Fri | Jan 27, 2023

The changing face of the Americas

Published:Wednesday | April 11, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Sherry Tross, Contributor

ANYONE TEMPTED to dismiss presidential summits as mere photo ops may want to look closely at the "family photo" that will be taken at the Sixth Summit of the Americas, coming up in a few days in Cartagena, Colombia. That image will have a lot to say about the changing face of leadership in the hemisphere.

Most strikingly, in a region often stereotyped for machismo, five of the presidents and prime ministers representing the 34 countries in the summit process will be women: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica and Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago.

The first modern-day Summit of the Americas, held in 1994 in Miami, included two women: Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, who headed the government of Dominica from 1980 to 1995; and Violeta Chamorro, who was elected president of Nicaragua in 1990. Fifteen years after Miami, at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, two was still the number to beat. In the official photo, Argentina's Cristina Fernández and Chile's then-President Michelle Bachelet represent a bold statement amid a sea of dark-suited male counterparts.

Five is still far from parity but it points to real progress. Quite aside from the question of whether women govern differently than men, confidence in democracy is bound to increase - along with voter enthusiasm - when government more closely resembles the people it represents.

A study by the Organisation of American States (OAS), last year, found that on average, women held just over 22 per cent of cabinet or ministerial posts in the 34 active OAS member countries. At the parliamentary level, there have been some notable gains. Last year, women held over a quarter of the seats in the upper houses of parliament in the Caribbean and, according to a Latinobarometro survey conducted in 18 countries, some 20 per cent of parliamentary seats in Latin America.

Women's gains in congressional representation in Latin America can be attributed in some measure to quota decisions adopted by several countries, including Argentina, which led the way in 1991 when it adopted a law establishing that women must make up at least 30 per cent of the candidate lists put forward by political organisations. In tracking gender-related indicators in its electoral observation missions, the OAS has found that parity laws have indeed made a difference, but that the success of these laws depends in part on how they are designed.

Harder to assess

The presence of women in the judiciary is harder to assess. In a report last year on women's political participation in the Americas, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted some gains, but said that "women's progress in this area has been very slow, uneven, and varied in the region, with a very meagre presence of women at the decision-making levels of the superior and constitutional courts of the Americas." However, this year, for the first time, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights itself has a female majority - four of the seven commissioners.

Women's participation has to go way beyond the executive, legislative or judicial branch. It must be encouraged at all levels of society. At the Summits of the Americas Secretariat, we have been working to expand the conversation about the important issues that concern the citizens of the hemisphere so that women and, indeed all, social actors regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic background or geographical location can have a voice.

As the leaders of the hemisphere convene for the Sixth Summit of the Americas, the image itself will speak volumes. The Americas, as a region, has made visible steps forward. Women in positions of leadership are increasingly becoming the new normal.

Sherry Tross is Executive Secretary of the Summits of the Americas Secretariat at the OAS.