For a region famous for “machismo,” Latin America is about to take an unlikely step: elect a record number of women presidents.
In Chile, moderate socialist former President Michelle Bachelet — whose admirers include Hillary Clinton — is widely expected to crush her conservative opponent, also a woman, in a runoff vote on Dec. 15.
With women leaders already in power in Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica, that means Latin America will boast four female heads of state for the first time.
The breakthrough comes as women’s issues are going global, from Malala Yousafzai demanding education in Pakistan to a campaign for more female board members in the United States. Many countries are also grappling with how to include more women in politics, while a few still want to exclude them. It turns out the pro-inclusion camp could look to Latin America for answers.
Irune Aguirrezabal, of UN Women, the United Nations agency that promotes female political participation, said Latin America’s women presidents are “historic” in a region where extreme sexism — including horrific violence against women — has deep roots.
The achievement also strengthens democracy, she said, allowing women to buy into a system that has often left women out, or worse.
“When women are elected to high office, they become inspiring role models for others,” Aguirrezabal said in an interview.
“They show that women can be empowered and that allows other women to view themselves not just as vulnerable or victims, but as true citizens.”
The effect could be particularly profound in Central America, given the intensity of “machista” abuse there, said Melida Guevara, a gender campaigner for international aid group Oxfam in the region.
She was speaking before the results of Honduras’ Nov. 24 presidential election, in which another woman, Xiomara Castro, came second after leading her male rivals for months in the polls.
A political newcomer and the wife of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, Castro has shaken up an entrenched two-party system with her new left-wing Libre coalition.
She claims the results are fraudulent, mounted massive street protests and succeeded in pushing election authorities to review the vote.
“The political class in Honduras still needs a lot of work before it will accept that everyone has an equal right to participate in government,” Guevara said. “Castro has been very tough just to be in contention.”
The rise of Latina candidates and presidents may not be such a surprise thanks to quotas in 16 Latin American nations that have helped achieve record numbers of female lawmakers in the region.
Roughly 1 in 4 legislators here is a woman. Only Scandinavia has a higher proportion.
The US, by comparison, is some way behind, with women making up just 17.9 percent of the House of Representatives and 20 percent of the Senate.
While critics claim quotas lead to women being elected based on sex rather than merit, proponents say they merely level the playing field. Either way, Latin America needs more decision-makers intent on remedying bleak realities for many women here.
According to UN Women, 69 percent of Latin American women have been physically abused by their partners and 47 percent have been victims of sexual violence at least once.
Perhaps even more disturbing, Latin America has high rates of “femicide,” the act of killing a woman simply because she is a woman.
Ten of the 25 countries in the world with the highest femicide rates from 2004 to 2009 were Latin American, with El Salvador and Guatemala Nos. 1 and 3, respectively, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based think tank.
That partly reflects a broader wave of violence engulfing much of Central America, with Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador each besieged by drug cartels and deadly street gangs known as “maras.”
But the trend is also rooted in deep-seated cultural attitudes that see women as servile to men — and even blame them for being female.
Some 70 million women joined the Latin American workforce in the last 20 years, helping reduce regional poverty by 30 percent as a result. But even women with higher education and formal employment still earn 17 percent less than their male counterparts.
“We have not got to that point yet,” said Guevara, who is based in El Salvador, when asked about equal pay. “Right now, the most important issue here is protecting women against violence.”
Nevertheless, Latin America is slowly changing, with both women and men benefiting from more egalitarian views of the sexes.
Elba Nunez, the Paraguay-based coordinator of CLADEM, a nonprofit working on gender issues across Latin America, cites how men increasingly take on household chores. Some even change their children’s diapers, something that would have been unthinkable in much of the region 20 years ago.
And El Salvador has just passed a law mandating three days of paternity leave. If that sounds like peanuts, it’s worth recalling that the US is one of just a handful of countries that does not even recognize maternity leave as a legal right.
“We have made significant advances,” Nunez added. “Most constitutions in Latin America now recognize gender equality. But we still have a long way to go, especially for reproductive and sexual rights.”
But there still remains a long way to go before many women in the region are able to actually enjoy rights they’ve already won on paper.
“We have super beautiful laws but the question is how do we manage to get them enforced when there are so few resources and so much resistance?” Guevara asked.
The answer may well come from the new generation of female leaders, who, like the woman many tip as the next US president, Hillary Clinton, haven’t shied from championing women’s issues.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, tweeting to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, on Nov. 25, described her country as still being “sexist and prejudiced.”
Meanwhile, Bachelet has spent much of her time since stepping down from her first term as Chilean president in 2010 by heading UN Women.
Although change may still seem slow, it’s likely to pick up as more women politicians come to the fore, a regional trend that may have seemed impossible just a few years ago.