In December 2006, on the occasion of delivering the opening address of the 53rd Annual Congress of the Indian Political Science Association in Jaipur, I had the privilege to share the podium with the then Governor of Rajasthan, Pratibha Patil. In my presentation, I referred to the election of Michelle Bachelet as President of Chile earlier that year, and the fact that half the Cabinet she had appointed consisted of women. As it was a rather long ceremony, and we were sitt ing next to each other on the dais, we had a chance to talk quite a bit. Ms Patil showed great interest in what President Bachelet had done in office so far, and how she had gone about it. Little did we know that only a few months later, Ms Patil would make history herself by becoming the first woman President of India.

South Asia, of course, is a region known for its large number of top women leaders, from Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka and Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, as well as, of course, Sonia Gandhi in India today. This is especially striking given the many indicators about widespread discrimination against women and the girl child. In Latin America, on the other hand, women leaders have had a much lower profile - that is, until now.

Since December of 2006, what seemed to be a somewhat isolated, if interesting, event largely confined to a single country, has turned out to be a harbinger of things to come, as evidenced by the inauguration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner this Sunday in Buenos Aires, likely to be a mini Latin summit (and where the self-marginalisation of the United States from regional affairs is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that it will be represented by its Secretary of Labour, perhaps the lowest ranking of all U.S. Cabinet members). This is not only the first time Argentina has elected a woman President, following shortly in the footsteps of Chile. It also reflects a broader regional trend. Portia Simpson-Miller was elected Prime Minister of Jamaica in 2006; the first runner-up in the October 28 presidential elections in Argentina was also a woman, Elisa Carrió, as was Ms Bachelet's main rival within Chile's ruling coalition, Soledad Alvear. In Peru, President Alan García faced a challenge from Lourdes Flores in the April 2006 elections. A woman may run as a presidential candidate for Paraguay's ruling party in 2008.

This is not to say that women in the region had not put on the presidential sash before. In Argentina itself, Isabel Perón succeeded her husband, Juan Domingo Perón, for two years in the presidency in 1974, as did Janet Jagan in Guyana; Violeta Chamorro was President of Nicaragua in the 1990s, and Mireya Moscoso in Panama. Leida Gueiler also held briefly the Bolivian presidency. A total of 13 women have held the position of head of state or head of government, but many of them for only a short time, in small countries; they have certainly made their mark in the Caribbean, with Eugenia Charles in Dominica and Ertha Pascal Trouillot in Haiti.

But this is the first time two major countries in the Southern Cone, which have traditionally set much of the regional agenda, will be led by women. Interestingly, both Michelle Bachelet and Cristina Fernandez cut their political teeth in the struggle against military dictators - Ms Bachelet as a medical student who was arrested and roughed up by the military, forcing her into exile, and Ms Fernandez as a young Peronist lawyer fighting General Videla's rule. Argentina was the first country in Latin America (as early as 1991) to establish a quota system for women members of Parliament (as high as 30 per cent) and 13 other nations followed suit. In Chile, half the Cabinet appointed by President Bachelet consisted of women, and in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico women have moved on from the "softer" Cabinet portfolios such as Health and Education to the "harder" ones as Defence and Foreign Affairs. Across the region, about one in five Cabinet members are women, as are one in five members of the lower house of Parliament, up from one in six in 2000 and one in 20 in 1980. The rise of women's policy agencies (WPAs) in many countries of the region, that is, government units that put on the front burner women's issues such as domestic violence, child care and measures against gender discrimination, has been another significant trend in the course of the past decade-and-a-half, and one that has been instrumental in approving and enforcing legislation to strengthen women's rights.

Significant implications

The implications of this in traditionally male-dominated societies, where machismo rules (the story goes that at the First United Nations Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975, the hosts wanted it to be chaired by a man) can hardly be underestimated. And we are likely to see more of it. As Buvinic and Roza have shown in an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study, the rise of women leaders reflects deep socio-economic and demographic changes. In some countries like Chile the very notion of affirmative action for women is still controversial, but elsewhere it has become the coin of the realm, and mandatory quotas for political office elicit little opposition.

Why this sudden upsurge of Latin women leaders? Although Latin America has often followed political currents in North America and Western Europe, this is far from being simply a "trendy" effort to catch up with the Hillary Clintons, Angela Merkels and Segolene Royals of our time. Rather, as the IDB study shows, it is rooted in factors that are modernising Latin America and its somewhat anachronistic political institutions. They include educational gains that have given women the intellectual tools to compete in today's knowledge society. In marked contrast to Africa and Asia, where girls often lag behind boys in educational opportunities, in Latin America girls make up for a higher share than boys at school.

The region's democratisation over the past two decades (almost all countries in the region now have established, if sometimes low-intensity, democracies) has also helped, pushing for the inclusion of traditionally disadvantaged groups such as aboriginal peoples, ethnic minorities and women. As old-fashioned political parties with strong credibility problems struggle to come to terms with this rapidly changing environment, women leaders, often perceived as less corrupt, more task-oriented and with a warmer, more people-friendly leadership style, have moved in and occupied newly emerging political spaces.

And if demography is destiny, it should be noted that women voters are outnumbering men, thus pressuring for political agendas that reflect their own concerns (often much more related to family matters) rather than those of men. In Latin America's ageing societies, women, who tend to outlive their husbands, will thus increasingly become key voting blocs, often breaking away from established party preferences. In Chile, where women had historically voted in a higher proportion for the Right than men, they turned into a key constituency for Socialist Michelle Bachelet's meteoric rise from political obscurity to the presidency in a scarce six years.

The jury is still out as to whether women leaders have their own distinctive political leadership style, one that differs in substantial ways from that of men. In a different setting, a study done in West Bengal by Chatthopadhyay and Duflo (2001) shows that quotas for women as leaders of village councils did make a difference in decision-making, with women leaders allocating more resources to issues directly relevant to women, while also generating a higher participation of women in village affairs. In South Africa, in the 1990s, under the leadership of then Speaker Frene Ginwala, Parliament undertook an exercise called "the Women's Budget," in which members would analyse the yearly changes in the budget from the perspective of how they affected issues of high concern to women.

This would seem to indicate that the public policy priorities women leaders embrace - such as assigning a higher relevance to family matters and issues pertinent to healthcare and education - key to the improvement of the standard of living of Latin American societies (where the number of people under the poverty line approaches 40 per cent and where income inequality is the highest in the world) hold up the hope that the feminisation of Latin American politics will do some good.

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