When Michelle Bachelet takes office as president of Chile for the second time on Tuesday, the person who places the blue, white and red striped presidential sash round her neck will be Isabel Allende - the first woman in Chilean history to be leader of the senate.
One in four lawmakers in Latin America are women, a proportion second only to Europe, and a continent better known as the home of machismo is now leading the way in drawing more women into politics – enabling them gradually to push women’s, social and educational issues to the fore.
A key reason for the growth in the number of congresswomen and female senators in Latin America is the adoption of quotas for women in parliament by 16 of the region’s countries in recent years.
Some laws require candidate lists for local and legislative elections to include a minimum female representation of 30 percent, and in Costa Rica, the 2009 electoral law states that 50 percent of all candidates for public office must be women.
Recent elections using the quotas have had a marked effect on the makeup of national legislatures.
In Colombia, where parliamentary elections were held last weekend, 21 women were elected to the 102-seat Senate - up four percent from 2010. This follows a gender quota law passed in 2011 that requires 30 percent of candidates for all publicly elected offices to be women.
In Honduras, the number of women elected to Congress increased from 19.5 percent in 2009 to 25 percent after legislative elections in November 2013, and presidential and parliamentary elections later this year in Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Panama, where mandatory female quotas are also in place, will give women candidates a boost in those countries.
In Bolivia, a law passed in 2010 that requires candidate lists for both the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and the Senate, to have equal numbers of men and women, will be implemented during elections later this year.
UN Women, the U.N. women’s agency, says 30 percent is considered the ‘critical mass’ for women’s representation in parliament, yet fewer than one in five parliamentarians worldwide are women.
Rwanda stands out as the most striking exception, with women holding 56.3 percent of seats in the lower house, the highest proportion in the world, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2012.
TRADITIONAL ROLE A BARRIER
One of the biggest barriers to getting more women into politics is their traditional role as mothers and wives, and the need to juggle family and professional life, UN Women says.
Caring for children, the sick and the elderly still falls largely on women’s shoulders, and prevents more women from entering both politics and the workplace.
The other challenge is ensuring that gender quotas are put into practice.
In Brazil, for example, a 1997 law requires at least 30 percent of candidates for the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, to be women. Dilma Rousseff, the president, is a woman and is running for re-election this year, but women currently make up only 9 percent of the Chamber of Deputies and 16 percent of the Senate.
Critics of gender quotas say the quota system results in women being elected based on sex rather than merit and that reserving seats for women is undemocratic, and by definition discriminatory.
Whether or not quotas is the right way to tackle the widespread gender inequality in politics, what’s less controversial is that women do bring a different perspective to decision-making.
When there are more women in parliament, more laws on education, social and environmental issues tend to get passed, and gender issues, including laws to protect women against violence and guarantee their reproductive rights, are more likely to come to the fore and be approved.
That’s significant in Latin America, a region with high levels of domestic and sexual violence against women and impunity for crimes against women, in particular for femicide in Central America, defined as the murder of a girl or woman by a man because of her gender.
Now that the number of women in Latin America’s legislatures is on the rise, there’s a better chance that tackling these issues will become a priority on the political agenda.