Chileans are choosing between a former president who aims to increase accessibility to higher education and a right wing politician wanting to keep taxes low are the candidates in the December 2013 presidential election. What is secondary, but notable, about these candidates is that both are also women.
The Chilean election is indicative of a larger trend in Latin America and the Caribbean of the ascension of female political leaders.
Eight of roughly 29 female presidents worldwide since the 1970s have headed countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with half elected in the last eight years.
Quotas for women in government explain part of this progress. Argentina pioneered the quota system in the early 1990s with a law requiring that 30 percent of legislative candidates be women. As of 2006, 50 countries have adopted the quota system, including many in Latin America.
In North and South America, with the noteworthy exception of the United States, women are being elected to the highest offices of government.
In Latin America’s largest nation of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was elected president in 2010 and will run again in 2014. She previously held the position of energy minister and was ranked #20 in Forbes’ Most Powerful People list in 2013 and second on its list of Most Powerful Women.
Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is serving her second term as the country’s first elected female president, and Laura Chinchilla is Costa Rica’s first female president.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller is the island nation’s first female Prime Minister and has fought for full rights for LGBT Jamaicans. Time Magazine put her on the 100 World’s Most Influential People List in 2012, and U.S. Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke has said that Simpson-Miller is “inspiring a new generation of women, particularly from the Caribbean diaspora, to get involved in public service and make a difference.”
Also in the Caribbean region is Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Trinidad and Tobago’s first female Prime Minister.
According to polls, a substantial shift is taking place in the minds of people in Latin America. Roughly 80 percent of people in the region now believe that women should participate in politics. That figure contrasts sharply to the 30% who believed this in the 1990s.
Progress for women in some parts of Latin American politics has been relatively recent, with El Salvador allowing women to run for office only since 1961 and Paraguay’s constitution giving women the right to vote that same year.
Despite women rising to the highest levels of government, participation in parliaments is still low even in countries with female heads of state.
Latin America nonetheless boasts the second highest average number of women in the lower houses of congress with 24 percent, only less than Scandinavian and Nordic countries, which both have 42 percent.
Rwanda is the only country in the world where more women than men serve in the lower house of parliament, with Andorra coming in second at 50 percent. In Latin America, Nicaragua has the highest number of female politicians in the lower house at 40 percent.
While these numbers are promising, no country in the region has therefore achieved gender parity, and experts worry that progress for women in government could be reversed. Ingrained sexism, income gaps between the sexes and male dominance in corporations still persist.
In Chile, the income gap between men and women has gotten greater in recent years, with men earning $1,172 per month compared to women’s $811.
Each region and country in the world struggles to bring about political, social, and economic equality of the sexes, but Farida Jalalzai, a gender politics scholar at the University of Missouri-St. Louis asserts, “Latin America is really ahead of the pack. This is interesting because it had seemed to stall by the early 2000s, but no more.”
– Kaylie Cordingley