Latin Amer­ica

Gen­der Par­ity in Mex­ico

Newsweek - - Con­tents - BY OS­CAR LOPEZ @os­car­lopezgib

ever since she was a young girl grow­ing up in the rough sub­urbs of Mex­ico City, Cit­lalli Hernán­dez had big po­lit­i­cal dreams. “I al­ways thought that some­thing was wrong with the coun­try, that I had to do some­thing to trans­form it,” says the 28-year-old. “I wanted to be the first woman pres­i­dent.”

In a coun­try that ranks 81st in the world for gen­der equal­ity, ac­cord­ing to the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, such am­bi­tions have been far-flung: When Hernán­dez was grow­ing up in the early ’90s, women held just 8.4 per­cent of seats in the lower house and 4.7 per­cent in the Se­nate. “In Mex­ico, it’s still hard for peo­ple to un­der­stand that women can have power,” she says. “Un­for­tu­nately, in pol­i­tics, men have al­ways had greater op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

But Hernán­dez was undeterred. In 2014, she joined Morena, a po­lit­i­cal party newly founded by a fiery left­ist with pres­i­den­tial as­pi­ra­tions of his own: An­drés Manuel López Obrador. A year later, she ran for a seat in Mex­ico City’s lo­cal congress and won. Then, on July 1, along­side the pres­i­den­tal vic­tory of López Obrador, Hernán­dez be­came the youngest per­son elected to the Se­nate in the coun­try’s his­tory.

Her win was part of a po­lit­i­cal revo­lu­tion for women in Mex­ico. That night, Mex­ico City vot­ers also elected a woman, Clau­dia Shein­baum, as their next mayor, ar­guably the se­cond-most im­por­tant elected po­si­tion in the coun­try. Women also won enough seats to make up half of most state houses. But the big achieve­ment was the na­tional leg­is­la­ture: When Hernán­dez took her seat in the Se­nate on Septem­ber 1, she was

one of over 300 women en­ter­ing Congress, mean­ing that, for the first time ever, there will be nearly to­tal gen­der equal­ity in both houses.

As a re­sult, Mex­ico ranks fourth in the world for women’s leg­isla­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion; by con­trast, the U.S. ranks 102nd, with only 23 women serv­ing in the U.S. Se­nate and 84 in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, mak­ing up less than 20 per­cent of the lower cham­ber’s mem­bers. “It’s a his­toric op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance the rights of women,” says Hernán­dez. “That’s why it falls on us to spread the ex­am­ple and in­spire many more women to break cul­tural bi­ases.”

The sweep could have far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for ev­ery­thing from work­place pro­tec­tions to abor­tion rights to the coun­try’s gen­der pay gap. And fe­male leg­is­la­tors seem to have an en­thu­si­as­tic ally in López Obrador; for the first time, there will be gen­der par­ity in the pres­i­den­tial Cabi­net, with women set to head key de­part­ments, such as econ­omy, en­ergy and la­bor, when he takes of­fice on De­cem­ber 1.

Among them is for­mer supreme court jus­tice Olga Sánchez Cordero, the in­com­ing sec­re­tary of gov­ern­ment, one of the most pow­er­ful roles in the next ad­min­is­tra­tion. Dur­ing the cam­paign, she pro­moted a doc­u­ment known as “Fem­splain­ing” that of­fered so­lu­tions to tackle the most press­ing prob­lems fac­ing women in Mex­ico, in­clud­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, work­place abuse and un­der­em­ploy­ment. She has even vowed to de­crim­i­nal­ize abor­tion once López Obrador is in power. “We’re go­ing to change this pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem into a sys­tem of fam­ily democ­racy,” Sánchez Cordero said with a shake of her fist at a re­cent press con­fer­ence. “That is my pro­ject.”

Im­ple­ment­ing these pro­pos­als won’t be easy. Mex­ico re­mains a mostly con­ser­va­tive Catholic coun­try, where abor­tion is fully le­gal only in Mex­ico City. Even more prob­lem­atic is a his­toric cul­tural hos­til­ity to­ward women that of­ten ends in vi­o­lence. The coun­try is in the grips of a femi­cide epi­demic, where women are killed specif­i­cally be­cause of their gen­der. In 2017, 3,256 women were mur­dered across the coun­try, up from 2,790 the year be­fore.

“This vi­o­lence is the re­sult of so­cial, cul­tural prac­tices and poli­cies that en­dorse, that tol­er­ate the ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior of men,” says Ge­orgina Cár­de­nas, a gen­der stud­ies ex­pert at Mex­ico’s Na­tional Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity. “Machismo in this coun­try is killing us.”

