Where Madam president rules

Latin America is a region with big contrasts when it comes to the role of women Mexican voters are to get their chance to vote for their first female leader

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner meet last December in Brasilia.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner meet last December in Brasilia.EFE

In Latin America, where domestic violence murders and teen-age pregnancy rates are among the highest in the world, women are making greater inroads into politics than in any other region across the globe. Latin America, which is normally characterized by inequality and by the way it has managed to weather the global economic crisis, mistreats its women. But despite this, females have gained more political power and ballot-box victories than their European counterparts.

It all began in 1990 with the election of Violeta Chamorro as president of Nicaragua. Now three nations, including the largest in Latin America, have women leaders: Dilma Rousseff of Brazil; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina; and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica. Arguably, Argentina was the first Latin American nation to have a woman president when María Estela “Isabel” Martínez de Perón succeeded her husband Juan Perón after he died in 1974.

In Mexico, voters are also getting a chance to vote for their first female president. Josefina Vázquez Mota was selected by her National Action Party (PAN) as its candidate for the July 1 election. “I don’t want to be elected president just because I am a woman, but because of what I have to offer,” she says.

Despite the extreme violence stemming from drug trafficking and corruption in some states, Mexico has one of the highest incidences of murders from domestic violence in the region. In 2009, 1,858 women were killed at the hands of their current and former partners, according to figures compiled by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL). The regional organization has also registered similarly high rates in Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

In Mexico, deaths from domestic violence are also joined by another phenomenon known as “femicide” — the murder of woman that takes place outside the family home. Such cases often cause a nationwide stir, but the government doesn’t do enough to find the perpetrators. Mexico has been criticized by human rights organizations in this respect.

So why is it that in Latin America there is such a contrast in the status of women? “Oh, that’s the $64,000 question,” says María Jesús Aranda, former ombudsmen in Navarre and now an advisor to Madrid-based Segib (Iberoamerican secretariat general).

Mexico has one of the highest incidences of murders from domestic violence in the region

Aranda doesn’t believe that the patterns of discrimination in Latin America are different from those in other countries. The high rate of school dropouts, the alarming numbers of deaths of mothers at birth (mainly because of their lack of education), and “femicide” are just indicators of discrimination that can be seen in other parts of the world, Aranda says.

But domestic violence figures in Latin America are still murky. For example, it isn’t really clear whether the numbers are on the rise or have dropped.

What is known is that femicide is a common factor in what is known as the black triangle, the area made up by El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, along with Mexico, where women are commonly exploited for sexual purposes. To further complicate the picture, it is also true that women in Latin America have a higher university attendance rate than men.

“At universities, women on the average make up 53 percent of student bodies,” says María Emma Mejía, former Colombian education and foreign minister. “Women are starting to occupy very important positions of power and when this happens, changes also come with each government. [Former Chile President] Michelle Bachelet is a good example. During her term in office, there was a lot of important legislation passed, such as the right for women to file for divorce.”

After a long battle, Bachelet was also able to get the Chilean Congress to approve the use of the morning-after pill as a strategy to prevent unwanted pregnancies. But not all women leaders have been successful in getting pro-female legislation passed.

For instance, the Catholic Church came down hard on Dilma Rousseff during her presidential campaign after she gave an interview to Marie Claire in which she stated that she believed abortion was a public health issue. Rousseff had to go back on her decision to try to push for legalization.

Currently abortions are only legal in Cuba and Mexico City, where a progressive mayor has also legalized gay marriage.

In Argentina, Cristina Fernández also approved gay marriage but failed in her efforts to relax abortion laws. Abortion in Argentina is considered a crime unless doctors determine that the mother’s life or health is in danger, or if rape of “a mentally challenged” woman occurs. But the Argentinean Supreme Court went further on Tuesday and allowed abortion procedures in regular rape cases.

Argentina eases abortion

F. PEREGIL, Buenos Aires

The abortion that 15-year-old A. G. underwent in 2010 has now made history in Argentina. Since she was 11 her stepfather, a former police officer, abused her, until finally she became pregnant. When she went to a public hospital in Comodoro Rivadavia in Chubut province, doctors refused to perform an abortion without her having obtained a court order.

In rape cases, the 1921 Argentinean law only allowed for abortions to be performed on women who are considered “mentally challenged or demented.” But a Chubut Superior Court went ahead and gave her permission to obtain the procedure, and A. G. aborted.

On Tuesday, the Argentinean Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that all women can seek an abortion if they were raped.

The top court’s decision doesn’t give an across-the-board legalization but lawmakers are expected to begin discussions on the issue later in the year.

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