Political participation is a fundamental democratic value that enables citizens to participate in decision-making processes and in the creation of policies that have a direct impact on them. Before the 1990s, women in Latin America could not enjoy this fundamental right, as they were completely marginalized, not only by the State but by society as a whole. Women did not enjoy the same opportunities as men and had minimal access to any participation. It was only in recent decades that women managed to increase their presence in both public and private spheres and to demand the institutionalization of their political, civil, economic, and social rights.
In 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, where the region took a historic and critical step towards advancing gender equality. The conference also set the beginning of a great effort to integrate women into the decision-making process. During the conference, Latin American countries adopted an action plan to overcome the obstacles to women’s participation, and as a result, the road was paved for the Regional Programme of Action for the Women of Latin America and the Caribbean, which focuses on analyzing policies that aim to stimulate the full participation of women in the development of their countries. Thus, women’s political involvement began to gain momentum and became part of the public agenda of the region’s governments, through multilateralism and the creation of concrete international agreements.
Since then, Latin America has made significant progress in its efforts to fully integrate women into the social, economic, and cultural spheres. Among these efforts, it is worth noting the impact of the implementation of quota systems in several countries of the region, which have naturally succeeded in increasing the number of women in leadership positions. Today, 17 countries in the region have some form of a gender quota system. However, many maintain a 30 percent gender quota. Only Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua have managed to regulate parity in their political system, increasing their quotas to 50% to achieve complete gender equality. Ecuador is a clear example of how the application of quotas increased women’s participation. In Ecuador, the percentage of women legislators rose from 3% to 17% only one electoral cycle after quotas were adopted in 2000.
There is no doubt that the adoption of quotas in the region symbolizes major progress for gender equality. However, to truly guarantee women’s equal participation in politics, we need laws and reforms that not only serve as benchmarks. They should also actively encourage women to take up leadership positions, and ensure that women do not encounter obstacles to participation, such as the hostility and violence that many women face when they try to participate in decision-making.
To achieve full gender equality States need to continue efforts to improve their under-representation in public bodies and the conditions for women to participate freely without being suppressed. The remarkable progress we have achieved to date should not be seen as a guarantee, and efforts must, therefore, be made to maintain and increase the progress of women’s political participation. There are still millions of women who continue to face obstacles to participation daily and who do not have access to meaningful opportunities to shape, affect, and engage in the political sphere. Women’s political participation in representative decision-making bodies in the region is a vital element for high-quality democracy. We must work together to promote and strengthen gender equality, women’s autonomy, and women’s empowerment through political participation.
Maria Fernanda Espinosa