Documents and Videos of the October 12th, 1999 Meeting of the 


Hall of the Americas, Organization of American States

wpe1.jpg (1052 bytes)



Presentation by Joan Caivano, Women’s Leadership Conference
of the Americas, Inter-American Dialogue

Good morning. First, I would like to thank the Permanent Council for the historic opportunity to address this body. I represent two nongovernmental organizations––the Inter-American Dialogue and the International Center for Research on Women––who co-sponsor the Women’s Leadership Conference of the Americas. The Leadership Conference is a network of 100 women leaders from nineteen countries in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Members include former presidents, prime ministers, business executives, women's rights activists, and other non-governmental leaders. The group has three goals. (1) to expand the numbers and enhance the contribution of women in top leadership positions in Latin America and the Caribbean. (2) to promote policy and institutional changes that will improve opportunities for all women. And (3) to strengthen other nongovernmental initiatives that advance women’s equality.

My presentation will open with a few words on the Summit process. Then I will briefly outline where there has been progress on Summit commitments, and where work remains to be done. I will start with a provocative question. Is there a cause and effect relationship between the Summit process and the progress women have achieved? One could argue that such progress would have occurred over time anyway, with the steady evolution of political, social, and cultural realities. But my presentation will illustrate that factors other than the Summits determine progress on these issues. These are the strength of women’s movements, the presence of women in positions of power, and the national political context of each particular country.

The inclusion of women's concerns in the first two Summits was symbolically important. But so far Summits have not produced strong government action. New laws have been passed and new public policies adopted. Women's participation has increased at all levels. There is more official attention to creating equal opportunities. Yet these policy initiatives and institutions lack the political will and the resources to carry out their mandate.

But Summits can contribute to women’s progress. They can help to strengthen the capacity of women’s movements to hold governments accountable. The heads of State can do this by making their commitments more specific, concrete, and tied to measurable results. In light of the limited accomplishments of the previous Summits, I would urge governments to make this one different. Instead of general declarations of support for women's advancement, or broad policy proposals, the presidents and prime ministers should commit to concrete initiatives. These measure should advance the goals and fulfill the commitments made at earlier Summits and other international meetings. They should set forth procedures and mechanisms for implementing these initiatives and reporting progress. And they should commit the necessary resources and infrastructure to carry them out.

My presentation draws from a report prepared for the WLCA Task Force on Monitoring by Mala Htun of Harvard University. I have that study available here to distribute. I urge you to refer to it for the statistics that support my argument.

Our report reviews the status of women in Latin America in six thematic areas: political leadership, legal rights, domestic violence, health, economic opportunities, and education. In the interests of time my oral presentation will cover only the first four of these. These six areas correspond to the commitments made at the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami and reinforced in 1998 in Santiago. These are also the priorities established by the Women’s Leadership Conference of the Americas. I will point out some legal changes and policy initiatives that have succeeded in improving women’s position. I would urge governments to consider these initiatives as models for the types of concrete commitments they should make in Quebec City in 2001.

Political Participation

Women’s presence in power in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased since the 1970s. But it still lags behind their gains in education, their contributions to the workforce, and their participation at the middle and bottom of organizations.

It is likely that cultural changes produced by women's presence in the workforce will help to erode discriminatory barriers. But this will happen only in the long term. To help women gain access to power on an equal basis in the short and medium term, many Latin American governments are experimenting with affirmative action policies.

The most popular of these are quota rules establishing a minimum level of women's participation in elections. But no consensus exists that quotas are the best policy tool. Furthermore, the effectiveness of quotas in helping women get elected depends on other factors. These include the country’s electoral system and the support political parties give to women candidates.

Another mechanism introduced by many governments are women's agencies. In most countries these agencies propose legislation, advise other ministries on public policies related to women, and serve as an advocate of women’s interests within the state. The success of these agencies depends on several factors: the personal interest of the president and other senior leaders; a favorable relationship with other ministries; stable budgets; and credibility with the organized women’s movement. Without these conditions, women’s agencies are likely to be ineffective. They either become ghettos that isolate women’s issues away from the mainstream of state action. Or they become instruments to promote the interests of the ruling party and not of women.

Congressional commissions on women have also been established. The structures and powers of these commissions vary, though. In Brazil, for example, a commission was created to study legislative implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. But it has no other powers. The Peruvian Commission, on the other hand, is a regular commission with powers to propose legislation. It has sponsored four successful laws promoting women’s interests, including the quota law of 1997.

At the local level, there are an increasing number of women's agencies in state and municipal governments. One notable example is the state of São Paulo's Council on the Condition of Women. This body promoted new policy measures on violence and women’s health, and secured the approval of the Paulista Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Legal Rights

Latin American countries have made major advances toward legal equality in recent years with respect to domestic violence, political participation, family law, and basic rights. In legal codes, women have long enjoyed mandatory maternity leave and protection of pregnancy.

The central problem with women's legal rights in Latin America, however, is not always the lack of legislation and regulation. Rather, it is its uneven application. In order for women's formal legal rights to be put into practice, three factors are important. One, women must bring suits based on those rights into court. Two, lawyers must base their arguments on women's rights. And three, judges must be sensitive to such arguments.1

In the past in Latin America, these three factors were largely absent. Today, however, conditions have changed. This is largely due to the effort of women's movements on two fronts. One, to increase women's knowledge of their rights. And two, to train lawyers and judges to be sensitive to gender prejudice. Women are also entering into the legal profession in greater numbers. More than half of students enrolled in law school are women in many countries. About 45% of trial court judges in the region are women. But this rate is not duplicated at higher levels. Region-wide, women comprise only 20 percent of appeals court judges. Women are virtually absent at the Supreme Court level.

