#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico: Women in politics: New rules for equality

by Amárilis Pagán-Jiménez

Some people say that whoever pays for the bills, states the rules. And if we look at the political world of Puerto Rico and compare it with our economic statistics we know that it is almost impossible for women to be in a position of command today or in the next week. We are the group with the highest percentage of families under the poverty level. When it comes to have access to positions of power, it is also evident that not only the educational level that we reached is considered. Our biological sex determines social expectations around us, what stereotypes are used to judge us, what excuses are used to sexually assault us, and how likely is that our couple will abuse or murder us. Violence against women is much more than being hit, it is also a social platform apparatus that deprives us of opportunities for development and basic human rights.

When we lack basic human rights, like the right to the housing, to food, to education, health or work, our capacity for action is limited by a routine for survival that rarely leaves space for access to public and political spaces of the countries where we live. “What will give food to my family? Where will we live next week? How do I get to my work? What can I do with my children if schools are closed? How can I find a doctor to diagnose my symptoms? Where can I find a job that pays enough to cover the needs of my family?” These are just some of the questions that populate the heads of a high percentage of women in Puerto Rico.

Even women who have attained a higher educational level and employment, have dilemmas that need to be resolved before aspiring to public office. In Puerto Rico we lack a structure of social or governmental support to facilitate the raising of our children through quality care centres or schools with schedules that recognize the reality of working mothers. We are still pretty far from having family structures where the fair division of household chores is a reality.

As a woman, you have to be in a very particular economic and social niche to say with confidence that you are ready and have the necessary conditions to make the leap from the domestic space to the political arena. Even from that space, which we see as one of privilege, it is not easy to overcome obstacles and violence that represents a constant menace for women in the public world. Our morale, intelligence, leadership and even our form of dressing is always questioned and criticized.

Although women are 50% of humanity, our presence is scarce in political bodies, governments and economic leadership of the planet. On average, we are no more than 25% of the legislative bodies of the planet. According to UN Women, only 7.2% of women are head of state in the world. In Puerto Rico, 14 of 80 legislators are women (17.5%).  If we look again and evaluate each of the fourteen women legislators we have today from a gender perspective and in the light of their history of working for other women, we would have to conclude that women in Puerto Rico do not have representation in the legislature. I say this because in assessing the participation of women in politics and the public sphere, it is not enough to look at their biological sex, we have to look at their commitment to equality and their understanding about what is gender perspective.

When we talk about women in the political field, there are two important elements that collide with each other. On the one hand, we are a group consistently studied by advertising agencies to learn how to sell us political parties and their candidates. On the other hand, beyond wanting to win our vote, for many of those political parties there is no real interest in advancing an agenda of equality for us. We are the most desirable voters and at the same time, the group most despised at the time of distributing rights.

It is necessary, however, to look beyond what has been considered “politics”. Feminism and the LGBT activism have given us some good lessons because they have been able to work beyond partisan politics tied to electoral processes and have worked politically influencing social processes to advance their own agendas. To the horror of conservative groups who hate to see the women gaining the space they deserve and LGBT people reclaiming their humanity against the discrimination, our work has been paying off.

In the case of women, to reach 2016 elections in Puerto Rico with candidates and parties which fully supported our rights was not coincidence. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had to fight for the mere right to vote. In the 70’s, we had to work a reform of the Civil Code to achieve equal rights in marriage. In the 80’s we achieved legislation to prohibit domestic violence and sexual assault in marriages. In the 2000’s, economic development began to acquire importance on our agenda: with poverty in the center of our lives, there is no way to have equality. We have also achieved important rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity. All that work was political and, in this new decade, we are now ready to cross the borders of the electoral world and go into the spaces of power where decisions that affect not only women, but their families and their communities are made. If we are 50% of the population, we must also be 50% of those who make the decisions.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, in the election of 2016, we only had a 20% nominations of women versus 80% of men. In the case of the LGBT communities, as in past elections, we had candidates who have been open about their sexual orientation and that it is a breakthrough.

If we take a closer look at this picture and study platforms, proposals and the history of some parties and candidates of 2016, we can conclude that there was a real opportunity to change numbers and alter the proportion of representation of women and LGBT communities in our Government. Unfortunately, candidates who have attacked our rights prevailed. In part, because they have big-budget campaigns and it was difficult to overcome gender stereotypes. Many people still think that women must be at home and not leading in public spaces. We are still subject to a harsher evaluation than men and it is a disadvantage in politics where double standards cost votes. In the case of LGBT candidates another challenge is the direct attack of anti LGBT groups and religious fundamentalisms.

Is the political world a space of violence for women? Definitely yes. Not only is there violence in the double standards used to evaluate us that I have just mentioned. There is evidence and we know cases in which the manifestations of violence directly affect women candidates or that occupy public spaces from government offices, social movements or media. This does not mean that we should give up to a reality that we can and we must transform.

In a discussion on this topic held by the Organization Proyecto Matria in 2015, activists, students and workers identified some of the forms of violence suffered by women in public spaces and proposed concrete actions to counteract this violence. Some of them have already been mentioned in this column, but worth noting how the attacks on reputation, the fear of losing economic spaces and threats from private individuals or Government officials represent major concerns for every woman that wants to aspire to public office in Puerto Rico. These fears are not unfounded. In the past years we have seen the publication of private photos of public officials, election campaigns that make reference to sexual orientation or morals of candidates, defamatory campaigns in social networks and the persecution of activists by Government officials who have been confronted because of their incompetence or human rights violations. Coping with these challenges which add to the ones we already have in our lives long before considering a political career is hard enough and a good reason to think it twice.

Some of the proposals made by discussion group of Matria, and others found in a research on the subject, give us some keys that can be considered for future actions aimed to change and improve the situation of women in the public and political world of Puerto Rico. These same recommendations are probably good for other countries. For example, using tactics of reframing was one recommendation. What is it? To alter the meaning of a fact or situation by changing or clarifying its context and proposing a reinterpretation. Other proposals include the work of a common agenda of rights for women in the country and promote it directly with women candidates so they take them beyond the borders of their parties and generate a discourse that strengthens its presence in public spaces. It is also recommended to have a communication strategy that allows the continuous monitoring of media and social networks to achieve coordinated responses beyond the immediate circle of the candidate or of women occupying public positions. It is important to send the message that they are not alone or an easy prey for the machinery that tries to put us again in domestic and apolitical spaces.

Human rights include the right to participate in the decisions that affect our lives and our families. That is politics. That is equality and development for us all.

Amárilis Pagán-Jiménez, Executive Director of Proyecto Matria

NB: Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

References:

Women in Politics, 2017; UN Women; http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2017/femmesenpolitique_2017_english_web.pdf?la=en&vs=1123

Women’s leadership and political participation, UN Women; http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation

Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 December 2011 [on the report of the Third Committee (A/66/455 and Corr.1)] 66/130. Women and political participation; http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/66/130

Women in Politics: Why We Need More Women in Office; Soraya Chemaly, Huffpost 2012;https://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/women-in-politics_b_1307586.html

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