Quietly and against the odds, women are stepping up the political ladder in Latin America, moving ahead of the United States when it comes to political empowerment and closely matching much of Western Europe.
The Latin America-Caribbean region, once a caldron of machismo and gender inequality, has jumped ahead on women's advancement with more female heads of state and heads of government — five — than any other area globally and a higher percentage of female members of parliament (22.5 percent) than any region except Nordic Europe, according to the 2012 Women in Politics survey of the agency U.N. Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Female leaders are no novelty in the region. But now, at the same time, there are Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, both first-time presidents; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, in her second term; and Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago and Portia Simpson-Miller of Jamaica, the first female prime ministers of their island nations. And in Mexico this election season, Josefina Vázquez Mota, an economist, is the first woman to run for president under a major-party banner.
Perhaps Cuba is a bigger surprise. The U.N. Women study ranks the island No. 3 in the world in the percentage of women in the legislature (the United States ranks No. 78). Cuba is also among the 30 countries, including Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador and Guyana, where women make up 30 percent or more of their legislatures (unicameral parliaments or lower houses). Cuban women make up 41 percent of the Communist Party and 45.2 percent of the National Assembly.
“What fostered change was a political commitment that incorporated women's rights into the broader Cuban revolution, and investments in literacy and public health that produced significant improvements for women after 1959,” said Sarah Stephens, the director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas , a research and advocacy group that opposes the U.S. embargo of Cuba and proposes new policies intended to foster normal relations.
“The status of Cuban women over the last 50 years has seen some pretty big changes,” Ms. Stephens, whose center is working on a report on women in Cuba, said by e-mail.
In other countries, electoral quotas to increase or guarantee women's participation in politics are credited for much of the forward movement. “We have seen that temporary special measures — quotas — are helping women,” Begoña Lasagabaster, a U.N. Women political adviser, said in her office in New York.
Ms. Lasagabaster, a Basque lawyer who served in the Spanish Parliament from 1996 to 2008, said: “When you have a good electoral system that includes well-designed and well-implemented temporary special measures, we have seen the number of women in parliament increasing.”
Fourteen countries in Latin America have quotas — Cuba does not. Argentina was something of a trailblazer, the first country in the region to adopt quotas, in 1991. Citing surveys and studies, Ms. Lasagabaster attributed women's gains to several trends: democratization, post-conflict systems, the role of money and the influence of religion.
“I am not sure how to explain Cuba,” she added. It may be the post-conflict trend — “women and men who have fought together,” as Cubans did in the revolution 50 years ago, “tend to maintain their positions,” their political stature.
“Ten of the top 30 countries in the U.N. Women study are post-conflict countries,” she noted, mentioning Rwanda, Angola, Uganda and Burundi. “They included specific seats for women in parliaments.” Nicaragua, too, a high-ranking nation, might fall in that category. She pointed to the influence of money (women are not comfortable raising money for themselves, she says) and religion as obstacles to equality.
In a region where abortion is restricted almost everywhere, the issue of sexual reproduction rights, Ms. Lasagabaster said, is a lightning rod. “Look at Dilma,” she said, referring to Ms. Rousseff, who lost support in her presidential campaign when she was accused of favoring abortion.
And there is another barrier for women: the media.
“The problem with the media is its portrait of women,” she said. A published survey of recent elections in five Latin American countries identified a pattern of bias in media coverage of female candidates. According to the survey, “Unseeing Eyes: Media Coverage and Gender in Latin American Elections ,” published in 2011 by U.N. Women and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance , women face three obstacles: lack of access to financing; few opportunities to become widely known; and a culture that treats women as second-class citizens.
What is more, the media tend to define women by domestic roles — mother, wife, homemaker — and focus on physical appearance and clothing. In May 2010, the Dominican newspaper Hoy noted, for example: “The only lasting things are the images of beautiful women candidates.”
Still, “Latin America is doing well,” Ms. Lasagabaster said. “It's giving women a good level of education, and it's starting to have some social policies taking into account the situation of women at work.”
While it is often said that women have no interest in politics, studies of 18 Latin American countries show that though women make up only 19 percent of the leadership of political parties, they make up 52 percent of the membership. “Tell me that women are not interested in politics,” Ms. Lasagabaster said, laughing. “No way.”