Latin America: Scant progress in status of women, says UNIFEM

by Gustavo Gonzalez

Santiago, 10 Apr 2001 (IPS) -- Latin America shows only limited progress toward compliance with goals set for improving the lot of women, according to a report that the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) presented Tuesday in the Chilean capital.

“Progress of the World’s Women 2000,” UNIFEM’s biennial report, was prepared based on the Beijing Plus Five framework, established by the United Nations to evaluate progress on the commitments made at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in China in 1995.

UNIFEM chief Noeleen Heyzer, a Singapore-born social scientist, emphasized in her presentation Tuesday that the report calls for “restructuring globalization” so that the process simultaneously promotes gender equity, a reduction in poverty, and advances in human development.

In the 1990s, only eight countries in the world - not one of them Latin American - met the agreed goal for achieving greater gender balance in institutions of political representation. The objective was for women to hold at least 30% of parliamentary seats.

Women’s participation in the legislative branch is one of the three indicators that UNIFEM selected for this report, concentrating “on the economic dimensions of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the context of globalization.”

The other two indicators are the level of women’s participation in paid employment - both in quantity and quality of the jobs held - and the level of gender equality in secondary school enrolment.

Adriana Delpiano, minister of Chile’s National Service for Women, said she appreciated the economic focus of the report, based on data and statistics that measure the advances and reversals of women over time, and not through “a snapshot of one moment.”

“Globalization could be a great responsibility for women to have, as long as they are permitted greater social control in their countries - as this report indicates,” Delpiano added.

The eight countries with at least 30% of their parliamentary posts held by women are Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa and Sweden.

UNIFEM lists 13 nations that increased the presence of women in their parliaments during the 1987-2000 period, thanks to quotas established by law.  Five are in Latin America or the Caribbean: Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Ecuador and El Salvador.

As of January 2000, Cuba was the Latin American country with the highest percentage of women in its parliament, with 27.6%. In its wake were Argentina (23%), Barbados (20.4%), Guyana (20%), Bahamas (19.6%), Trinidad and Tobago (19.4%), Costa Rica (19.3%), Mexico (17.9%), Ecuador (17.4%), El Salvador (16.7%), Jamaica (16%), Suriname (15.7%) and the Dominican Republic, with 14.5%.

Next in line for the region were Belize (13.5%), Colombia (12.2%), Uruguay (11.5%), Venezuela (11.4%), Peru (10.8%), Bolivia (10.2%), Nicaragua and Panama (9.7%), Honduras (9.4%), Chile (8.9%), Paraguay (8.0%), Guatemala (7.1%), Brazil (5.9%), and, lastly, Haiti, with 3.6%.

Though the ranking of Latin America and the Caribbean in this sense is not very promising, the numbers are better than other regions where a women’s political representation suffered setbacks in recent years.

“In Eastern Europe, women have lesser presence now than they did a decade ago in decision-making bodies and in the parliament,” pointed out Thierry Lemaresquier, the representative in Chile of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The French-born UN official stressed that even in countries known for their economic stability and growth, women continue to be the target of discrimination. For example, said Lemaresquier, “Chile has some serious pending challenges. There is a debt to Chilean women that has yet to be paid.”

In the UNIFEM report, Chile is listed among those countries in which the gender gap increased as far as the ratio of women and men’s wages. Mexico and Venezuela both reported this type of backsliding during the 1990s as well.

But otherwise, in the Latin American region, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay all recorded shrinking wage gaps for the decade.

In the area of gender equality in education, the UNIFEM report assessed achievement toward the goal of 100% enrolment of girls in secondary school, indicating overall progress in the 1985-1997 period throughout most of the world. But in Latin America, six of 26 countries recorded reversals in this respect.

According to 1997 statistics, the region’s countries that fell short of the goal of 100% enrolment among girls were Belize and Paraguay (97%), Haiti (95%), Mexico, Peru and Barbados (94%), Bolivia (86%) and Guatemala, with 83%.

Heyzer underscored that if systematic and continuous efforts are not made, gender equity setbacks would continue to occur, as happened in several regions, though particularly in the countries of Europe’s former socialist bloc.

It is essential to continue fighting poverty, and especially the ‘feminisation’ of poverty, in order to reach the UN goal of cutting poverty rates 50% worldwide by 2015, Heyzer said.

She warned that responsibility for these efforts does not fall to one sector, but is a challenge that must involve the government, the private sector and civil society.

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SUNS 4875, 12 Apr 2001