San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Women Progress in Politics

With 22 women heading into the Legislative Assembly May 1, the start of the 2006-2010 legislative term, female lawmakers heading the four leading legislative factions for the first time in history, and a recent presidential election in which contenders for the country’s vice-presidency were largely women, Costa Rica might have a head start in the global race toward the unexplored territory of gender equality in politics.

Together, the 22 congresswomen make up 38.6% of the total 57 legislators, a percentage that places Costa Rica in first place in Latin America and third place in the world ranking for women’s representation in Congress, according to political analyst Sandra Picado, of Costa Rica’s National Institute for Women (INAMU). Oddly, Rwanda crowns the list, followed by Sweden.

With an impressive 48.8% of women in parliament, Rwanda, ravaged by genocide in 1994, climbed to the top after its last presidential election in 2003, according to a press release from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a Geneva, Switzerland-based international organization of parliaments that assembles the world ranking of women in Congress. After writing up a new Constitution that establishes a quota of 30% female participation in government positions, Rwanda, left with a 70% female population after the genocide, jumped forward to near parity in parliament, according to IPU.

Costa Rica, which established a quota that requires 40% women in the internal structure of all political parties, should celebrate the achievement of climbing to third place, according to newly elected Vice-President Laura Chinchilla.

The country shot up five slots from its world ranking as eighth during President Abel Pacheco’s administration, when the country’s Legislative Assembly was 35% female.

Next month, Mayi Antillón will head the National Liberation Party fraction of 25 elected lawmakers, of which 11 are women.

Elizabeth Fonseca will be chief of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) faction of 17 legislators, of whom eight are women. Evita Arguedas will head the Libertarian Movement faction of six legislators, while Lorena Vásquez will lead the five legislators for the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

Nevertheless, Picado argues that the battle for equality in politics is far from over.

“Our progress is very slow. With 38% (female legislators) our Legislative Assembly still doesn’t reflect the 40% quota, and legal loopholes exist to allow this,” the political analyst said.

She explained that despite meeting the 40% quota for legislative candidates, political parties often place female candidates for the assembly at the bottom of their nominee lists, where they are unlikely to make it into Congress. In Costa Rica, people do not vote for individual legislators during the presidential election. Instead, Costa Ricans choose a political party for the assembly and mark their option on the ballot on Election Day. The percentage of votes obtained by each party determines the percentage of legislators from that party who will take seats in the assembly. This works from the top down, so if a party fills the top of their nominee list with men, only men will obtain seats for that party in Congress.

According to Picado, if 10 years after the November 1996 reform to the Electoral Code the quota it is not met, then “We should not speak of progress but of backward movement.”

The Citizen Action Party (PAC) has developed a system to ensure its women and men are elected in equal numbers for seats in the Assembly. PAC submits a nominee list that alternates between male and female legislative candidates, and is the only party to do this, according to Andrea Morales, a lawyer and newly elected PAC legislator.

In addition, PAC and the Patriotic Union Party, which emerged during the past electoral season, were the only two parties with women candidates for both the first and second vice-presidency posts.

All other parties with presidential tickets had only one woman candidate for vice-president. Picado explained that the Electoral Code reform stipulates that a female candidate must occupy one of the three leading posts in a political party – either the presidency, or one of the two vice-presidencies.

Morales, 25, who on May 1 will become the youngest legislator in Costa Rican history, told The Tico Times that to obtain a higher number of women in the assembly, affirmative action is necessary.

She added that PAC plans to focus on the topic of gender in the legislature.

“I hope to leave my door open and serve as a channel of communication so women’s proposals can reach the assembly,” she said.

Morales said although she will have to overcome the barriers of her age and gender, she is prepared to give a strong fight for Costa Rican women. Gloria Valerín, an outspoken feminist legislator for the Social Christian Unity Party, said being a woman in Congress can be difficult.

“If you are a classic woman subjected to the power of the classic political parties, you can pass unnoticed. Opposing these parties always brings problems, and if you’re a woman, it brings more problems,” she told The Tico Times.

In May, when her term ends, Valerín, who ran for Vice-President of the Patriotic Union Party, founded for this election, will return to the position she had before Pacheco’s administration, as director of the assembly’s technical service.

Vice-President-elect Chinchilla disagreed with Valerín.

Chinchilla, a former Public Security Minister who has been a National Liberation legislator for the past four years, said she did not feel any discriminatory tendencies in the assembly. The legislator said more hierarchical institutions might foster these tendencies, but the assembly has a collegial atmosphere.

She said as Vice-President she will try to ensure that all decisions taken are good for women, and plans to focus her work on women in the penitentiary system, who are often mothers or caught in the world of drugs.

Chinchilla said rather than focusing on the percentage that separates the assembly from the 40% quota, she prefers to emphasize the achievement of having Costa Rica at the forefront of Latin America for the number of women in its assembly.


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