Electoral competition has historically been a male-dominated sphere in Latin America and the Caribbean. Even though women represent the half of the population, they do not get the half of the positions of power. Of the 30,688 seats contested at national legislative level in 18 countries in the region since 1978, only 5,695 have been won by women. They face multiple forms of violence when they want to exercise their citizenship and their expectations of being able to assert their public voice are met - over and over again - with resistance from many men - and some women - who look down on them, undervalue them and prevent them from exercising power on an equal footing with men. They must constantly fight for their rights, even when these rights are formally recognised in the Constitutions.
In the last decades, this history of exclusion has become visible and institutional reforms have been promoted to change it. According to ECLAC data, the region has succeeded in increasing the number of women in parliament by more than 33.6 percentage points on average. In practice, more women have won seats, presided over Congresses, participated in commissions of all kinds - hard and soft -, lobbied for their interests and promoted projects and initiatives that put the improvement of women's living conditions at the centre. Their presence challenges the established order and carries a strong symbolic charge: it is about sharing power in a man's world. It is true that there are still not as many women as there should be, but there are many more than there used to be.
Laws have been allies in reducing gender gaps in Latin America. Without political reforms that changed the rules of the game, women would not have been able to run for power. This has been fundamental. If women are not placed on the lists as candidates, it is impossible for them to access representative positions. Since the leadership did not put them there of its own free will, it had to be forced by law to ensure that the lists had women's representation. More than three decades ago, our women leaders realised that the way in which the rules require parties to place women candidates, in combination with the electoral system, have an impact on the descriptive representation of women. The more demanding those rules are, the greater the presence of women in legislative institutions.
According to data from the Observatory of Political Reforms in Latin America, since 1991 there have been 45 reforms to the electoral gender regime in 17 countries in the region. Although affirmative action measures were initially approved to require at least 30 per cent of women candidates, over time the regulatory designs have become more complex, seeking to address normative gaps and deficiencies in order to avoid fraud and malpractice. The ideal gender electoral regime is one that requires vertical, horizontal and transversal gender parity, with women at the top of the lists; mandated alternating and sequential (zip) positions; complete formulas with incumbents and alternates of the same gender; principle of competitiveness, so that the electoral authority can register which are the districts where parties "always lose" (losing districts) and prevent women from being placed in them; absence of escape valves - allowing parties not to comply with the law - and clear and strong sanctions, including non-registration of candidates for non-compliance with the requirements of the law.
Currently, nine countries require some form of gender parity in the registration of their candidacies - Bolivia, Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico - although not all designs are equal, nor are their results uniform. On the other hand, there are countries - such as Guatemala - that currently do not include any kind of requirement for parties to include women on their lists.
Laws alone are not enough: a friendly electoral system and active political mobilisation are needed.
The gender electoral regime improves outcomes when combined with 'gender-friendly' electoral systems - proportional representation, medium and large districts, and closed and blocked lists - and when critical actors are in place, working in a coordinated manner to require parties to include women in candidatures and monitoring and overseeing that the law is applied and interpreted in favour of eliminating inequalities. In many cases, numerous legal loopholes and weak oversight have created opportunities for elites to violate, simulate or breach the requirements of the electoral gender regime. Hence, it is necessary to support the rules with clear and forceful action on the part of political actors.
Political mobilisation around the expansion of rights finds key allies in international cooperation, electoral authorities, academics and women defenders. This is why it is necessary for various women to work together, seeking to build bridges and networks in order to detect simulations and generate knowledge that helps to identify and overcome the obstacles that women face in accessing power. These lessons are transnational, travel from one country to another and teach well about what works (and does not work) in terms of institutional design. Moreover, in most cases where progress has been made in expanding women's rights, it is because there is an active "gender-friendly coalition", where the social movement has been able to overcome the constraints of party discipline and ideological differences and articulate responses around causes that allow them to work together.
The descriptive representation is a value in itself ... but it is not enough.
The political, social and academic challenge that remains is no less significant. Once women are in office, evaluations of them are often different from those of men - who are not expected to represent a particular ideology or interest just because they are men - and also reproduce stereotypes and double standards that suggest that women are often expected to represent only a certain type of agenda - progressive and feminist - when they hold power. The expectations not only place an additional burden on them, but also undermine the principle of pluralism and diversity of representation. This discussion in itself is very relevant, but - in the heat of the debate - it is necessary to remember that women have the right to hold positions of power, not only because of the changes they can or should bring about, but simply because they are citizens.
Women's presence in representative spaces has an embedded value that - in itself - contributes to the strengthening of democracies. Even so, descriptive representation requires power, agendas and interests that result in greater symbolic and material representation of power. Hence, what Latin America needs is more women in power, with power, to change women's lives.