After decades of colonialism and military coups, Latin America has made tremendous strides in ushering in democracy and economic reforms. But those gains have been imperiled by a global downturn in commodities, which had driven much of the recent economic growth in the region, and the current wave of protests raging in countries from Bolivia to Ecuador fueled by a deepening sense of inequality and mistrust of government.
The unrest has focused international attention on the fragility of Latin America’s economies and democratic institutions, even those once considered bedrocks of stability, such as Chile and Colombia (also see “Inequality, Corruption, Other Grievances Fuel Unrest Throughout Latin America” in the December 2019 issue).
But another important area of Latin American life is often overlooked: the progress — or lack thereof — of its women.
Many Latin American countries have a long history of male chauvinism, often called machismo, in which women are expected to take care of the home and be subservient to men. These patriarchal attitudes are still pervasive throughout the region and continue to hold millions of women back — preventing them from getting an education, joining the workforce, earning equal pay or holding top positions of power.
In recent years, governments across the region have adopted laws to increase the representation of women in politics, address gender-based violence and encourage more women to participate in the workforce. But women’s gains are under constant threat not only because of the general instability that has wracked the region — from poverty and drug trafficking to the growing gap between rich and poor — but also because of the unique challenges that women face, from domestic violence to shouldering the burden of child care.
In light of this climate of uncertainty, the Organization of Women of the Americas (OWA) — which is known for its fundraising work to support disadvantaged women and children in the Americas — hopes to educate the public on how gains made on issues affecting women are increasingly under threat.
On Nov. 18, OWA teamed up with the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) of the Organization of American States for the discussion “Women Diplomats in a Time of Uncertainty: A Conversation with Permanent Representatives to the Organization of American States.”
CIM Executive Secretary Alejandra Mora Mora said that women are often placed in “the least relevant roles” in the diplomatic arena, where their unique perspectives are excluded from key decision-making negotiations in areas such as security, peacekeeping and justice. This underrepresentation has a negative impact on policy development, particularly as it relates to issues that disproportionately affect women, including conflicts and natural disasters, climate change and poverty.
This inequality at the policy level often stems from deeply entrenched gender stereotypes. Luz Elena Baños Rivas, Mexico’s permanent representative to the OAS, said that “cultural disdain” for women is still prevalent in her country, where there is a persistent belief that women do not have the same intellectual rigor as men. Despite the adoption of gender quotas for legislative candidates in some countries, these political mechanisms often cannot override the power of culture in discouraging women from running for office.
Lou-Anne Gaylene Gilchrist, the permanent representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, used a simple example to show how cultural biases can subtly seep into a professional setting and undermine a woman’s authority.
“When I refer to my male colleagues, I use ‘your excellency’ — not ‘dear’ or ‘querido,’” she said, referring to Spanish term for “darling.” “These terms may facilitate rapprochement, but they have no place in a professional environment.”
While these kinds of patriarchal biases can make life harder for working women, at their worst, they foster a culture of gender violence. In 2017, at least 2,795 women were murdered because of their gender in 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
These types of murders, known as femicide (the killing of a woman or girl on account of her gender, often at the hands of a man), are usually prosecuted as homicides. “This is a phenomenon that takes place in numerous Latin American countries and conveniently allows states to overlook the scale and gender component of the violence,” according to a 2015 report by the Inter-American Dialogue, which noted that more than half of the countries with the highest number of femicides are located in the Americas.
“In Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and even countries like Argentina, one woman every day is killed because of her gender,” said Johanna Godoy Baily, regional director for Latin America at Gallup, in a March 8, 2018, brief for the polling organization. “Studies in Brazil show that one in three women have experienced a violent episode in the past year. In general, a ‘machismo’ mindset is still very present in most of the countries in this region.”
And one of the deadliest countries in the world to be a woman is Honduras, where poverty, drug trafficking and gang violence have prompted tens of thousands to flee the country. “[A] 2015 survey ranked it in the top five [deadliest] countries, with El Salvador and Syria. According to official statistics, 380 Honduran women were murdered last year (slightly fewer than in recent years), in a country with roughly the population of New York City. But no one believes the government’s numbers. The number of women who have ‘disappeared’ continues to rise,” wrote Sonia Nazario in the April 25, 2019, report “Someone Is Always Trying to Kill You” for The New York Times.
“Unlike in much of the world, where most murdered women are killed by their husbands, partners or family members, half in Honduras are killed by drug cartels and gangs. And the ways they are being killed — shot in the vagina, cut to bits with their parts distributed among various public places, strangled in front of their children, skinned alive — have women running for the border,” Nazario wrote.
