Costa Rica election win for Chinchilla shows women's rise in Latin America

Laura Chinchilla won the Costa Rica election Sunday. She'll be the country's first woman president, echoing a trend across Latin America where women are being voted into high-level political office in record numbers.

Kent Gilbert/AP
Costa Rica: Laura Chinchilla, presidential candidate for the National Liberation Party, gave a thumbs-up to supporters at a Jan. 23 rally in Alajeula, Costa Rica. The vote is Feb. 7.

Jacqueline Campos, a lifelong resident of Rio de Janeiro, says she is not inspired by the ideas being floated ahead of presidential elections here later this year. But she still views the 2010 race as a landmark one: a woman has more than an outside chance of becoming president of Brazil.

"We women were always expected to take care of the house, and that alone," she says. "Now we have much more to offer. We might lead the country."

The election, slated for October, could see at least two women on the ballot. Dilma Rousseff, of the governing Workers' Party (PT), has the better shot at winning. She is currently chief of staff for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is barred from seeking a third four-year term. The other female contestant is Marina Silva, a former environment minister who broke away from the PT.

A woman at the helm of the largest country and economy in Latin America would be a breakthrough for women politicians across the region. Already, in the past four years, two South American women have led their countries: President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and President Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina. And though Ms. Rousseff is polling behind her closest male competitor, the race is being viewed as a boost to women's rights in Latin America.

"The possibility of female candidacies itself is extremely important for women's rise in politics [in Brazil], and it is the first time in our history that a woman has a good chance of victory," says Patricia Rangel, a political analyst and gender expert at the Feminist Center for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA) in the capital, Brasilia. "Today we have two women presidents in Latin America. It is a very hopeful time for us."

Chile's outgoing President Bachelet was elected in 2006, and the following year, Ms.Fernández de Kirchner won the presidency in Argentina. Their victories come as female representation overall has increased in the region, with women constituting about 25 percent of ministerial cabinets, according to a study published in 2008 by various institutions including the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

In Latin America's legislatures, women's representation increased by 35 percent from 2000 to 2008, according to the study. (Women made up only 16 percent of the US Congress in 2008.)

Most attribute the upswing in female political representation in Latin America to quota laws, which were first instituted in the region in Argentina in 1991 and have since come into effect in more than a dozen countries here. The laws are a form of affirmative action that mandate that women must have more representation in the political process – particularly at the national level – even though the rules vary by country and are not always well enforced.

Argentina's female representation, for example, has grown from just 5 percent in 1991 elections, before their law was implemented, to surpassing 30 percent today, placing it in the top 10 of the world for female representation.

As President Bachelet wraps up her term in Chile, her approval rating is higher than 70 percent, in large part because of social programs that address children's education and support for mothers. But many say her gender itself is behind her popularity.

"Michelle Bachelet has 'feminized' the presidency, bringing a female style to leadership, marked by dialogue and cooperation," says Maria de los Angeles Fernandez-Ramil, the head of Foundation Chile 21, a think tank in Santiago, Chile's capital. "Women now feel that no one can say they are incapable; they feel that Michelle Bachelet gave relevance to the demands of women, and they feel proud to have had a woman president."

In Costa Rica, ruling party candidate Laura Chinchilla won the tiny Central American nation's Feb. 7 election becoming its first woman president. Ten years ago, this would not have been possible, says Jorge Mora, director of Costa Rica's branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. "[Costa Rica has] been maturing," he says, "as women have demonstrated that they have the same capacity as men."

It appears the same trend is taking place in Brazil, where a recent poll revealed that 9 out of 10 Brazilians surveyed said that they would vote for a woman as president. Whether they vote for Rousseff is another matter.

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