Although Colombia seems to have a number of the right policies for improving gender equality, structural challenges and slow uptake risk making equality a distant goal.
Colombia has come a long way since the days when it was stereotyped as a conflict-ridden “machista” country. It has strong laws in favor of women’s rights, political will and institutions that support gender equity. Last year, law 1475 ensured that 30% of candidates in all elections, and 30% of the positions in the highest levels of government were to be occupied by women – by comparison, the Latin American average for female representation in legislatures was 22% in 2010. As well, Cristina Plazas, who is reportedly close to the president, is the Vice-Minister of the High Presidential Council for Gender Equity, an innovative institutional mechanism with a mandate to support gender equity and women’s rights.
At the same time, there is a vibrant civil society giving voice to women’s rights and grievances in Colombia. The Political Advocacy Roundtable of Rural Women, a loud and boisterous coalition of individuals concerned about women’s livelihoods in the Colombian countryside, is but one example of this social mobilization. On average, women are better educated than men in Colombia and they are not afraid to speak out about their opinions.
Yet in practice, Colombian women still suffer from regular forms of violence, exploitation and social marginalization. The country’s standing on the Social Institutions and Gender Index (which looks at the underlying causes of inequality) is slipping: this year it ranks 26th out of 86 countries, whereas in 2009 it ranked 18th. Oxfam continues to report ongoing violence against women, including the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war within the country.
It remains difficult to know how women fare in the workforce as compared to men. While most Colombian women have informal jobs, the National Statistics Office and Labor Ministry only monitor the salaries and work conditions of formal employment. Academic research, however, finds that the gender wage gap is slightly higher in Colombia (14%) than on average across Latin America (10%). And while enforcement of labor laws is weak generally, there are some worrying differences in the treatment of male and female workers in some agricultural sectors, such as the highly profitable cut flower industry, where women are subjected to pregnancy screenings before being hired and fired if ever they should become pregnant.
How can Colombia, who appears to be enacting all the right policies, guarantee that gender equity is put into practice?
A couple of key problems which may point to the beginning of an answer are: The gap in policy vs. funding programs and the way they are monitored (labor policy is a good example here); high crime levels and many unsafe geographic regions resulting in a porous application of the laws protecting women (and men); and – unfortunately – the persistence of the low social status of some women (particularly afro-descendant and indigenous Colombians). This latter issue might be the stickiest of all, since changing attitudes takes time to consolidate. (Reports that Colombia is lagging behind its regional neighbors in terms of female representation, despite the above mentioned Law 1475, illustrate the scale of this challenge). Perhaps we can learn from the Spanish saying: “a nuevos tiempos, nuevas costumbres” — in changing times, new habits are needed.
Author Barb McLaren is a researcher at the Canadian North-South Institute specialized in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States