LIMA, Peru (WOMENSENEWS)--The second round of Peru's elections to select a new president will be held June 4, but regardless of who is the victor, the prospect for improved women's health seems unlikely. This political landscape runs counter to the fast-moving trend throughout the region to soften the reproductive health laws and otherwise improve women's status.
The front-runner in the race is Ollanta Humala, a radical left-wing nationalist and former colonel who led a failed coup attempt against Alberto Fujimori in 2000. He faces Alan Garcia, Peru's president between 1985 and 1990, who narrowly beat Lourdes Flores, a center-right female candidate in the first-round vote on April 9.
"Humala doesn't have any serious or emancipatory proposals for women," says Virginia Vargas, director of the Flora Tristan Center for Peruvian Women, a nongovernmental organization here that educates, studies and lobbies for women's rights and acts as a special consultant for the United Nations' Social and Economic Council. Vargas, who is an internationally recognized leader of Peru's women's movement, says the same about Garcia's APRA party. Both candidates, she says, pay lip service to women's equality in their speeches, but offer nothing more.
Garcia has stated openly that he would not legalize abortion.
In mid-May, Humala's staff declared that his government would decriminalize abortion but the candidate has not addressed the issue directly and his recent visits to archbishops have stirred speculation that he could bow to Vatican pressure to oppose abortion.
High Rate of Illegal Abortions
Vargas and other women's rights activists say stronger reproductive rights are a political priority in Peru, a country of 27 million with approximately 400,000 illegal abortions a year--one of the highest rates in Latin America--and has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the region, behind Bolivia.
"Abortions are increasing because many people are not accessing new modern contraception," says Dr. Daniel Aspilcueta, executive director of INPPARES, a private, nonprofit organization in Lima and member of the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation. "Free public access to public health services, especially for unwanted pregnancies, has decreased in recent years, but the demand is increasing by half a million per year among youth in reproductive ages."
Aspilcueta says these issues have been largely left off the political map this campaign season due to cultural taboos on public discussion of sexuality in this country where 80 percent of the people identify themselves as Roman Catholic.
Vargas says political silence has left reproductive rights activists with little to celebrate.
In June 2004 Peru's outgoing right-wing government recognized that emergency contraception is not "abortive" and could be used in the public health system.
But aside from that isolated victory, Vargas and her allies see the country lagging in a region where women's status is changing rapidly amid a general leftist political tilt.
Colombia, Brazil Softened Laws
Colombia recently approved exceptions to its abortion ban in cases of rape and where women's health is imperiled by continuing a pregnancy. Brazil similarly softened its prohibition last year and a commission is considering sweeping changes to its abortion laws. Chile's first female president is implementing an ambitious set of social programs that include fattening women's pensions and expanding free universal child care.
In Peru, by contrast, Vargas says women's rights activists will continue to face tough times no matter who wins the presidency.
"Reproductive rights, because they involve sexual and political rights for women, will evidently be the toughest battle for us, and I expect major confrontations," she says.
Vargas blames the campaign's weak attention to reproductive rights to the outgoing administration of President Alejandro Toledo; one of his health ministers, Dr. Fernando Carbone, she says, had links to the ultra-Catholic movement Opus Dei, or The Work of God.
However, since then, the Toledo administration appointed Dr. Pilar Mazzetti, who has been hailed by rights groups for incorporating emergency contraception into the national health program, improving sex education and increasing access to AIDS medications. But many expect the popular female health minister, who was honored by International Planned Parenthood Federation last year, to leave the post in the political turnover.
What Happened to Flores?
The strong presence of international monitors in last month's election helped to forestall accusations of vote-stuffing, but many were left wondering at how Flores, the sole female candidate in the race, wound up losing to Garcia, whose former administration was marked by hyperinflation.
Unlike Michelle Bachelet, who last year won the presidency of Chile on a strong women's rights platform, Flores' position on women's rights was muted, even ambivalent. That strategy, while perhaps wise, also left her vulnerable to competition from the male candidates who displayed their spouses as proof of their regard for women.
"We're a very macho country," says Gloria Espinoza, a 42-year-old housewife from Lima. "So I think Lourdes did well to play it safe and not rally feminists."
However, Peruvian sociologist Oscar Chambi says Flores began her campaign by using her gender to advantage but that both her rivals responded by boosting the profiles of their wives during the race.
"His wife is a professional, modern woman who is attractive and has a certain charisma," says Chambi, referring to Garcia's wife Pilar Nores. "She helped frame her husband and back his claims that gender shouldn't be the deciding factor."
He says Humala also began surging in the polls when he gave his wife Nadine Heredia a more central role in his campaign.
"Nadine is much younger and has a beautiful smile which really resonated with the public," says Chambi. "But she's very accomplished too, with a master's from abroad. At the same time, she's very humble. She wears jeans and sneakers . . . I've seen people at rallies who go just to see her in person."
Jen Ross is a Chilean-based freelance journalist who covers social issues affecting women across the Americas.
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