María Dolores Agüero Lara is Honduras’s first female ambassador to the United States. She joined her colleagues from Albania and Iceland for The Washington Diplomat’s latest Ambassador Insider Series (AIS) discussion, which looked at women in diplomacy.
At the Dec. 5 event held at 1331 Residences, Agüero acknowledged that Honduras has “a long way to go” in closing the gender gap.
“I come from Central America. Everybody knows that Latin America has the stereotype of machismo, but the region has progressed,” she said, noting that 40% of Honduran ministerial cabinet posts are filled by women — who are in charge of portfolios such as finance, trade and development, human rights and migration — while 58% of the staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are women.
As an anecdote, she recalled entering a U.N. negotiation in which the other nations’ teams consisted of mostly men, “who saw the table of Honduras with 80% of women. I was always very proud of that,” said Agüero, a former foreign minister whose own embassy is mostly staffed by women. “That example of commitment and results has definitely been inspiring to other women to get involved in decision-making.”
Indeed, Latin America has made significant progress at the governmental level. Some 19 countries across the region have adopted some form of legislative quotas for women, according to the World Bank. Four of these — Bolivia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico — are among the top 10 countries worldwide in female representation in national parliaments. And in recent years, Latin America has elected more female presidents than any other part of the world. But these gains have not always trickled down to the masses.
While polling women in the region for Gallup, Godoy Baily recalled instances when “we had to finish the interview suddenly because the man of the household would not allow his wife or girlfriend to be interviewed. We have had to interrupt interviews because the man of the household arrived after drinking alcohol and turned verbally violent toward the women in the house, and even toward the interviewers.”
Agüero acknowledged that gender violence is still an enormous problem in Honduras but said that her government is working to tackle the issue by, among other things, incorporating femicide into the criminal code. She also noted that Honduras is one of only five Latin American countries to join the U.N. Spotlight Initiative to Eliminate Violence against Women and Girls and that her government has adopted various local programs such as those designed to boost women’s access to heath care.
“With small initiatives, you change definitely attitudes,” she said.
But Agüero believes that changing attitudes starts at home. “In my personal experience, family makes a big difference,” she said, noting that her parents encouraged her and her sister to pursue an education and prioritize their career goals. “So policymaking is important. We are committed to that. But a lot has to do with changing attitudes in the society.”
Martha Bárcena Coqui, Mexico’s first female ambassador to the U.S., told us that one powerful change that has helped drastically improve women’s rights is simply being able to talk about women’s rights.
“It is no secret that women around the world, including notable thinkers, have historically faced a series of structural obstacles that are now identified and discussed publicly. This has allowed societies around the world to understand the value of concepts such as feminism, gender equality or women’s empowerment, even when they were rarely discussed or even acknowledged more than 30 years ago when I started my diplomatic career in Mexico,” she said in our April 2019 article “Female Ambassadors to U.S. Make Strides, Although Progress Uneven.”
At the OAS panel, Baños Rivas pointed to positive steps Mexico has taken, such as its recent commitment to developing a feminist foreign policy. Recently championed by only three other countries — Sweden, Canada and France — the idea of a “feminist foreign policy” has differed across various contexts, but it is generally rooted in gender mainstreaming and advancing equality through policies such as Sweden’s “three Rs” — rights, resources and representation.
Other milestones include the election of Mexico City’s first female mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, a major victory in a long history of feminist advocacy in the country.
Mexico City, in fact, is among just three places in Latin America — along with Cuba and Uruguay — where women can undergo abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy regardless of circumstances.
That gets to another major hurdle for women: the lack of reproductive rights in many Latin countries, where Catholicism and conservatism play a strong role in dictating health care policies. The region is home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. As a result, thousands of women die each year from illegal abortions, which also force 1 million women to seek hospital treatment each year. Some women even been subjected to lengthy jail sentences by governments such as El Salvador and Nicaragua that have criminalized abortion (even in cases of rape or where the mother’s life is in danger). In one particularly egregious case that drew international attention, Paraguay denied an an abortion to a 10-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather because authorities said the girl seemed healthy.
In addition to conservative religious beliefs, abortion rights advocates in Latin America face another obstacle: the resurgence of a conservative, populist brand of politics, as exemplified by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, dubbed the Trump of the tropics.
