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Latin America: Women reach new political heights

Latin America may be the home of machismo, but women are increasingly bucking the stereotype by rising to top levels of government in roles that used to be considered for men only.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST

Latin America may be the home of machismo, but women are increasingly bucking the stereotype by rising to top levels of government in roles that used to be considered for men only.

Chile is a leading example, with the posts of defense minister and foreign minister both held by women -- Michelle Bachelet and Soledad Alvear.

A December survey by the Center for Public Studies put them in second and third place behind conservative leader Joaquin Lavin as the most likely politicians to succeed Chilean President Ricardo Lagos.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe also named women to top posts in his government, with Cristina Barco as foreign minister. Until she resigned as defense minister in December, Martha Lucia Ramirez was considered a rising star in Colombian politics.

Panama is the only country in the region currently run by a woman, President Mireya Moscoso, though she's not as prominent as Nicaragua's former president Violeta Chamorro or Argentina's Isabel Peron.

But in Argentina, first lady Cristina Fernandez is considered a "shadow president" to her husband Nestor Kirchner. A senator known for her compelling speeches, she's an accomplished politician in her own right. But she's also one of her husband's top advsiers and has taken part in the complex talks on alleviating her nation's crippling foreign debt.

Lawmaker and university professor Maria Jose Lubertino warns that women's continued role in politics is far from certain, threatened by "an injust economic system and the dominant patriarchal, ideological prejudices among the ruling elite and opinion makers."

But Kirchner has shown faith in the ability of women, naming two to serve on the Supreme Court to replace judges he sacked last year.

In Mexico, several women have sought the presidency, and current first lady Marta Sahagun has not ruled out her own bid in 2006, even though her own political experience is limited.

Eli Bartra, an expert in women's affairs in Mexico, said women have made inroads into the political establishment since being allowed to attend university 100 years ago and winning the right to vote 50 years ago.

"We need to reach a point where half of the leaders and politicians are women, and to change the methods of exercising power, because even women who enter into politics tend to recreate the authoritarian, vertical and arrogant governing style of men," she said.

Only one of Mexican President Vicente Fox's 19 ministers is a woman -- Josefina Vasquez as minister of social development. An estimated 10 to 12 per cent of political activists are women, while 23 per cent of deputies and 16 per cent of senators are women.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo has only two women in his cabinet -- one of them, Ana Maria Romero in the ministry for women's affairs. The other, Pilar Mazzetti, is health minister, and neither are considered political stars.

Lourdes Flores Nano, who lost to Toledo in the 2001 election with about one-quarter of the vote, is considered Peru's leading woman politician, perceived as an honest, efficient outsider in the race against Toledo and former president Alberto Fujimori.