By Victoria Moreno
In July, Mexicans will choose their new president; of the two leading candidates, one is economist Josefina Vasquez Mota. While she may be the first female presidential candidate in Mexico’s history, her nomination follows an increasing trend in Latin American politics. Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua and Costa Rica have already elected women as presidents. In fact, a recent survey by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean revealed that women in the region have reached more presidential positions than any part of the world. Furthermore, the majority of university students are women.
Yet the study also shows that despite increasing political representation at the highest level, a paradox remains when we consider the contrasts and contradictions many women experience on a day-to-day basis. Violence and crimes against women have increased in recent years, while overall gender inequality remains marked, for example when looking at average pay.
In order to make sense of this we need to understand that Latin American women are framed by political and social contradictions in which gender relations and roles have been influenced by the Catholic ethos. This influence often goes unnoticed because it is omnipresent in society – whether within the family, government, or judiciary.
Since 9/11 Islam has been sometimes been portrayed as an “evil” religion that abuses and enslaves women, but relatively few people (even women) have questioned the role of Catholicism in the spread of HIV/AIDS (especially in Africa), specifically the impact contraception policies have on teenage motherhood and the high rate of unwanted births in very poor households in developing countries.
Even rarer has been questioning of the Catholic ethos when it comes to the construction of love, pleasure and motherhood. In Catholicism, suffering and sacrifices are rewarded in heaven. In this respect, relationships are expected for many women to be suffered or endured, which has contributed to the tolerance of widespread domestic violence, manifesting itself both physically and psychologically across social classes. Moreover, the example of the Virgin Mary has reinforced definitions of womanhood through motherhood, suffering and purity. The figure of mother Mary in regards to affection and protection is contrary to the figure of God the Father, more typically associated with punishment of weakness and sin.
Policies and judicial procedures relating to the protection of women and the punishment of crimes such as rape and domestic violence are often very weak in Latin America– and in some countries almost non-existent. Yet on the other hand, the state becomes active only in a patriarchal role to punish women, for example in relation to abortion, which is regarded as a crime rather than a right and is illegal in most Latin American countries.
In some countries there are signs of progress; many groups are lobbying for changes to abortion laws. Recently Colombia legalised abortion when women face life-threatening conditions, or following rape. Yet even this small step prompted huge opposition from the state and church.
Many believe that changing the law is the first step for a cultural change, but the majority of Latin American countries have been secular states for half a century, yet the influence of Catholicism remains in policies that seek to punish women instead of recognising their role in society, and promoting their wellbeing. As long as this is the case, it will not matter whether women in Latin American are in power, since they will only perpetuate the status quo.