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Substantial advances have been made in gender equality across Latin America in terms of recognized legal rights, protections against domestic violence, political representation and anti-discrimination legislation. The launch of the Summer 2012 issue of Americas Quarterly addressed improvements in gender equality across the region as well as the continuing challenges for women’s rights. Despite impressive accomplishments in access to education and political representation, barriers for women remain across sectors.
Advancing women’s roles in society contributes to a country’s overall economic performance by reducing poverty, equalizing gender roles, and strengthening democracy. But one challenge is for women to recognize their own contributions, according to Sarah Buitoni. She described how women in the Americas don’t usually identify themselves as the head of the household, even though they often manage household finances and run the family business by raising livestock or organizing the sale of merchandise. Challenging long-held beliefs about the role of women at home will help women recognize their unrealized potential.
Goldman Sachs is especially committed to women’s empowerment. Through the 10,000 Women Initiative, it selects female entrepreneurs from Brazil, Peru and Mexico and helps them to identify methods of advancing their business and remaining competitive. Joseph Whalen noted that investing in women was a strategic decision because women tend to invest in their children’s education, health care, their communities, and themselves. Ultimately, empowering women economically increases the opportunities to improve their social status, gain knowledge and skills, and to vote and participate in social and political movements, thus closing the advancement gap between men and women.
Speaking on abortion rights in the Americas, Jane Marcus-Delgado discussed how she and AQ co-author Joan Caivano observed widely varied restrictions on reproductive rights across Latin America in their article “The Public Debate Over Private Lives.” Access to safe and legal abortions can also vary within countries, such as Mexico, where abortion was legalized in Mexico City but suffered a backlash in 17 of 31 states. Marcus-Delgado also highlighted the deterioration of abortion rights in the U.S., from the discontinuation of coverage for birth control medication by health care providers to ongoing attacks on Roe vs. Wade through “personhood” amendments and restrictions on second-trimester abortions.
Analyzing general trends on reproductive rights in the hemisphere, Marcus-Delgado and Caivano have found that individual cases, usually involving young victims of rape and incest whose stories have captured widespread media attention, have compelled Latin American lawmakers to revisit federal restrictions on abortions. International court cases have also put the pressure on local judiciaries to reform abortion law. Meanwhile, churches, NGOs and activists such as Colombian lawyer Mónica Roa have reshaped the public debate on abortion and exert considerable influence on policy on both sides of the debate.
All panelists pointed out that advances in gender equality rely not only on the active participation of women in politics, law, business and social movements, but a greater number of women leaders who advocate for women’s reproductive and economic rights. Though Latin American countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica have recently elected female presidents, AQ contributing author Magda Hinojosa demonstrates in her article “Increasing Women’s Representation in Politics” that the growing presence of female heads of state in Latin America has had little effect on the advancement of women’s rights on a national level. Hinojosa has also found that women’s political representation varies widely by country, between political parties, and across levels of government.
As women begin to outpace men in higher education and participate equally in the workplace, governments, civil society organizations and political parties must encourage women to think of themselves as political leaders, recruit promising women for positions of leadership and increase the selection and funding of female political candidates to promote greater gender equality in politics across the hemisphere. Regardless of gender, leaders in the hemisphere should seek to promote and prioritize women’s rights, thus paving the way for greater leadership by women.