Patricia Espinosa, left, with Sonia Montano

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–Following the July 4 election of Amalia Garcia as governor of Zacatecas, the central state has become the latest plot point in the story of women’s slow access to political power in Mexico.

When she takes office in September, Garcia will be the country’s first election of a female governor since 1987, when Beatriz Paredes Rangel was elected in Tlaxcala state; she will be the country’s third female governor since women gained suffrage in 1953.

Garcia, 54, an avowed feminist, the daughter of a former Zacatecas governor and a leader of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, garnered nearly 50 percent of the votes cast.

She attributed some of her success to the increased involvement of women in politics as many men from the state have emigrated to the United States to work. With half the state’s 3 million population living and working in the States, most of them men, women have become more involved, she said.

“Never before had I seen women so involved in the political process and in leadership roles in their communities and this is a result of migration,” Garcia told the national television network Televisa.

Gains Celebrated at Conference

Garcias’ historical election was the latest example of gains women have made in political power in Latin America, some of which were celebrated here last month at the United Nations’ Ninth Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, which drew hundreds of women from Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

The regional conference was the first in a series of meetings building up to next year’s Beijing Plus 10. The gathering will be in New York during February and March to assess the progress of nations 10 years after the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women. In Beijing, a plan was adopted that called for governmental and societal action on 12 key points to bring women up to parity with men worldwide.

(On Saturday, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia wound up the second regional meeting with a three-day gathering of more than 400 Arab female ministers, parliamentarians and nongovernmental representatives.)

One big mood-lifter at the Latin American conference was Chile, where two women–Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s defense minister, and Soledad Alvear, minister of external relations–will be vying one another in a run-up to the 2006 presidential elections.

Official reports indicate that women hold between 10 and 20 percent of the seats in legislative bodies in Latin America.

The illiteracy rate in the region is still higher for women than for men, but the women’s rate has dropped from 30.3 percent in 1970 to an estimated 10.3 percent projected for 2005, according to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The overall rate now stands at 9.5 percent, down from 26.3 percent in 1970; male illiteracy has dropped from 22.3 percent to 8.8 percent, the U.N. agency reported.

Lack of Progress on Violence, Poverty, Health Care

Even with these improvements, female representatives of Latin American countries are questioning the lack of progress on violence, poverty and inadequate access to health care, according to representatives of those countries.

“What comes out of those gains in education, for example?” said Carolyn Hannan, director of the Division for the Advancement of Women in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “Does it translate into increased opportunities for employment? Or when in employment does it translate into equal wages and equal working conditions? It’s not enough to say that women have gained access to education, but the question is what opportunities does it open up for them?”

In its report to the conference, Roads towards Gender Equity in Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean said democracy begins at home, with an equal division of household labor. Finding time to seek opportunities is a major hindrance to women trying to lift themselves out of poverty, the report said. Women are so bogged down in unrecognized, invisible work such as caretaking and household maintenance that they have little time to work at paying jobs. They also lack many resources and opportunities outside the home, such as access to credit and financial institutions.

In the region’s total population–273 million men and 278 million women–nearly half of women over age 15 have no income of their own. Only one-fifth of men, by contrast, are not earning income, according to the U.N. regional agency’s report.

When women do enter the labor force, according to the report, they earn 68 percent of what men do.

Low Profile for Indigenous Women

Some of the poorest women in the region are indigenous women, who had a low profile at the meeting. Only three women dressed in traditional clothing were there, representing Ecuador, Guatemala and Bolivia.

One was Marta Gonzalez, a Quechua woman from Bolivia, wearing the traditional colorful skirt, white blouse topped with cardigan, and the region’s signature bowler hat. Indigenous women, she told Women’s eNews, are more interested in working within their traditions than they are in reinventing their societal roles the way women in more developed countries are.

“The developed countries have a different vision than we do. We are organizing, but within our identity, within the principles that our ancestors have given us,” Gonzalez said. “The family is everything. Men and women have well-defined, clear roles.”

In contrast, Nilcea Freire, Brazil’s Minister of Women’s Policy, said her country’s top concern is workplace equality “because we think that doing so will solve a host of other problems.” She added that the government will hold the country’s first-ever conference on women in July, to design official policies and plans for women’s rights.

In Latin America during the 1990s, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations Children’s Fund, women had a one-in-130 chance of dying in connection with pregnancy and childbirth–14 times the average in developed countries. UNICEF estimated for 2000 that women in Haiti, Bolivia and Peru run the highest risk, with more than 200 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.

Given these statistics, the United States drew anger by insisting that the paragraph defining reproductive rights contain a footnote excluding abortion. Critics charged the Bush administration with trying to stifle legal abortion abroad by threatening funding of women’s health groups that provide a range of family planning options. Severe hemorrhaging and infection from unsafe abortions cause 20 percent of maternal deaths, according to the U.N. regional report.

One universal concern was violence against women, both domestic and societal. As more women enter the workforce, the U.N. regional report said, they are at greater risk of backlash from men who feel threatened. The same goes for migrant women, whose numbers are increasing.

Conference participants emphasized the need to include men and boys in the equalization process, both to ease the burden on women and to lessen any fears they might have at the erosion of their traditional roles.

“The moving forward of women depends on cultural change, especially to break the power men have over women,” said Inmujeres Alvarez. “There have to be democratic relationships in the family so that no one loses. I believe that it’s one of the principal challenges because the man . . . is the one who feels his role declining. And if we don’t supplement this feeling of loss with the satisfaction of equalizing relations, the family and society will be affected.”

Theresa Braine is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.

For more information:

Ninth Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean (English version):