[With the election of leftist leaders in many parts of
Latin America, the subject of women seems to be coming up more
frequently in public discourse. Sujatha Fernandes asks what the impact is of this increased visibility on the
lives and opportunities of women from diverse class and racial
backgrounds? How do the more left wing and radical leaders differ from
moderate leaders of the pink tide in their approach to issues of
Rosa Mendoza, left, and Paula Lopez, right, two members of the Las Arañitas textile cooperative in San Felipe, state of Yaracuy, at MINEP's 4th School Fair for Popular Economy held in Caracas, Venezuela, Sep. 17, 2006. Credit: Pablo Navarrete
The Gender Agenda of the Pink Tide in Latin America
Thursday, October 4, 2007
With the election of leftist leaders in many parts of Latin America, the subject of women seems to be coming up more frequently in public discourse. Hugo Chávez speaks about Venezuelan women as “revolutionary mothers,” Evo Morales presents Bolivian women as combatants and fighters, and Michelle Bachelet committed herself to addressing gender equality in Chile. Women are in the public spotlight and active as never before with the ascent of moderate to leftist leaders across the region. Yet what is the impact of this increased visibility on the lives and opportunities of women from diverse class and racial backgrounds? How do the more left wing and radical leaders differ from moderate leaders of the pink tide in their approach to issues of women’s rights?
The relationship of women to revolutionary movements is quite different today to what it was in the post-revolutionary contexts of Cuba in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s. In those earlier contexts, political leaders created state women’s agencies in order to promote women’s interests and rights within a broader project of state-building. Women of all classes participated in organizations such as the Federation of Cuban Women and the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women. These organizations provided important scope for addressing gender inequalities, but women’s interests were often secondary to greater political goals of national unity and development.
By contrast, we find that under left wing governments in Latin America today, women are not organized en masse within state women’s organizations. Since in office, Lula Inacio da Silva in Brazil has created the Special Secretariat on Policy for Women, but this is a consulting body and not a mass-based organization. Evo Morales argued against segregating women’s interests by forming separate organizations for women in Bolivia and instead created the Vice-Ministry on Gender and Generations within the Justice Ministry. The Chávez administration created a new National Institute for Women, known as INAMujer, which was established by presidential decree in 2000. INAMujer works together with barrio women, but this organization does not have a mass membership like its counterparts in post-revolutionary Cuba and Nicaragua. INAMujer presides over such women’s groupings as the Bolivarian Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas) and the Meeting Points (Puntos de Encuentro), but to date neither of these organizations have succeeded in incorporating women to a significant degree. Nor have women formed autonomous women’s movements like Women for Dignity and Life (Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida) in the revolutionary context of El Salvador or the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. Some groups like the radical Women Creating (Mujeres Creando) in Bolivia do exist but their message has not succeeded in appealing to broader women.
Perhaps some of these differences between earlier revolutionary movements and the pink tide can be traced to the rise of the feminist movement in Latin America, that grew substantially during the 1980s and 1990s due to transnational organizing, conferences, and networking. It has been less easy to incorporate women into mass organizations, because many feminists want to maintain their own identity and protect the achievements of their movement from the tutelage of male populist leaders. In some cases, organized feminists have acted as lobby groups to make their voices heard by new left leaders. In Venezuela, women organized to elect women-friendly candidates to the new Constituent Assembly that Chávez convened in 1999 and they lobbied to include articles pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights in the drafting of the new Constitution, approved by referendum in 1999. But at the same time, organized feminists working within the state are predominantly middle class, professional women with few connections to popular women. The shift in Latin American feminism from a mass-based, often socialist-oriented movement to small, professional cores of women can be partly traced to the involvement of international foundations and NGOs, particularly around the time of the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing in 1995. International bodies and events, while providing the catalyst for new perspectives on gender and feminism, introduced an advocacy logic that began to dominate emerging feminisms and distracted women from doing broader activist work. International development agencies promoted the turn to “gender sensitivity” and “training in gender perspectives,” which saw gender awareness as a skill that needed to be taught by professionals, rather than in movements of consciousness raising.
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