Another mechanism being introduced by some governments are human rights ombudsman offices. Fifteen Latin American countries have these. In six of them, there is a specific institution charged with working with women.2 The "women's rights ombudsman" agencies receive complaints about human rights violations, investigate cases, work to train and sensitize judges and law enforcement personnel, and have challenged the constitutionality of discriminatory laws in court.

Finally, binding international conventions have contributed to changing legal culture in the region. The UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has been ratified by all but one of the OAS member states (the United States). The Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish, and Eradicate Violence against Women (Belém do Pará) has been ratified by all but six OAS member states.

Other international documents such as the Beijing Platform for Action are statements of principles. These are not binding on member states. But they may influence jurisprudence if judges consider them to be "general principles of law." More importantly, all of these international agreements serve as rallying forces for women’s movements seeking reform. They can be used as instruments to measure governmental progress and hold governments accountable to their commitments.

Violence Against Women

Violence against women is an ancient problem. But it has emerged only recently on the political agenda in Latin America. This is largely due to the efforts of women’s movements to call attention to the problem and demand government action. In the 1990s, lobbying by women’s groups and women in elected office has led to the adoption of measures to address violence.

Twelve Latin American countries have adopted new laws on domestic violence. Governments have established shelters, launched educational campaigns, and created centers to counsel women victims and offer legal advice. They have created women’s police stations. Judges and prosecutors have increased powers to issue protective orders. Inadequate resources, however, undermine this progress. Small budgets result in poor enforcement of new laws and incomplete implementation of preventative and treatment programs. Moreover, most efforts focus on urban areas, leaving rural women with little recourse. In addition, despite an increase in the number of cases brought to court, the number of prosecutions remains low.

One major obstacle to effective investigation and prosecution of domestic violence is obtaining medical evidence. For many women, medical exams are problematic due to scarce facilities, few female personnel at those facilities, and demeaning treatment.

Because of the unevenness of governmental action, NGOs have led efforts to combat domestic violence. NGOs often implement programs that serve as models for governments.

This is an area where commitments by heads of state to implement and finance these model NGO programs could make a difference.

 Women’s Health

The situation of women’s basic health has improved in the region as a whole, but there are still major gaps.

Women’s access to pre-natal care and obstetric services has increased in most countries. This is reflected in lower rates of maternal mortality since the 1970s, although the variation among countries is substantial.

In some countries there have been alarming increases in rates of breast and cervical cancer, heart disease, and AIDS. In general, the coverage and quality of health care remains inadequate. Women suffer from the low frequency of screening for cervical cancer. Although totally preventable if caught early, cervical cancer remains the greatest cause of cancer death among women. There is also a high unmet demand for modern contraceptives in the region.

Government-run family planning programs frequently have low coverage. So many women have no access to safe and reliable contraception, or they self-medicate, without good information and at some risk. As a result, illegal abortions are frequent, and many poor women suffer complications due to dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Sterilization is among the most widely used methods of family planning in Latin America, except in countries like Argentina and Chile where it is illegal or access is restricted.

In Argentina and Chile, while better economic conditions have led to improvements in women’s health generally, there has been a severe lack of attention to reproductive health. This has contributed to a high rate of abortions: in 1990, there were 4.5 abortions per 100 women in Chile, compared with 2.7 in the US, 2.3 in Mexico and 1.2 in Canada. The widespread practice of abortion in Chile is in part a consequence of the inadequate dissemination of information about contraception. In contrast, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, the rate of abortion is lower. In these countries, the state has assumed the responsibility for family planning and approved private suppliers of contraceptives, the rate of abortion is lower.

In many countries, women’s NGOs have begun to fill the gap left by inadequate state action in family planning and women’s health. [The Nicaraguan non-governmental health clinic, SI Mujer, services 18,000 women clients in Managua.]

Many Latin American governments hesitate to take measures in the area of women's reproductive health because of pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, the consequences of this inaction are increasing problems for women's health.

Governments should commit to implementing or financing successful NGO models of service provision in the areas of cancer screening, and access to information about, and methods of contraception.

I refer you to the report for a review of women's economic and educational opportunities.


In conclusion, this cursory overview suggests that women’s rights and opportunities are increasing in Latin America. Some progress is due to governmental efforts in reforming laws, creating new mechanisms for the representation of women’s interests, and adopting gender-specific public policies. This has occurred mainly in the areas of health and violence prevention. These advancements, however, have been brought about only by steady pressure from women politicians, women’s movements, and international organizations.

In many cases, therefore, global discourse on women’s rights and equal opportunities has compelled governments to make commitments to women. In some important cases, constant vigilance and monitoring by women’s groups has succeeded in translating formal goals and commitments into policy with concrete results for women’s lives. The convergence of international norms, formal commitments, increased women’s participation, democratic consolidation, and a more active civil society provides an opportunity for women to make gains in the economy, society, and politics. A central objective of the Women’s Leadership Conference of the Americas is to capitalize on this convergence. We consider this opportunity to address the Permanent Council’s Special Committee on Summit Management an important step toward transforming this convergence into concrete progress for women. Thank you very much for the invitation to share our views.

[CEGCI Meetings/tracker.htm]