ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Gender Agenda of Pink Tide in Latin America

With the ascent of moderate to left leaders across Latin America, women are in the public spotlight. Although they are assuming greater levels of leadership, the question is whether these new governments genuinely address the rights of women. To ensure that women do not fare worse than before, alongside equality a change in the gender division of labour is necessary so that they do not end up bearing the triple burden of housework, wage work, and activism.

Letter from America

Gender Agenda of Pink Tide in Latin America

With the ascent of moderate to left leaders across Latin America, women are in the public spotlight. Although they are assuming greater levels of leadership, the question is whether these new governments genuinely address the rights of women. To ensure that women do not fare worse than before, alongside equality a change in the gender division of labour is necessary so that they do not end up bearing the triple burden of housework, wage work, and



ith the election of left 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 ad dressing gender equality in Chile. Women are in the public spotlight and active as never before with the ascent of moderate to left 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 from what it was in the post-revolutionary contexts of Cuba in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s. In those contexts, political leaders created state agencies in order to promote women’s interests and rights within a broader project of statebuilding. Women of all classes participated in organisations such as the Federation of Cuban Women and the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women. These organisations provided scope for addressing gender inequalities, but women’s interests were often secondary to the greater political goals of national unity and development.

By contrast, we find that under left wing governments in Latin America today, women are not organised en masse within state women’s organisations. 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 organisation. Evo Morales argued against segregating women’s interests by forming separate organisations 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 organisation does not have a mass membership like its counterparts in postrevolutionary Cuba and Nicaragua. INAMujer presides over such women’s groupings as the ‘Fuerzas Bolivarianas’ (Bolivarian Forces) and the ‘Puntos de Encuentro’ (Meeting Points), but to date neither of these organisations have succeeded in drawing in women to any significant degree. Nor have women formed autonomous women’s movements like the ‘Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida’ (Women for Dignity and Life) in the revolutionary context of El Salvador or the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. Some groups like the radical ‘Mujeres Creando’ (Women Creating) in Bolivia do exist, but their message has not appealed to the larger population of women.

Perhaps some of these differences between the earlier revolutionary movements and the pink tide can be traced to the rise of the feminist movement in Latin America, which grew substantially during the 1980s and 1990s due to transnational organisations, conferences, and networking. It has been less easy to incorporate women into mass organisations, 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, organised feminists have acted as lobby groups to make their voices heard by the new left leaders. In Venezuela, women organised 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, organised feminists working within the state are predominantly middle class, professional women with few connections to popular women.

Role of Global Organisations

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 non-government organisations, particularly around the time of the Fourth World Conference on Women 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 domi-nate 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 as movements of consciousness raising.

Rather than allying themselves with middle class feminists, or joining state women’s organisations, poor, indigenous, and urban barrio women work alongside men in the context of local community organisations, many of which have long histories. In Bolivia, mining women historically played an important role in movements

Economic and Political Weekly September 29, 2007

against the military state in the 1970s. Popular and indigenous women are organised within the Bartolina Sisa Federation of Peasant Women, and local committees and councils that were formed during the movements against water and gas privatisation. Women coca growers (Cocaleras) have organised in unions to defend their right to produce. In Brazil, women have organised in black women’s coalitions and they have been important protagonists in the landless labourer’s movement (MST). One of the slogans of the MST is: “Constructing new relations of gender, Defying relations of power”. In Venezuela, during the guerrilla movements of the 1960s, the struggles against urban remodelling in the 1970s and hunger strikes in the 1980s, urban barrio women were engaged in organic forms of community activism jointly with the men in the barrio. Barrio women draw on these long established community networks as they participate in Chávez’s social programmes like soup kitchens and literacy missions. Indigenous women in Venezuela in areas such as Zulia have also been involved in longterm struggles for the defence of their livelihood and natural resources; these have continued under Chávez.

Sense of Importance

Yet, while poor and indigenous women tend to work in local spaces and engage in struggles outside of the state, many still strongly identify with governmentdirected programmes and leaders such as Chávez and Morales. Poor women activists feel a sense of importance as a result of these leaders’ emphasis on the protagonism of the popular classes as a motor force for change in society. The presence of black and mestiza women on billboards describing the missions in Venezuela is a radical departure from standard commercial advertisements, such as the advertisements dotting the city landscape that present highly sexualised portraits of women in skimpy bikinis, with European features and long flowing blond hair. Chávez and Morales speak endearingly to women, referring to them in affectionate and familial terms. In interviews in Venezuela, I frequently heard barrio women credit Chávez for their involvement in politics. But at the same time, they would often criticise or disagree with him, arguing with him on the television or even in some cases trying to approach him at public events to convey their complaints.

The experiences have been different on the more moderate end of the pink tide spectrum. Both Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Michelle Bachelet in Chile came to power as part of coalition governments that included conservative factions, and more importantly, close relationships with the hierarchy of the Catholic church. During earlier periods, Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and Bachelet’s Socialist Party were strong antagonists of the Catholic church, but in the 1990s, under conditions of “reconciliation”, these parties began to repair their ties with the church establishment. The effect on women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights, has been negative. Just before the November 2006 elections in Nicaragua, Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo came out in support of banning therapeutic abortion, thereby removing the last option for women who want to terminate pregnancies that put their health at risk.

Likewise, more than a decade of rule by the centre-left Concertación government in Chile has also led to a conservative approach to issues of sexual and reproductive rights. Bachelet has been beholden to some of these same policies, but at the same time, she has spoken openly about gender equality. She may be more constrained in her possibilities for action than other leaders such as Chávez and Morales, but she has also been forceful about opening up a debate about women’s rights.

The presence of Bachelet as one of the sole women leaders in the pink tide, and in the Americas more generally, raises the thorny question of women’s leadership. On a wall in the Bolivian city of La Paz, there is a graffiti that reads, “There will be no Eva out of Evo’s rib”. But it is not only an issue of women in high ranking positions, but their role in the everyday community-based organisations, indigenous movements, and union movements. While women are often central participants in these movements, they have not always taken up leadership roles. During my work in Venezuela, I observed that while women were the majority of those active in the health committee or soup kitchens, leadership was often still in the hands of one or two male members of the community. This is changing, and as issues of gender equality and leadership are being raised in assembly meetings, committee collectives and communal councils, women are assuming greater levels of leadership. But along with this leadership there needs to be a change in the gender division of labour, so that women do not end up bearing the triple burden of housework, wage work, and activism.




(Deemed University) Govandi Station Road, Deonar, Mumbai # 400 088.


The International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, invites applications for the post of Director & Sr. Professor in the prescribed format along with attested copies of testimonials/certificates etc., to be addressed to Shri. D.P.S. Chowhan, Under Secretary (Stat-II), Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (Deptt. of Health & Family Welfare), Room No 508, D Wing, Nirman Bhavan, New Delhi- 110 011. For details please visit Institute’s website at Last date for receipt of applications is 31.10.2007


Economic and Political Weekly September 29, 2007

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