The Post 2015 Agenda and Women’s Participation in Politics in Latin America: The Path Travelled and New Challenges

Text drafted by the UNITAS Urban Programme for the Social Watch Report.

In the year 2000 the nations of the world set themselves the goal of promoting gender equality and women’s autonomy.  The indicators to measure a country’s progress towards this objective are the proportion of girls and boys in primary, secondary and higher education; the proportion of women in paid employment (excluding the agriculture sector); and the proportion of seats that women occupy in national parliaments.

The last United Nations report (2013) on progress towards the MDGs shows that globally gender parity has almost been achieved in primary education but that only 2 of 130 countries have reached this goal in all three levels of education. It also shows that women are employed in some 40% of paid jobs (excluding agriculture), but their work tends to be badly paid and they have scant social protection.

This slight progress in the areas of education and employment is correlated with persistent inequality in decision making in the home, in the public sector and at the top levels of government, which means women do not participate in a real or effective way in the decisions that affect their lives.

The present overview is based on the experience in some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, which in some international reports is considered the region that has advanced most in closing the gender gap. It examines some of the factors that have fostered the increasing presence of women in representative spaces, and also analyzes some recurring obstacles that are preventing this presence, which is very often merely formal or functional, from translating into real effective participation. These obstacles are bound up with the persistence of discrimination mechanisms and structural violence against women, and for this reason the post 2015 new global agenda will have to go far beyond the modest and abstract indicators defined in the MDGs.

From quotas to parity: struggles and new challenges

According to the United Nations report, at the end of 2013 the mean proportion of women in parliaments in the world was just over 20%, a figure that in no way reflects the real proportion of women in countries’ populations. The use of a quantitative indicator as abstract as the increase in the number of women in parliament may be hampering their further progress in this and in other decision making spaces in the State and private spheres, and contributes very little to the struggle for equality. In some countries this concept has been used to set minimal targets, but these have gradually become established as a maximum level to be reached and thus amount to a new glass ceiling restricting women’s participation.

In the period 2000 to 2013, the regions that progressed most as regards the proportion of seats occupied by women in national parliaments (in the lower chamber or in single-chamber systems) were Northern Africa with an increase from 3% to 17%; South Asia with a rise of 11.5 points (from 7% to 18.5%); and the Caucasus and Central Asia region with an increase of 10.7 points (from 7% to 17.7%). In the same period, Latin America and the Caribbean came nearest to 30% representation with a rise in women’s participation of 9.5 points (from 15% al 24.5%). This puts the region ahead of the developed world, where the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women rose from 16% to 23.8%.

The United Nations admits that progress has been better in countries that established quota systems through legislation than where the proportion of women depended on voluntary decisions by political parties, and was much worse in countries that had no quota policy.

Since 1991, Latin America and the Caribbean countries have implemented affirmative measures in the gender area known as quota laws, which are designed to foster greater equality in the distribution of elective and representative positions. Since that year, fourteen countries in the region enacted these kinds of laws to promote greater women’s participation in legislative bodies.  

This trend makes it clear that the progress achieved has not been the result of countries implementing the abstract indicator defined in the context of the MDGs but has been mainly due to the efforts of women’s movements to have regulatory frameworks set up that are geared to promoting equity in political representation through quota systems.

The results of these laws have rarely come up to expectations and their effectiveness has been variable in different institutional and socio-cultural contexts and in different political climates, but they constituted the first step in the struggle to establish the demand for parity.   

However, only a few countries in Latin America have implemented regulations geared to gender parity in politics. Venezuela was the first to do this; starting in 2005 the National Electoral Council passed a series of resolutions to this effect, and these were reiterated in successive elections at various levels. Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009) incorporated parity into their new Constitutions and electoral rules, and in 2009 Costa Rica enacted a new electoral code that established parity not only in the internal structure of political parties but on ballot papers.

In the light of experiences and progress in the region, it is evident that a new development framework is needed to achieve political equality between men and women. This should be much more precise and ambitious in the formulation of indicators, which would have to be geared to establishing parity in political representation and thus avoid falling into anachronism with respect to the women’s struggle in the region.

