Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: A new push for women’s rights in Latin America

After two decades of steady progress in women’s rights — including the election of women presidents in Brazil, Argentina and Chile — Latin America has one of the world’s highest representation of women in top government jobs, but a surprising new study shows that women are losing ground on several fronts in the region.

I learned about this a few days ago, when I called Alicia Bárcena, the head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), to ask about an equal rights for women campaign that her organization launched last week, called “Exige Igualdad” or “Demand Equality.”

I was curious to know why the United Nations is launching a women’s rights campaign in Latin America, when the region is often cited as a world model of progress in gender equality. Women’s labor participation in Latin America has soared by 33 percent since 1990, more than in virtually any other region, according to World Bank estimates.

But Bárcena said that one of the reasons for the campaign is that there is a “backlash” in women’s economic rights in several countries. While the gender gap has been narrowing in recent decades, it has increased in recent years in Brazil, Chile, Peru and Paraguay, according to preliminary figures of an ECLAC study that is scheduled to be published in November, she said.

Among other preliminary findings:

• While 80 percent of Latin American men are part of the labor force, only 50 percent of women in the region are part of the labor force.

• While only 12 percent of men in Latin America don’t have any personal source of income, the percentage among women is of 33 percent. In Guatemala, the percentage of women without any personal income is 41 percent, in Bolivia 39 percent and in Venezuela 34 percent. The fact that so many women are economically dependent makes them more vulnerable to all kinds of abuses, including violence.

• While Latin American and Caribbean countries had five women presidents at the end of 2013, and there has been steady progress in women’s political representation in the region’s congresses and judicial systems, 13 Latin American countries and five Caribbean nations saw a decline in the number of women in their cabinets compared to their previous governments’ cabinets.

Asked about ECLAC’s “Demand Equality” campaign, Barcena told me that it is centered on three videos that are available on YouTube that are aimed at raising consciousness in Latin America about gender inequality.

“We must break the statistical silence, so that people are better informed about these major inequalities,” she said. “It’s important that people find out about the huge number of women in the region who don’t have a personal income, or who don’t earn the same as men.”

When I asked her to whom Latin American women should demand equality — whether to governments, their husbands or boyfriends — she answered, “First of all, to governments.”

Governments should, among other things, do a better job monitoring unfair compensation practices toward women, much like governments monitor illegal child labor practices. To this day, many private companies in Latin America pay less to women than to men because their owners don’t want to pay for maternity leave, or think that women tend to spend less time at work because they have to pick up their children in school, she said.

“That’s mainly the case in the informal market,” Barcena said, referring to the underground economy, which by some estimates amounts to about half of Latin America’s total economy. “We need to move more people to the formal economy, so that we can better monitor these kinds of practices.”

My opinion: I watched the “Demand Equality” videos, and — although they are quite simple — I liked them. But what ECLAC’s “Demand Equality” campaign badly needs is a celebrity spokeswoman. Much like how superstar Beyonce has become a visible face for the U.S. women’s rights movement, and used her time on camera during the recent MTV Video Music Awards to call for greater empowerment to women, Latin America’s gender equality campaign could greatly benefit from one — or more — celebrity backers. Let’s hope that some will volunteer to give this campaign an extra push.