INTERVIEW-Trailblazers 'pay a price' says Costa Rica's first black woman VP

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 April 2018 17:34 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man polishes a client's shoe in San Jose August 14, 2014. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

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"Attitude is what saves you"

By Enrique Andres Pretel

SAN JOSE, April 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Epsy Campbell has ambitious plans to cut the gender pay gap and tackle violence against women in Costa Rica but - as its first black female vice president - she does not expect an easy ride.

When Campbell takes office on May 8 in the new centre-left government of President Carlos Alvarado, she will become the first woman of African descent to be vice president on the American continent.

As the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she hopes to inspire future generations of black women in Costa Rica, a Central American nation of five million people popular with tourists.

She says women trailblazers the world over are judged harshly.

"Women who open paths pay a price for being there," Campbell, 54, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"Many times there's this expectation that women can be totally different from all the bad things that men can be. It's an excessive expectation. It's unfair."

"It's a little unpleasant that as we are an exception, we are examined like rats in a laboratory."

RACIST THREATS

Costa Rica has made strides in the political participation of women, electing its first female president Laura Chinchilla in 2010.

The incoming government has pledged to have equal numbers of men and women in its cabinet, and women make up nearly half of the Congress, Campbell said.

Political parties have been required since 2009 to ensure women make up 50 percent of candidates on electoral lists, allowing more women to be voted into power.

Campbell wants to build on those gains by reducing the pay gap between men and women and establishing more child care centers to boost women in the workforce.

Racism may be more of a challenge.

Indigenous women and those of African descent - Afro-Costa Ricans who make up nearly 8 percent of the population - are often marginalised in public life, according to the Organization of American States.

As a congresswoman in 2015, Campbell said she received anonymous threats via email and social media after she tried to get a popular children's story banned from the school curriculum on the grounds it perpetuated racial stereotypes.

One told her to "Go home to Africa".

"Attitude is what saves you," she said. "Understanding that what you are fighting for, and what you are doing, is something you have the right to do.

"It's what has allowed me to get where I am."

The election exposed divisions in Costa Rica, where some rural communities remain socially conservative.

Campbell's Citizens' Action Party was one of the few to publicly support same-sex marriage, a contentious issue.

She plans to promote indigenous and gay rights, and tackle violence against women. But entrenched ideas about women's place in society and machismo mean change will take time, she said.

"There are things to be done in terms of state policy to prevent and punish violence (against women)," she said.

"But the social and cultural relationships that exist can't be resolved in four years."

(Reporting by Enrique Andres-Pretel, Writing by Anastasia Moloney Editing by Claire Cozens and Katy Migiro. (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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