Parity in Bolivia: greater presence but little decision making power

In cases like that of Bolivia, quota and parity legislation have led to a significant increase in the presence of women in public office. After quotas were introduced, the proportion of women in the lower house increased from 3% in 1985 to 18% in 2002, and then with parity measures it climbed to 23% after the 2009 elections. In the upper house (the Senate) women’s participation went from 0% in 1985 to 15% in 2002, and then to 47% in the 2009 elections thanks to the parity policy. The increase this policy has fostered can also be seen at other institutional decision making levels such as municipal councils (where the proportion of women is now 43%), department (province) councils (28%), the Judicial Body (43%), the Supreme Electoral Court (43%), and the cabinet of ministers (35%). However, the proportion of women is still very low in the main executive positions in the country like department governors (0%), mayors (7%) and the presidency and vice presidency of the nation (0%).   

Bolivia is considered an emblematic country for its legislation to promote equality but even though women’s share of public positions has increased greatly, full parity has not been achieved and the same problems as when the quota laws were first introduced still persist. These difficulties are linked to the prevailing electoral system and how it is applied with respect to uninominal parliamentary positions or constituencies, and in particular to the political parties’ reticence and their manoeuvres to evade the requirements of parity legislation. In the last analysis this resistance is based on discriminatory social norms that underlie candidate selection procedures and guide voters  to support male candidates, especially  as regards the main executive positions.

In various political systems or regimes in Latin America, there are certain characteristics of the culture like presidentialism, caudillismo (the big boss culture), cronyism and party heritage that work against the effectiveness (real decision making power) of women acceding to greater representation (with the help of quotas and parity). These features usually coincide with vertical decision making practices in which the presence of women is not only merely symbolic as they are subordinate to male leadership but is also used as a resource to legitimise male dominance. In other instances, women with patriarchal and authoritarian ways of exercising power are assigned to decision making spaces.

To remedy this, the indicators in the new development framework should not merely aim at establishing parity as a quantitative horizon but also be geared to tackling the barriers that the political culture has raised against women’s effective participation (not their mere symbolic presence). This should include far reaching reforms in the sphere of political institutions, political culture and in how power is exercised.

Political harassment: an old mechanism, a new arena of struggle

There is nothing new about the phenomenon of political harassment; it is and has been a recurring manifestation of the structural violence against women that restricts their participation in the public sphere. It has come more and more to the surface in countries in the region in recent years as more women, aided by quotas and parity policies, have been moving into public representative spaces. Political harassment can be defined as a collection of acts of pressure, persecution, harrying or threats committed against women or their families with the aim of reducing, suspending, impeding or restricting the functions inherent in their position, or inducing or forcing them against their will to act or refrain from acting in the discharge of their functions or exercise or their rights.  

Some countries like Costa Rica and Peru are discussing measures to tackle this problem but Bolivia is the only country in the region that has promulgated a specific law against political violence and harassment (Law 243 of May 2012). This legislation came about thanks to the efforts of the Association of Councillors of Bolivia (ACOBOL) and other civil society organizations. The law establishes a range of legal or administrative procedures to process and punish offenders, depending on the acts committed, and thus makes harassment and political violence new legal offences. However, two years after the law came into force and even after two female councillors were killed apparently for reporting acts of corruption in their municipalities, only one case has been resolved out of the 154 that were reported in 2013.  

This law is weak insofar as it does not provide mechanisms to protect the person who reports cases of harassment and/or political violence, and because it lacks legal dispositions to provide rapid effective access to justice. Another problem was that it has been necessary to establish that the reports through administrative channels in public or private institutions could be replaced by processes through legal channels in cases where this was appropriate. Furthermore, the law requires greater conceptual precision so as to be able to cover women in the sphere of social, union and neighbourhood organizations, and in institutions including those of indigenous peoples, original peoples and peasants.

This aspect is particularly important where there are dense social networks like in various Latin American countries because these social organizations have great power and capacity to mobilize, and this has become a fundamental condition to be able to exert influence in the political system. Social mobilization operating above and very often in spite of representation in political parties has become a relatively stable characteristic of the political culture and ways of understand and live “democracy” in the region.

These social organizations are spaces where social demands can be aggregated and from which people can make the transition into public and political life. However, although they are considered spaces for integration and personal realization, and are second only to the family as the main contexts of socialization and political training, they are also where women have their first experiences of harassment and political violence. In these organizations, discrimination is perpetuated and “socialized” in function of social representations of the ideal of “man” and “woman”, which are accepted images that have hardly been questioned in the rural or the urban context.

