Women of Latin America build bridges, changing status quo in politics

Cross posted from UN Women

In Honduras and El Salvador, a spotlight on efforts towards addressing electoral challenges through trainings for candidates. 

We women represent the majority of the population. To contemplate a situation in which the majority of the population is excluded from decision-making spaces, is a reality that has little in common with the implementation of a democratic model,” says Silvia Ayala, National Secretary for Women of the Libertad y Refundación (Freedom and Refoundation) Party of Honduras.

Silvia was one of the 30 participants in the seminar on Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) organized by UN Women and UNDP in Honduras recently.

The purpose was to provide awareness-raising and skills-training for decision-makers, women and men, on a range of gender issues throughout the election cycle. The training aimed to encourage participants to identify and address main challenges that prevent the full participation of women in the various aspects of political life.

Following the legislative elections of November 2013 in Honduras, there are now 33 women representatives out of a total of 128 elected to the National Congress. This is an increase, with women reaching 25 per cent representation, compared to 19.5 per cent in 2009, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Raquel Blanco, Women Secretariat of the UD Party; Darmy Estrada, candidate for Congress by Partido Anticorrupción and Karla Padilla, candidate for Congress by Alianza Patriótica participate in a group exercise on Institutionalization of gender in electoral bodies during the Bridge seminar in Honduras. Photo: UN Women Honduras

Raquel Blanco, Women Secretariat of the UD Party; Darmy Estrada, candidate for Congress by Partido Anticorrupción and Karla Padilla, candidate for Congress by Alianza Patriótica participate in a group exercise on Institutionalization of gender in electoral bodies during the Bridge seminar in Honduras. Photo: UN Women Honduras

The trainings worked on building capacities of women candidates; developing their skills through analysis of real and concrete problems; and creating practical solutions with a gender perspective, and also addressed quotas, candidate recruitment and campaign financing.

“They gave us some very practical tools to create an electoral strategy, to optimize the resources available to us, to manage the know-how for taking on these candidacies with greater responsibility, as well as for dealing with the senior positions that some of us hold within our parties,” explains Silvia.

Participants included women’s rights activists, coordinators of gender sections and candidates from national political parties in Honduras, representatives of the Supreme Electoral Court and the National Institute for Women (INAM).

“There’s no point getting your name on the ballot paper, getting elected and then, when it comes down to it, bowing your head before a party or government official,” says Selma Estrada, a participant in the seminar representing the Secretariat for Women of the Liberal Party of Honduras. “Given the history and tradition of our Latin American countries, it’s important to involve and include men when dealing with gender issues.”

Participants came from different political groups and had varying levels of education and experience, but they agreed that the BRIDGE trainings gave them the opportunity and space to identify common obstacles that limit political participation of all women, and form a common gender-based agenda.

“No electoral system is perfect; every country has to find a balance between conflicting interests in contexts of great diversity. What we do know is that some electoral systems do not favour the equal participation of women,” says Irune Aguirrezabal, UN Women Adviser on Political Participation for the Americas and Caribbean.

“The BRIDGE seminars are useful tools for strengthening skills-training for representatives of political parties, as well as for officials and lawyers of electoral courts, both women and men. If we can ensure that anyone participating in a seminar understands which mechanisms have to be checked and adjusted in order to achieve concrete outcomes that facilitate substantive equality between men and women, then we will be achieving our goal,” adds Irune.

A BRIDGE seminar was also held in the neighbouring country of El Salvador, where the representation of women in the Lower House totalled 26.2 per cent in 2012. In 2013, the Political Parties Law was passed which established, for the first time, a minimum representation for women of 30 per cent on the candidate lists for elections to the Legislative Assembly and local government. While this measure does not apply to the presidential elections of 2014, it still represented an exceptional opportunity for boosting and empowering women to be an integral part of political life.

Silvia Cartagena was the first women elected to the post of Judge of the Supreme Electoral Court in El Salvador in 2004, and re-elected in 2009. In El Salvador “we are seeing a very significant need to create and regulate mechanisms that ensure greater participation of women in key posts in the three branches of power in the State. It is necessary to create the conditions not only for producing candidacies but also to ensure that women have the spaces in which to develop their roles,” she says.

There has been an increase in the participation of women in various spheres elected by direct vote in El Salvador. However, significant challenges remain, including the availability of sustained numbers of women candidates.

“The BRIDGE seminar gave us important tools and resources for forging ahead with a general plan for the legislative elections in 2014 and the municipal elections in 2015. These cover basic aspects such as budgets, general electoral event-planning, and creating conditions to demand that political parties apply the 30 per cent quotas for women, both in registration and in the forthcoming elections,” says Judge Cartagena. She adds that “it is important to encourage other women to seek election and participate in electoral processes, either as voters or as candidates.”

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