Hav­ing more women in of­fice is an im­por­tant first step in chang­ing both the so­cial at­ti­tudes and le­gal frame­works that lead to vi­o­lence, says Cár­de­nas: “Sym­bol­i­cally, it’s seen that of course women have the same ca­pa­bil­i­ties as men to be in po­si­tions of power. And it’s of­ten these same women who pro­mote agen­das in fa­vor of gen­der equal­ity.”’

For women in Mex­ico, who won the right to vote 65 years ago, gen­der par­ity has been a long time com­ing. But un­like the wave of women cur­rently run­ning for of­fice in the U.S., which was spurred by anti-trump activism and the #Metoo move­ment, this new class of Mex­i­can politi­cians is the re­sult of gov­ern­ment re­forms de­signed to up­end a power struc­ture that has locked women out of pub­lic life. “The fem­i­nist move­ment in Mex­ico has spent years ask­ing for this,” says Araceli Damián, a Mex­i­can con­gress­woman who is also part of López Obrador’s Morena party.

The process be­gan in earnest in 2003, when Mex­ico im­ple­mented a 30 per­cent quota for fe­male can­di­dates on bal­lot pa­pers (in Mex­ico, par­ties de­cide who runs for of­fice, not in­di­vid­ual can­di­dates). At the time, women held just 17 per­cent of seats in the lower house. The quota was then raised to 40 per­cent in the 2009 elec­tions.

But ac­cord­ing to Damián, power bro­kers in ma­jor par­ties found ways to cheat the sys­tem, run­ning fe­male can­di­dates in dis­tricts where they were likely to lose. If they won, of­fi­cials would push them to re­sign and re­place them with men.

Sig­nif­i­cant change didn’t come un­til 2011, when a ma­jor court de­ci­sion re­quired par­ties to fully com­ply with the gen­der quota. Three years later, an amend­ment to the Mex­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion man­dated an equal num­ber of men and women can­di­dates in fed­eral and state leg­is­la­tures. “The rules have been writ­ten to make sure that the cheat­ing that went on won’t work,” says Magda Hi­no­josa, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, who has fol­lowed Mex­ico’s gen­der par­ity laws closely. “It will ce­ment the tremen­dous gains that women have made—gains that won’t be re­versed.”

The steady in­crease of women in pol­i­tics is hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on Mex­i­can law: A 2011 study from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, found that “fe­male leg­is­la­tors in­tro­duce the vast ma­jor­ity of women’s in­ter­est bills…[which] over­whelm­ingly pro­mote fem­i­nist, pro­gres­sive vi­sions

“We’re go­ing to change this pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem into a sys­tem of fam­ily democ­racy.”

of women’s rights and roles.”

At a Septem­ber 6 press con­fer­ence in Mex­ico City, newly elected fe­male se­na­tors from all par­ties gath­ered to an­nounce a plan to re­form 15 ar­ti­cles of the Mex­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion to ex­tend the gen­der par­ity man­date to the ex­ec­u­tive and ju­di­cial branches. Sen­a­tor Ke­nia López said the pro­posal would help “elim­i­nate dis­crim­i­na­tion, ex­clu­sion, abuse, vi­o­lence and the con­stant risk of vi­o­la­tion of women’s rights and fun­da­men­tal free­doms.”

But per­haps more im­por­tant, says Hi­no­josa, is how this in­creased rep­re­sen­ta­tion may shift Mex­i­can cul­ture and so­ci­ety more broadly. “See­ing women in of­fice brings about tremen­dous so­cial change,” she says. “It sends a mes­sage that women are val­ued, that women ab­so­lutely be­long in pol­i­tics and ev­ery­where else.”

Chal­lenges re­main, in­clud­ing op­po­si­tion from other women. Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern for abor­tion ac­tivists: The rise of the con­ser­va­tive So­cial En­counter Party, a hard-right evan­gel­i­cal group that saw a boost in the last elec­tion due to an al­liance with the Morena party.

For the new crop of fe­male politi­cians, how­ever, the great­est worry re­mains the femi­cide epi­demic and the im­punity that runs ram­pant in Mex­ico’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect­ing women. A 2013 study from the Na­tional Cit­i­zen Femi­cide Ob­ser­va­tory found that only 1.6 per­cent of mur­der cases in­ves­ti­gated as femi­cides in Mex­ico end in sen­tenc­ing. “It’s the big mo­ment,” says Hernán­dez, the young sen­a­tor, who is too fo­cused on her new job to en­ter­tain the idea of run­ning for pres­i­dent one day.

But the re­al­ity of a woman pres­i­dent? Of that Hernán­dez has no doubt. “I think it will come a lot sooner than we think.”


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