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In the Americas, Number of Congresswomen Slowly Growing

Peru's Congress convenes in Lima. (Image: Congreso de la Republica del Perú)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

In the Western Hemisphere, women’s participation in legislatures is gradually on the rise. The Americas as a region exceeds the global average for female representation in legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) February 2013 data. In the Western Hemisphere, women make up 24.1 percent of congresses, versus 20.1 percent internationally. The region saw an increase in women’s parliamentary representation by almost 10 percentage points over the last decade

In the IPU’s ranking of women in lower houses and unicameral legislatures, five countries in the hemisphere came in the top 20. Cuba ranks third in the world with 45 percent of its parliament occupied by women. Nicaragua follows in the ninth spot with 40.2 percent of female legislators in its unicameral house. Costa Rica came in at spot 15 with 38.5 percent, followed by Argentina and Mexico at spots 18 and 19, respectively. The region’s lowest performer is Belize, with only one woman serving in its 32-seat lower house.

Although Brazil and the United States saw record numbers of women win office in recent elections, both lag in terms of female congressional representation. In Brazil, the largest number of women in the country’s history won local government positions in October 2012, and 26 percent of ministerial positions are now held by women. But in the Chamber of Deputies, women make up just 8.6 percent of seats. The U.S. legislature is now composed of the highest number of congresswomen in its history—100 in total—but female legislators occupy only 17.8 percent of seats in the House of Representatives. 

Affirmative action mechanisms contribute to the growing number of women in legislatures, says a 2011 study from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). In countries where women represent more than 20 percent of congressional seats, a national quota law exists requiring a minimum number of female representatives. However, a January 2013 report from IDEA and UN Women on eight Latin American countries notes that women do not receive equal TV, radio, and print media coverage during congressional elections. In Argentina, for example, women made up 36 percent of congressional candidates, but only received 18.9 percent of media coverage. Chilean women accounted for 16 percent of congressional candidacies and received 18 percent of media coverage, making Chile the only country in the study where the percentage of coverage exceeded that of female candidates.