Feature Article

Politics and parties: without equality, far from parity

Lima- Peru, 8 March 2010

Posted: 2010-03-08

IDEA and IDB

The new decade begins with the election of another woman president. Laura Chinchilla, candidate for the Partido Liberación Nacional, won the presidential race in Costa Rica with 46.8 percent of the vote. In Chile, meanwhile, Michelle Bachelet is ending her term with an approval rating of 83 percent. Their stories are no longer mere anecdotes, but are charting a new course for women in Latin American politics.

In 2009, Latin America also witnessed important regulatory changes in women’s rights to political participation. New constitutions and legislation in Ecuador and Bolivia include provisions for parity and alternation in public office. In Costa Rica, Electoral Code reforms established parity, not only for candidate slates, but also for the makeup of all internal party structures. Does this mean Latin America is on the threshold of the “decade of parity”? Is there consensus about the need for balance between the number of men and women in politics?

A look at the numbers shows Latin America is still far from that goal. Regionwide, women hold an average of 23 percent of ministerial posts and barely 20 percent of seats in both houses of Congress — 18 percent in Senates and 20 percent in lower houses/unicameral bodies. In the last round of legislative elections, through May 2009, the share of female candidates fielded by parties/coalitions was only 24 percent.

As the following table illustrates, progress remains uneven and limited to certain countries and positions. The outlook is even bleaker for indigenous and Afro-descendant women.

Women's political representation in Latin America
*Data from national government Web sites and/or national IDEA consultants
**Data from Inter-Parliamentary Union database, available at: www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
***Data based on a sample of 84 parties and political movements (2009). Source: GEPPAL.

Although in many countries women have made significant inroads in Congress, important positions remain off limits to them because of lack of support from parties. Women head only 20.5 percent of congressional committees or commissions. In addition, women represent a mere 11.5 percent of party caucus chiefs in the lower house/unicameral bodies of Congress and 6.6 percent in the region’s Senates.

Who decides in parties?

The lack of support for women leaders in political parties is related to the parties’ internal structures. Although women make up more than 50 percent of the membership of many parties, they are largely absent from top party posts. Only 19 percent of party executive committee members are women, and the proportion of women who serve as party presidents or secretary generals is even lower, at 15.8 percent. This is especially serious, because these organisations and their top leaders not only oversee the choice of candidates, government plans and public policies once they are in office, but in many cases they also choose legislative leaders. If parties do not become more democratic and open their doors to women, how will this under-represented half of the population, which has much to contribute to politics, become visible?

Women’s participation in internal party structures in Latin America

Women’s participation at different levels of parties in Latin America

For several years, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), through its Program for the Support of Women’s Leadership and Representation (PROLEAD), and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) have been promoting women’s leadership and gender equality in Latin America. Because of the urgent need for reliable data about women’s political participation in areas that have received little attention, in 2008 the two organisations launched a study of 95 political parties. The figures cited above have been drawn from this study. This information will soon be available through the online database “Gender and Political Parties in Latin America (GEPPAL),” which will be freely accessible to anyone interested in increasing and enhancing women’s political participation as a way of strengthening the region’s democracies.

For more information:

Kristen Sample, Chief of Mission for Andean Countries
International IDEA
Lima, Peru
Telephone: 511- 440-4092 – 440-4093
Email: k.sample@idea.int
Vivian Roza, Coordinator
Program for the Support of Women’s Leadership and Representation (PROLEAD)
Inter-American Development Bank
Washington, DC, USA
Telephone: 1-202-623-2571
Email: vivianro@iadb.org
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