Even in a country as patriarchal as Brazil, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has stood out for its vitriolic attacks against gay people, indigenous communities and women. Bolsonaro has said he wouldn’t rape a congresswoman because she was “ugly” and, in an interview on International Women’s Day, the former military officer said he opposed a 2015 anti-femicide law and that women in his country need to “stop whining.”
Even in relatively progressive Chile, where a longstanding ban on abortion was lifted under former President Michelle Bachelet, the current government of President Sebastián Piñera has made it more difficult for women to get an abortion by making it easier for doctors to object to the procedure.
Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump has also threatened women’s reproductive rights in Latin America because, like other Republican presidents before him, he reinstituted the so-called “global gag rule” that bans U.S. aid to foreign NGOs that perform or advocate for abortions; by extension, the ban cuts off other services these groups provide such cancer screenings and malaria treatment.
Trump’s presidency, in fact, shows that the issue of reproductive rights and gender equality is not limited to countries south of the U.S. border. According to the Guttmacher Institute, U.S. states have enacted nearly 60 abortion restrictions in 2019 alone.
At the broader level, progress on gender equality in the U.S. has been uneven. A record 102 women now serve in the U.S. House of Representatives — 90 percent of them Democrats — making up nearly a quarter of total House votes. By comparison, in 1992, which was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” only 27 women were elected to the House and Senate.
Yet women accounted for only one-third of the 800,000 foreign policy professionals in the U.S., according to Allison Carlson, acting managing director of FP Analytics study, which in October launched “The Her Power Index.”
At the OAS discussion, Carlson spoke about the challenges women face in the U.S. foreign policy arena — among them, hiring practices that favor certain groups such as veterans in which women represent a small minority (as of 2015, women comprise only 9.4% of U.S. veterans); sexual harassment and a pervasive “boys’ club” culture in which women are often bypassed for professional opportunities; lack of access to mentors; and trying to juggle demanding jobs with family life, in which women are often primary caregivers for both older family members as well as children.
Work-life balance is a struggle that professional women around the world face, and a topic that several panelists at the OAS event touched upon. The issue not only affects female diplomats, but the wives of diplomats, who are also serving their respective governments in what often amount to full-time jobs in and of themselves.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the number of women ambassadors has never budged past 30, out of nearly 180 posts. One of the city’s newest female ambassadors, Iceland’s Bergdís Ellertsdóttir, spoke alongside Agüero of Honduras at The Diplomat’s AIS event.
She said that “if you really want to achieve gender equality, two really easy things to implement are parental leave — not just for the mothers, but for the fathers — and secondly, affordable child care.” (The U.S. is the only developed nation in the world that does not mandate some form of paid parental leave.)
Iceland is a pioneer in women’s rights, having been ranked first in the world for gender equality for the last nine years by the World Economic Forum. Yet even Iceland is not immune to discrimination. A scandal erupted last year when several members of parliament used sexually explicit language to describe female colleagues, including a disabled activist.
And the #MeToo movement has revealed that seemingly progressive Nordic countries still have a long way to go in achieving full gender equality.
Ellertsdóttir noted that as part of the movement, over 800 stories were told by Icelandic women on Facebook revealing discrimination both “big and small, including women immigrants who didn’t know the language or their rights” and “young women in sports.”
“For a society like Iceland, where we think we are kind of safely in our gender-equality haven, it was a great shock,” the ambassador told our AIS audience. “I think it was a wakeup call that we thought we were almost there and then this Pandora’s box was opened, and it really took over the whole debate on what gender equality is. It’s not just that we need to have a legal basis … we have to change the way people think, especially the way men think.”
Ellertsdóttir — who has served as deputy director of her foreign ministry’s political department dealing with security issues and as chief negotiator for the Iceland-China Free Trade Agreement — echoed the point that Baños Rivas, Mexico’s permanent representative to the OAS, made about women diplomats being relegated to more traditional roles and left out of issues historically dominated by men.
“I have had many meetings where there were mostly men … especially when it comes to trade and security issues,” Ellertsdóttir said. “I’m not saying human rights aren’t important, but if you look at for example the U.N., you see if you go to the committees that deal with human rights issues, it’s mostly women. If you go to the committees that deal with security issues, it’s mostly men, but I think this is gradually changing.”
She added: “I think it’s important to have women at the table, particularly when it comes to security issues, when it comes to negotiating peace agreements … we’re just gradually breaking that glass ceiling. We are better off, societies are better off, the world is better off, peace is better off if we have women at the table.”
About the Author
Sarah Alaoui (@SarahAlaoui_) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.