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Sudden surge in women's representation

When it comes to the proportion of women holding public office, change tends to happen at a glacial pace. Despite decades of activism and advocacy, women today hold only 12.9 percent of the seats in lower or single houses of national legislatures worldwide, a modest improvement over the 8.1 percent they held in 1965.

Until recently, the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have been typical in this respect. As of May 1997, women held just over 10 percent of the seats in the lower or single houses of congress in the region's countries. And that figure was significantly skewed by Argentina, an oddity in the region by virtue of a 1991 quota law that helped women gain 28 percent of the country's Chamber of Deputies (the law does not apply to Argentina's Senate, where women still hold only 3 percent of the seats).

In the last 18 months, however, voting behavior on this issue has shifted from foot-dragging to what looks like a sprint. In nine of the region's countries that have held parliamentary elections during that period, the proportion of women in the lower or single houses of congress has risen by an average of almost five percentage points, a nearly 50 percent gain on the level in early 1997. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which tracks the number of women legislators, this unprecedented leap has brought the Latin American and Caribbean average up to 15.4 percent-a level that is exceeded by only a handful of individual countries and is more than two percentage points higher than the global average. In the upper house or senate, the Latin American and Caribbean regional average is now 14.1 percent, compared to 10.4 percent globally. It is as if the political gains that took place over three decades worldwide had been compressed into a single election cycle.

What is behind this change? According to Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Michigan State University who studies the region's elections, "quota laws are the principal factor." Although it has many critics, Argentina's 1991 law pushed the issue of quotas to the forefront of public debates over women's representation in many of the region's countries. Says Jones: "People started asking, ‘Does women's representation matter more to Argentina than it does to us?' It had a very visible impact, and along with some of the quota laws in European countries, it provided a model."

Starting in late 1997, Argentina was joined by Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Venezuela in adopting some type of national law requiring political parties to reserve a fixed percentage of their candidate lists for women. The requirement ranges from a high of 40 percent in Costa Rica to a low of 20 percent in Ecuador, and there are significant other differences in the laws that will make some much more effective than others, according to Jones.

As of September 1998, not all the countries that have adopted quota laws had held parliamentary elections, but among the four that had, the results were striking. Ecuador, where the proportion of women in the lower house of congress jumped from 4 to 17.4 percent, showed the biggest gains, followed by the Dominican Republic (12 to 16.1 percent), Costa Rica (16 to 19.3 percent), and Bolivia (7 to 10 percent). Mexico (14 to 17.4 percent) does not have a national quota law, but its two largest political parties have each voluntarily adopted internal quotas that went into effect before the last congressional election.

The proportion of women parliamentarians also increased in the Bahamas (8 to 15 percent) and Chile (7 to 10.8), neither of which have quota laws. (Gender breakdowns of recent elections in Brazil, Colombia, Guyana and Paraguay were not available at press time.) Although it is impossible to determine the reasons for such outcomes in countries without quotas, Mayra Buvinic, head of the IDB's Social Programs Division, sees what she calls an "imitation effect." "The success of women in countries with quotas helps to undo stereotypes and change people's ideas about women's roles," she says. "It helps break the unwritten rule that women shouldn't be in power."

Whatever the causes, Buvinic says the growing representation of women in the region is "very promising in terms of democratic progress. This shows that there is no shortage of highly qualified women who can make a contribution. Their presence will help to ensure that women's concerns are addressed by policymakers and help consolidate democracy as a whole."

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