Colombia gets tough with a woman's touch

Education and quotas propel an unprecedented number of females to the helm of a war-torn country.

President Alvaro Uribe took office in August, pledging to get tough on the country's armed factions and drug traffickers. So when filling the crucial defense minister slot, he chose an experienced, no-nonsense professional.

Marta Lucía Ramírez, a lawyer and former ambassador to France, is the first woman to take charge of the country's armed forces, and Latin America's second female defense minister. Five other women join her in the 13-member cabinet.

This unprecedented level of female leadership in the executive branch reflects the professional advances Colombian women have made in recent years. Analysts point to two factors: improvements in educational opportunities, and quota laws enacted throughout Latin America over the past decade.

"The female presence in positions of power in Latin America has registered a dramatic increase in some countries," says Mala Htun, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Her research reveals that in lower houses of congress throughout the region, women account for 15 percent of seats – up from 9 percent in 1990. In senates, female participation grew from 5 percent to 12 percent over the same period.

"The very existence of quota laws proves the obstacles to political equality," acknowledges Joan Caivano, director of special projects at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But these laws are justified in Latin America because the leadership of political parties is largely male. Quota laws help force their hand."

In Colombia, the quota law passed in 2000 requires that at least 30 percent of appointed positions in the executive branch be filled by women. In a 2001 survey by the Inter-American Dialogue and the International Center for Research on Women, Colombia ranked highest among South American nations, with an average of 19 percent of cabinet positions, congressional slots, and mayoralties filled by women.

"Being a woman can sometimes be an advantage," says Colombian Representative Sandra Ceballos, president of the human rights commission in the country's lower chamber, and one of only 19 women among the body's 166 members. "Because there are fewer of us, whatever we do is noticed more." However, she emphasizes that campaign financing and credibility remain obstacles for women in politics. "I had to work twice as hard as any man to get to this position," she says.

Cecilia María Vélez, the education minister, says that more women have access to higher education, and through education, to jobs. She also points to primary and secondary schools in Colombia, where a slight majority of students are now girls. And their literacy is rising: From 1985 to 1997, the illiteracy rate for Colombian women 15 years or older dropped to 8 percent from 14 percent.

"Women have always been tossed to the side," says a vendor in Bavaria Park here, who gives her name as Lucrecia. "These [ministers] show that we can do things, that women here can get ahead."

In a region beset with economic and political turmoil, many believe that a woman's touch might help. In a November 2000 Gallup survey of five Latin American countries, more than half of those polled said women would do a better job than men in deterring corruption, curtailing poverty, enhancing education, and protecting the environment.

"I don't think this government had the specific goal of filling the cabinet with women," says Ms. Vélez. "But there is a strong belief in women as good public administrators."

Yet traditional gender roles remain an "intractable obstacle" for professional women in Latin America, argues Ms. Caivano. "It might not be acceptable for women to be in certain places – socializing in a bar, for instance – where a lot of political networking takes place," she says. "And there are fewer options for child care in Latin America. It's still more difficult for women to make it to the top."

Women in high-pressure jobs must recognize that "the sacrifice of family life is enormous," cautions Angela Marulanda, a sociologist and columnist for the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. "Building a home is a full-time job."

In some cases, however, family life is precisely what propels women into politics. "My mother always worked, and I think my father was a feminist!" laughs Vélez. "So I've never felt that there were things I could not do simply because I am a woman."

In recent Colombian elections, women have contested the nation's top office, but does that suggest that Colombians will someday send a woman to Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace?

"I think people see women as better managers of peace than of war," answers Ms. Vélez, referring to Colombia's long-running internal armed conflict. "That is the collective imagination. Having a woman as defense minister is an important step, but I think a woman president would depend on the conditions of the country."

And gender alone won't help a candidate win the female vote. "I don't lose hope that we'll have a woman as president one day," says Lucrecia. "But she had better be intelligent and well prepared."

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