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How “machista” Latin America became the world’s leading region for women’s political participation

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

By Sonja Rijnen-

Claudio Reyes/AFP

When most people think about the role of women in Latin America, issues such as machismo and gender-based violence often come to mind. Despite this, Latin American women enjoy very high levels of political representation, second only to Scandinavian figures. After Argentina’s Isabel Peron’s appointment as president in 1974, more and more women were elected to lead countries throughout the region: Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and, in the same year that only 60% of Americans believed their country was ready for a female president, Chile elected Michelle Bachelet to lead their government.

In 2019, the average percentage of seats held by women in countries’ national parliaments in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) stood at 31.6%. Only the Nordic countries scored higher with 44%, with Europe overall having a score of 29.6% and Asia scoring 20.1%. Considering the global average of female legislators in national parliaments is 24.5%, LAC’s percentage is impressive.

Many have pointed to the large gains in terms of human capital experienced by Latin America in recent decades to explain this phenomenon. The expansion of education in the region meant that girls could enrol in school at a much higher rate, eventually equalling and even surpassing that of their male counterparts. In 2000, according to the International Development Bank (IDB), 19% of girls were enrolled in tertiary education compared to 17% of boys. Education is often believed to be a key factor in reducing gender inequalities further up the line in employment. However, this only explains why Latin America outperforms other developing countries/regions and not why female representation in politics surpasses that of the US and even most Western European countries.

So how did the region of machismo, that hosts seven out of the ten countries in the world with the most violence against women also become a world leader in women’s inclusion in politics?

The first reason is historical and points to the role of women in the 1970s and 1980s when much of the region was ruled by dictatorial regimes. Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay all operated under military dictatorships and the political, social and economic implications of these left many families negatively impacted. It is precisely because of the strong sense of gender norms in Latin America that women acted on their responsibility as mothers and wives to protect the well-being of their families: their political activism was not seen as being contradictory to their traditional roles as women, rather an extension of these. The name “social motherhood” has been given to this phenomenon as women joined revolts and marches and became experienced in political activism, motivated by their dedication to their families and other ‘feminine concerns’. When the time came to democratise and build governments and new power structures, Latin American women had gained a place in these through their high levels of ongoing political engagement.

Although significant gains were made in the 1970s and 1980s that politicised women en masse, upon democratisation, regionally, there remained the trend for women to resume their traditional roles in the household but many women refused to be relegated to their previous status and return to the kitchen. As well as this, during this democratic period, there was a regional sense that the traditional political parties and power structures had lost much of their credibility. This allowed grassroot movements, including those of women and indigenous peoples to partially fill this power vacuum. As a result, in the late 1980s and 1990s ‘women’s bureaus’ were set up in all Latin American countries to monitor and implement policies relating to women (for example CONAMU in Argentina in 1992 and INIM in Nicaragua in 1998). Furthermore, upon the agreements of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, countries also adopted strategies specifically aimed at advancing women. In these respects, women’s issues were institutionalised, helping to partially overcome the gender gap in politics over the last few decades.

This brings us to the second reason why Latin America boasts high levels of female participation in politics: the movement for the implementation of affirmative action strategies, powered by the continuation of female-driven social movements and the institutionalisation of women’s issues in politics.

Argentina became the first country in the world to implement a gender quota in 1991 and since then, despite the region’s macho reputation or perhaps because of it, 17 other countries in LAC have followed suit, making it the region in the world where gender quotas have been most widely adopted. Legislated candidate quotas require a certain percentage of candidates for parliamentary seats put forward by political parties to be women. Although the implementation of quotas has had mixed results and it is clear that what works in one country may not work in another, since their implementation, the number of women in elected parliamentary seats in the region has substantially increased. In countries that have had long-running gender quotas such as Argentina, over time they have helped to normalise the presence of women in politics, breaking stigma and changing public attitudes to women in power. Gender quotas have also encouraged more Latin American women to consider a career in politics, helping to break gender norms. However, perhaps most importantly, the advent of the gender quota movement in Latin America marked a watershed in official commitments to women’s equality in politics in the region, a phenomenon not witnessed to this extent in any other part of the world.

The final reason for the high numbers of female legislators and leaders in Latin America is less structural and more cultural. Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet, writer and activist, offers a compelling argument that aspects of machismo itself are reasons for the election of female representatives. Latin American machismo divides women into two groups: sexual beings to be conquered and mothers as figures of virtue, worthiness and power. This second aspect of machismo is called Marianismo and comes from the Catholic belief in and a strong admiration for Mary, mother of Jesus, as both a virgin and mother. Marianismo teaches that women are semi-divine, morally superior and spiritually stronger than men, deriving their power from the ability to produce life. In Latin culture, the mother figure is thus very powerful, and Belli argues that this is a reason men have not disputed the suitability of women for the higher office to the extent that one may expect in Latin America. As Belli puts it “behind every macho man there’s an insecure boy in need of mothering”.




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