In these social organizations there are barriers that block women’s access and prevent them rising to decision making spaces. Because of sexist prejudices women are relegated to secondary functions, which distances them from decision making and can even cut short their careers in positions of responsibility and their subsequent participation in State systems.

In the light of this experience it is evident that a new global framework for equity in participation should establish clear indicators that register rules and policies that forestall and punish acts of violence and political harassment against women in the public realm in its widest definition, and that should cover not only spaces of State representation but also civil society and grassroots organizations.

Conclusion: parity not only with regulations but also to transform the political culture

The experience of the women’s struggle and their achievements in Latin America, along with the new challenges that are emerging in this field, show that the new global framework for development with equity and equality should be geared to today’s realities and the needs inherent in the current context.

To be coherent with these processes, there will have to be new indicators that are more demanding and specific, and are not just geared to the promulgation of legal regulations in pursuit of parity but also to transforming discriminatory social norms, notions, and the practices of the caudillo-related and conservative political culture, which are closely connected to patriarchal conduct.

In the context of countries’ plans, the indicators should include for example the amount of resources and the weight of institutional dispositions aimed at ensuring effective implementation of the regulations, and should also cover education and training for participation and the prevention of violence against women in all its forms and in all spaces.  

As long as women are kept away from decision making about aspects that are vitally important in their lives, and as long as their presence is merely symbolic and they are assimilated into the patriarchal mind-set or hounded with political harassment, decision making structures and policies that are insufficient or distant from their needs will continue to prevail. If the current decision making system does not take account of women’s socio-cultural contexts or particular vision of the world and the exercise of power,  it will have  a cyclical negative influence on other aspects of life such as health, education and working conditions, which are aspects the MDGs were designed to resolve by 2015.


Millennium Development Goals, 2013 Report. United Nations. Available at: Date of consultation: 25/05/2014

Latin America is closing the gender gap. News Release. The Global Gender Gap Report 2013 World Economic Forum, 25 October 2013. Available at: Date of consultation: 02/06/2014.

Millennium Development Goals, 2013 Report. United Nations. Available at: Date of consultation: 25/05/2014

  Nélida Archenti and María Inés Tula, ¿LAS MUJERES AL PODER? CUOTAS Y PARIDAD DE GÉNERO EN AMÉRICA LATINA. Seminario de Investigación #9: 22 February 2013. Instituto de Iberoamérica, University of Salamanca.

  ECLAC. The policy of parity and alternation in the electoral law of Costa Rica. Un avance en la garantía de la autonomía en la toma de decisiones de las mujeres. Observatorio de Igualdad de Género de América Latina y el Caribe. October 2012. Web site: Date of consultation: 01/06/014.

In 1997 the Bolivian Electoral College set a quota of 30% for the closed lists in parliamentary elections, and in 1999 this rule was applied in municipal elections. In 2001 a new regulation fixed quotas for the election of senators, deputies (in the lower house) and councillors. The Political Parties Law of 1999 made it compulsory to have at least 30% women at all levels of the organizations’ regional and functional administration, and the Citizens’ Collectives and Indigenous People’s Law of 2004 made it compulsory for 50% of candidates on each party list to be women and for the names going down the list to alternate by gender. ECLAC. La política de paridad y alternancia de género en los órganos de elección del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia y en las instancias políticas intermedias: un avance en la garantía de la autonomía en la toma de decisiones de las mujeres. Observatorio de Igualdad de Género de América Latina y el Caribe. April 2013. Web site: Date of consultation: 01/06/014.

Synthesis of data about current gender proportions in authorities in the executive, legislative, judicial and electoral bodies in Bolivia. Observatorio de Género. Coordinadora de la Mujer. Available at: Date of consultation: 02/03/2014.

One of these modalities applied in Bolivia has been the so-called “shared management”, which is based on the parties’ engaging in illegal agreements whereby management time is divided between the position holder and a deputy. Very often this mechanism affects women more than men.

Machicao Barbery, Ximena. “Participación Política de las Mujeres: Acoso y Violencia Política”. Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe. Quito, 25 February 2011.  Available at: Date of consultation: 03/06/2014.

Definition taken from “Fundamentación Técnica de la Propuesta de Reglamentación de la Ley Contra el Acoso y la Violencia Política a las Mujeres.” Mesa de Participación de las Mujeres, Bolivia, 2014 (unpublished document).