Women on the Rise in (South) American Politics

On the heels of Laura Chinchilla’s victory in the Costa Rican presidential election and Evo Morales’s appointing women to half of his cabinet positions, the Christian Science Monitor has picked up on an interesting trend in South America, increased female participation in the halls of power. This is good news for a region that the Council of Women World Leaders pegged as 6th of 8 in its regional political empowerment listing (PDF, pg. 17).

Chinchilla, joining Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, will become the third female South American head of government.  This puts South America on par with Europe (Merkel, Kosor, and Sigurðardóttir).  Moreover, two women, Dilma Rousseff, chief of staff to term-limited Lula da Silva, and Marina Silva, a former environment minister, stand “more than an outside chance” of becoming the president of Brazil, which has the largest economy in the region.

South and Central America have also been showing progress down-ballot.   The most recent statistics show that, across the region, between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of women legislators increased 35 percent (from 14 to 19 percent). In the United States, women hold only 17 percent of Congressional seats. The world average sits around 18.6 percent. In South American appointed positions for women have like-wise increased, 150 percent from 2000 to 2006.

All of this begs the question, why?  Consensus, as represented in this Inter-American Development Bank and Inter-American Dialogue study (PDF), suggests quotas, primarily.  Quotas were brought to the table by NGOs at the UN’s landmark First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975 but really only became viable after the Fourth World Conference in Beijing in 1995.  Since then, quotas have spread across the Americas, with 15 nations (as of 2008) following Argentine’s strong example of setting a 30 percent requirement for candidates put forth by political parties. Not surprisingly, in all of those nations, political participation by women has increased.

If you count yourself among the number opposed to quotas, some have also pointed to other measures that governments can take, including decreasing advantages for incumbents (through campaign finance reform or straight-up term limits) and prioritizing women’s education and economic opportunity.  If you live in the U.S., calling for your government to finally ratify CEDAW wouldn’t be a bad show of support either.