When Michelle Bachelet takes office as president of Chile for the second time in March, she represents perhaps what’s the most visible progress in women’s rights in Latin America in recent years – the rise of women in power.
There’s also Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who heads the region’s largest economy and is running for re-election this year, while in Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has been at the helm since 2007.
Today, women lead four Latin American and Caribbean countries - Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Jamaica. While Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla is not eligible to run for re-election in the upcoming vote on Sunday, Bachelet’s taking office in two months will keep that figure at four.
There are also more congresswomen and female senators than ever before. That stems partly from quotas for women in politics introduced in many countries across Latin America and because women are better educated as more women are going to school and university across the region.
“One of the areas in which more progress has been achieved is in increasing women’s political participation and leadership…. The region also has one of the highest levels of representation of women in parliament,” Moni Pizani, regional head of the United Nation’s women’s rights agency for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
In the past decade, more laws protecting women and girls against violence have been passed across Latin America, including laws against femicide, defined as the murder of a girl or woman by a man because of her gender.
Yet despite such strides, violence against women in Latin America remains widespread, and ensuring women can earn a decent living is a key challenge facing women today in the region, according to Pizani.
JOBS FOR WOMEN
A lack of job opportunities for women, along with unequal pay and higher levels of informal work, remain key obstacles in improving women’s rights in Latin America, especially among the indigenous and those living in rural areas, Pizani said.
In Colombia, for example, the unemployment rate for women is 13.7 percent - almost double the jobless rate for men, 2013 government figures show. And while men’s labour market participation in Colombia is 75 percent, the rate for women is 54.1 percent.
“We focus on women’s economic empowerment, because we know that equal access to income and assets not only reduces poverty amongst women and the population as a whole, but also enables women to access opportunities, develop their capacities and exercise their rights in many different spheres of their lives,” Pizani said. “Economies simply cannot thrive if half of the population is excluded from economic activity.”
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
In general, Latin America is considered to have good laws in place to protect women against violence.
All countries in the region have ratified and are signatories of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belem do Para). This makes Latin America the only region in the world to count on a binding international instrument that commits states to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls.
“In comparison to other regions of the world, Latin America actually has a robust legal framework to ensure a life free of violence for women and girls,” Pizani said.
The key challenge though is putting existing laws protecting women’s rights into practice.
Of the 25 countries with the highest global femicide rates, 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean, UN Women says.
El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, followed by Jamaica and Guatemala, according to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project in Geneva that based its list on figures from 2004 to 2009.
“The number of cases of femicide in several countries in the region has been on the rise and this is a particular issue of concern for Latin America,” Pizani said.
A big part of the problem is that perpetrators of violence against women believe they can, and often do, get away with crimes.
“Impunity is pervasive and intolerably high: in some countries it is estimated at 98 percent. Access to justice is limited not only by weak and underfunded institutional frameworks to provide assistance to survivors, but also due to a generalised lack of gender sensitisation among justice providers," Pizani said.
“We know that the number of women who face violence and actually report this situation to the authorities remains low, because of fear that the authorities will not believe them, or minimise the seriousness of the situation, or blame them for what has happened or simply will do nothing to assist them."