leadership reached an agreement with Daniel Ortega, then seeking support for his presidential bid. Immediately after his victory that year, Ortega modified the legislation which had allowed rape victims to terminate a pregnancy, making abortion illegal under any circumstances. “This proves that the debate has nothing to do with leftwing or rightwing views,” said Heilborn. In Colombia, when the government was headed by the ultraconservative Alvaro Uribe (president 2002-10), the Constitutional Court moved in the opposite direction, by extending the right to abortion to include cases involving possible risk to the mother’s health (a definition broad enough to cover psychological, as well as bio-medical concerns).

Venezuela is unlikely to decriminalize abortion soon, despite the tabling of many bills since Chávez came to power. Religious groups and the military are opposed, as is the president, who said in 2008: “Other countries allow abortion; as for me, call me old-fashioned but I don’t believe in ending pregnancy. If a child is born with a problem, it needs to be loved.” The debate on abortion is raging in the country, due to many unwanted pregnancies among the young. According to the Venezuelan Society for Childcare and Paediatrics, 20 per cent of all children born in Venezuela in 2009 were born to girls between 10 and 18.

In Uruguay the centre-left president Tabaré Vásquez (2005-10) vetoed a bill approved by Congress to legalize the voluntary termination of pregnancy. The Senate took up the issue again last November; this time, the measure is likely to pass. Polls show it is supported by 63 per cent of the population, and the new president, José Mujica, has said he will not oppose it.

The issue of abortion is receiving wider attention in Ecuador, Bolivia and even Argentina, where 500,000 illegal abortions take place every year. Despite Fernández’s personal stance — against — a legislative commission reopened the debate last November, while discussions around a bill aiming to loosen the conditions for voluntary termination are planned. Mario Pecheny, a sociologist, sees the July 2010 vote by Congress in favour of gay marriage as an encouraging sign.

Anxiety about violence

Latin American women’s greatest concern is still violence. Pimentel notes that there has been “an explosion” in murders of women in Central America and Mexico, where women are killed “just because they are women”. El Salvador holds the record: 13.9 women killed for every 100,000 inhabitants. The rate is 9.8/100,000 in Guatemala; and it tripled between 2005 and 2009 to reach 11.1/100,000 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua (which includes Ciudad Juárez, renowned for its systematic killings of women in the past 20 years), Baja California and Guerrero. The increase has been a result of the confrontation between states and drug dealers. As Patsilí Toledo, a legal expert at the University of Chile, said: “Violence associated with the ‘war on drug trafficking’ and organized crime — including state corruption — in some countries has specific consequences for women. Just as in war, cruelly raping women is symbolic: it creates cohesion within armed groups, reaffirms ‘masculinity’ and is a form of attacking ‘the enemy’s morale’”.

In Mexico the number of women jailed for federal crimes — mostly drug trafficking — has risen by 400 per cent since 2007. The drug barons have begun diversifying their sources of income through prostitution rings and sex trafficking. The International Organization for Migration reports that thousands of women and girls are kidnapped every year to fund an industry worth about $16bn in Latin America alone.

Heilborn feels that the feminist movement has grown in popularity, and that it is “present across all layers of society”, even if it is not as prominent as the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender) movement. Rosado points out that the poorest women are the biggest beneficiaries of social welfare policies. The conditional cash transfers handed out by Brazil’s Bolsa Família program, which currently serves nearly 13 million households, are for preference paid out to women. The same principle applies to the government’s new social housing program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (my house, my life), where every effort is made to register the property in a woman’s name. As Rebecca Tavares, regional program director at the UN’s Development Fund for Women, says, the scheme empowers women and benefits the family, as women prioritize the health and nourishment of their children.

A massive influx of women has changed the labor market. The World Bank estimates that 70 million women have joined the workforce in Latin America since 1980, raising their share of labor from 35 per cent to 53 per cent in 2007. This increase is mostly in the services industry. The informal sector also has a large role; in Bolivia, it accounts for 71 per cent of working women, 54 per cent of men. “Women were seen to be coping well with the severe economic crises during the 1990s — often better than men. This has reinforced their self-confidence and legitimacy in the eyes of society,” said Pecheny.

Women are challenging the macho culture but are finding it hard to juggle work and (unpaid) commitments, such as caring for children, the aged and the handicapped. This appears to be reflected in the abrupt drop in fertility rates. The hard work and high costs involved in maintaining a family — education and health services are largely privatized — mean women limit themselves to one or two children, and sometimes have none. This trend applies to all women, whether in the favelas or the posh suburbs. Uruguay, Costa Rica, Chile and Cuba are all experiencing population aging, which national financial planning is ignoring. “Women are more independent now, they want to study, travel and participate in the economy. They don’t see why they should exclusively look after everybody else,” said Pimentel. “Capitalism is facing a major social problem: the sexual division of labor has changed.” She feared, though, that neither the state nor private enterprise is investing enough in a new infrastructure designed for this new reality.

LAMIA OUALALOU is a journalist.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.