Maria Jose Lubertino

(WOMENSENEWS)–Argentina votes in a new Congress on Sunday, Oct. 23, and among the most closely watched senatorial races is one among three candidates, all women: incumbent Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Hilda Gonzalez de Duhalde and Marta Maffei.

Nevertheless, observers say a strong field of female candidates doesn’t mean women’s issues will take center stage in Congress once the elections have passed.

“We have more equal representation in politics and a culture that is still quite backward,” says Graciela Romer, a nationally recognized political consultant in Buenos Aires.

Argentina was the first country in Latin America to establish an election quota in 1991, which aims for at least 30 percent female congressional representation. Countries around the world have taken similar measures in recent years, with many enshrining minimum female representation in their constitutions or laws.

The draft version that millions of Iraqis voted on last Saturday, for instance, sets aside 25 percent of its parliamentary seats for women. (Different political parties among the Sunni, Shiites and Kurds are now choosing parliamentary and presidential candidates for the December elections.)

Amid the violence and chaos racking many parts of the country, the constitution itself–not to mention the requirement of a certain percentage of female officials–is now widely viewed as an irrelevant abstraction to a public traumatized by the devastations of war.

“When you interview women they’ll say, ‘Screw the constitution, where is my water?'” says Manal Omar, who opened the Baghdad office for the Washington-based group Women for Women International.

Right now, Omar says, political progress for women has been overshadowed by the immediate needs of millions who struggle daily to provide for their families. They are not as concerned about equality as they are with security, housing, income and basic needs such as water and power.

One woman Omar interviewed told her, “I’ll wear clothes from top to bottom and paint myself black if you give me electricity.”

Decades of Gains

Over the past two decades, women have made substantial gains in political representation around the world.

In Afghanistan, women were elected to office earlier this month, in the war-ravaged nation’s first elections in three decades. In Rwanda, women enjoy the highest percentage of electoral representation in the world, holding 49 percent of parliamentary seats. Germany has recently elected its first female chancellor, and in the United States, the number of women elected to office continues to nudge higher. In 2005, women hold 18 percent of U.S. House of Representatives seats, 14 percent in the Senate and an average of 22.5 percent in state legislatures.

Female representation, however, has not led to conspicuous voting blocs for women’s rights for reasons that analysts say are complex.

In post-conflict or war-torn societies, women’s rights often take a back seat to redressing poverty or curbing violence.

In more stable societies, the first generation of female elected officials have often been groomed by male relatives or mentors and maintained the policy agendas of their political superiors.

In Argentina, where the congress is about one-third female, some women’s issues have risen to prominence. The 1994 national Protection Against Domestic Violence act, for instance, has made it easier to prosecute instances of violence within the home, leading to a threefold increase in accusations from 1995 to 2003.

But in many ways, women’s rights activists here are disappointed to find that women earn 30 percent less for the same jobs as their male counterparts and that a widespread problem of sex trafficking of women gets little official attention.

“Now we have a group of women protagonists, but few of them are dedicating themselves to gender issues,” says Maria Jose Lubertino, a candidate for the lower house of Congress.

Dissatisfied with the sluggishness of the traditional parties, Lubertino is running on a feminist platform in the new Open Space Party. “I would like us to debate not only the agenda of equality between men and women but also the ways in which the feminist perspective can contribute to solving other social problems, such as war, security and environmental issues,” she says.

Some critics of the quota law argue that the practice of forcing parties to include female candidates leads to nepotism, in which wives, sisters and protegees of male politicians are brought forward regardless of their political experience.

This election, two of the senatorial candidates for the province of Buenos Aires are the wives of current or past presidents.

But Romer denies that these women lack their own political positions. She says the real brakes on faster progress on women’s rights are applied by the Roman Catholic Church in a country where nearly 90 percent of the population is nominally Catholic. The church, for instance, has battled a governmental effort to distribute free condoms to stem a rising rate of teen pregnancy, arguing for abstinence and fidelity instead of contraceptives.

Zangana Helped Draft Consitution

Pakhshan Zangana

In Iraq, Pakhshan Zangana is a Communist party member of the Kurdish parliament in northern Iraq who went to Baghdad to negotiate the final draft of the constitution as the lone female Kurdish delegate.

The men in her entourage focused on securing a Kurdish federal region while she concentrated on women’s rights, she said, a job made harder by the fact that some of Iraq’s female parliament members represent the interests of their political parties ahead of their interests as women.

“We are not united,” Zangana said of all the women in the Iraqi parliament. “The women agencies are not united because we do not have awareness.” Like Romer, Zangana worries most about religious influence. To her, the choice of Islam as the basic source of law is what will hurt women most.

“I respect Islam religion and all worshippers of Islam and other religions, but when religion is mixed with politics, people use it for oppression,” said Zangana.

Iraq’s first female judge, Zakia Hakki, a member of the interim parliament and one of nine women in the 75-member constitution drafting committee, gave women who have been serving in Iraq’s transitional national assembly since February a mixed review.

Some of those women are tokens, she says, and were not involved in discussions or debate. Like some of their male colleagues, they had little training in politics and did not expect to remain in positions of power in the new government.

“Only two have legal background,” Hakki said of the women on the drafting committee. “Others are just like a political decoration.”

But Hakki also said the constitution was the “best that we could have done” in Iraq, which previously had few opportunities for women to participate in the political process.

“We should be very reasonable,” she said. “They need practice.”

Looking ahead to what will result in change for women in Argentina, Romer says there is one thing that is necessary.

“Time,” she says.

Sharene Azimi is a freelance writer from New York City who is currently living in Buenos Aires. Cyrille Cartier was working at Reuters in Washington, D.C., before she began freelancing in Iraq in 2004.

For more information:

In Post-Election Iraq, Women’s Hope Restrained:

Afghan Constitution a Partial Victory for Women:

Women Are Taking Rightful Place at Peace Table: