With the possible participation of three high-profile women candidates in Brazil's 2010 presidential elections, the irruption of gender issues in the campaign in Latin America's largest democracy seems inevitable.

This unprecedented scenario will be a great opportunity for gender advocates to further key issues, including greater participation of women in politics and a platform that guarantees women's rights. 

While they have not yet been officially proclaimed as candidates, their parties are already fielding them as potential contenders, and they're starting to show up with considerable support in voting intention polls. 

The first likely candidate is Dilma Rousseff, of the governing Workers' Party (PT), who has been chosen by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to succeed him, as he cannot run for a third consecutive term. 

A second strong candidate is Marina Silva, a prominent ecological activist and former PT environment minister who resigned her post in May 2009 over discrepancies with Lula's infrastructure plans for the Amazon jungle. Silva later formally quit the PT, after 30 years of active involvement, and joined the Green Party (PV). 

A third possible, but less likely candidate is Heloísa Helena Lima de Moraes, of the Socialism and Freedom Party (P-SOL), a PT breakaway. But her run for the presidency is doubtful as she may decide to stand for senator again. 

In Brazil, these women are known simply as Dilma, Marina and Heloísa Helena. 

That makes three "competitive" women who are vying for a spot in the race towards the October 2010 general elections, sociologist Fátima Jordão, director of the data studies division at the Sao Paulo-based television network TV Cultura, told IPS. 

Jordão recalled that Brazil has had female candidates in the past, but not competitive politicians like these three women, who belong to strong parties, deliver a consistent message, and have financial support and a chance of winning. 

The polls show the three potential presidential hopefuls as having between five and 20 percent of voting intention - significant support, but still far behind José Serra, the candidate of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), who is currently leading the polls with 40 percent. 

"There have never been so many voters willing to vote for women," said Jordão. 

A survey led in February by the polling company Ibope found that nine out of 10 Brazilians would vote for a woman candidate, and that 83 percent believe that women's involvement improves politics.

"There are no obstacles or negative attitudes standing in the way of a woman being elected president," Ricardo Guedes, head of the Sensus polling firm, told IPS. 

This trend was first measured in 2007 by Sensus through a survey on various social biases, which found that 57.4 percent of respondents would vote for a woman presidential candidate while another 29.3 percent would vote for one "depending on who the woman was." 

According to Jordão, this is a novel scenario that will inevitably bring gender issues into the forefront as the campaign moves forward and gender-related references, styles and images are increasingly used. 

Dilma, Lula's chief of staff, has already given some signals in that direction, Jordão said, referring to how she recently shook off criticism from detractors who frowned on her constant presence in public works inaugurations. 

The cabinet chief compared herself to a cook who proudly shows off her dishes. "Why not show your works - a hydroelectric plant, for example - when they're completed?" she asked, arguing that they only criticised her appearances at such events because she is a woman. 

For Jordão, this is a symbolic reference to gender, because it evokes the traditional image of the invisible woman labouring away in the kitchen, out of sight, and challenges it by posing the question "why can men do it and women can't?" 

Political scientist Patricia Rangel views the existence of various female candidates as "extremely positive" both for its symbolic value and because of the possibilities that a woman president would offer in terms of advancing women's rights. 

In symbolic terms, a female presidential candidate "represents a shift in political paradigm and contributes to the process of acknowledging women as political actors." 

According to Rangel, with the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA), "patriarchal society reproduces the idea that politics is men's business," and female candidates are a positive development when they "challenge the stereotypes and roles assigned to women." 

Brazil was one of the first countries in Latin America to grant women the right to vote, but it has one of the lowest levels of female representation in public office, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the international organisation of parliaments. 

In February 2009, just under 20 percent of legislators around the world were women. In Brazil, a country of more than 190 million inhabitants, the proportion of women holding seats in Congress was much lower than the global average, with only nine percent in the chamber of deputies, and 12.3 percent in the senate. 

These figures put the South American giant at 107th in IPU's global ranking of 187 countries, compiled with information provided by national parliaments as of September 2009. 

October 2009 data from CFEMEA reveals that there are only three women governors in the country's 27 states and 504 women mayors in 5,555 municipalities. 

For Rangel, there are several factors leading to fewer women participating in politics, including their being forced to put their responsibilities as mothers and wives ahead of any political activism, the insults and provocations women holding political office commonly suffer, and the unreasonably high expectations placed on women politicians as compared to their male counterparts. 

"Women always have to prove they're more capable than men to be accepted, and when they access high posts, much more is demanded from them," she said. 

Brazil's iron lady or the Amazon flower 

The current level of participation earned by women in the worlds of labour and politics in Brazil is the result of great strides made by women over a number of years, but stereotypes continue to shape popular beliefs. 

Nevertheless, according to the Ibope survey, the stereotypes are not just negative, as 74 percent of respondents said that greater participation by women in politics would bring more honesty, greater commitment to constituencies, and enhanced administrative capacity. 

Rangel identified two basic stereotypes into which women politicians are pigeonholed. 

One is the "sweet woman" stereotype, which portrays female politicians as a feminine island within masculine politics, thus perpetuating their traditional role; and the other is the "iron woman" stereotype, which depicts women in politics as eschewing a "proper feminine" style, at the risk of being stigmatised as "masculinised." 

If they adopt a "feminine" style in politics, women risk sacrificing their authority, and conversely if they choose a more "masculine" attitude they expose themselves to social disapproval, Rangel said. 

Today's potential presidential candidates have opted for the second choice, "conquering authority at the cost of garnering social disapproval." 

"Who hasn't heard that Dilma is no sweetheart, or that Marina is ugly and grim, as if those were relevant features for a career in politics?", she asked. 

Upon examining this unprecedented convergence of possible women candidates, experts concurred that it does not stem from a desire to benefit from the "positive stereotypes" of women in politics. 

Jordão said that more pragmatic factors are at play, such as Dilma's chances - as Lula's right-hand woman - of continuing along the same lines as an administration that has a high level of approval. 

Rangel stressed that because of their work as cabinet members, both Marina and Dilma escaped the government niche that women politicians in Brazil have traditionally been trapped in, which ties women to domestic and care-related matters, by assigning them to positions in fields such as education or social welfare. 

In Dilma's case, the fact that Lula himself perceives and projects her as an "executive" is also decisive, Guedes said. As for her ranking in the polls, which show her as "bordering voters' rejection," Guedes put it down in particular to her lack of "political empathy" and "charisma." 

Being a woman is not enough 

They may be symbols of a new political paradigm, but whether sweet as flowers or tough as nails, the presence of women candidates is not enough, according to the women's movement. 

In Jordão's view, support for a female candidate will depend on how committed they are to certain key issues, such as the decriminalisation of abortion, the promotion of reproductive rights, and policies to combat violence against women. 

Rangel does not believe that "more women in power will automatically translate into more rights for all women." 

She pointed out that the women's movement believes that "it's not enough to elect more women, that what are needed are gender-aware women, that is, women with a clear awareness of their gender's situation of marginalisation and inequality." 

In any case, women candidates open the presidential campaign up to the discussion of gender issues, such as work and retirement, maternity and paternity leave, labour stability, the eradication of violence, and reproductive health. 

Whether the women candidates will "use or abuse" this gender agenda remains to be seen. Rangel doesn't see a clear gender message yet in the potential women candidates, who in some cases - like Marina's opposition to abortion for religious reasons - even "prefer to avoid these issues."