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The winning voice of women in Latin American politics

While the popular American television show Commander in Chief merely portrays a woman as President of the United States, Chile has turned this fiction into a reality. With Michelle Bachelet taking 53.5 percent of the votes in Chile’s presidential election run-off on January 15, she becomes the country’s first female president.

While a first for Chile, this is not a first for Latin America. In fact, the first woman in the world to become president was a Latin American: the Argentine Vice President, Isabel Martínez de Perón, who came into office in 1974 after the death of her husband, Juan Domingo Perón. Bolivian Lidia Gueiler also briefly held her country’s top post as interim President from 1979-1980 after a military coup deposed the elected leader.

However, many consider the first female Latin American President to be Nicaraguan Violeta Chamorro because she was the first to be democratically elected, defeating her ex allies from the Sandinista Front at the ballot box in 1990. Then came Janet Jagan, elected President of Guyana in 1997, followed by the Panamanian, Mireya Moscoso, voted into office in 1999.

Ecuador was the first Latin American country to have a female cabinet minister, with Nelda Martínez briefly occupying the post of Minister of the Interior in 1944. Since then, women occasionally appeared in ministerial positions, with three or four in the parliaments of various countries in the region.

It was not until the 1990s that women really began to gain political momentum across Latin America. Some in high government positions, others in Parliament or serving as mayors and judges, politically powerful women were no longer seen as an exception. This progress was due to a combination of factors, including greater democratic consolidation in the region, recognition of women’s political rights, improved access to education and the implementation of gender quota laws. The first country in the region to pass a quota law, ensuring that a minimum number of women be put forward as candidates in an election and occupy a certain percentage of government positions, was Argentina in 1990. Today, there are similar laws in 12 Latin American countries. In Colombia, for example, it is a legal requirement that women comprise 30 percent of the appointed positions in the executive branch.

According to a recent IDB study conducted by Eglé Iturbe de Blanco, as of November 2005, there had been a total of 429 women ministers in Latin America, with 56 percent of this total- 243 of the 429 ministers- appointed in the last ten years.


Women Ministers in Latin America 1940-2005
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Colombia and Venezuela have had the most female ministers, together making up 23 percent of this total.  In contrast, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Mexico have had the least, with each having12 or less women ministers. Interestingly, all 12 of Argentina’s female ministers have been appointed since 1995.  

Michelle Bachelet’s victory in Chile is yet another testament to the rising political inclusion of women in the Latin American political arena, however they still have a long way to go in achieving equality. After all, nowhere in the world do women occupy 50 percent of government positions, yet they make up 50 percent of the population.



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