The case of women’s political visibility in Costa Rica

Costa Rica ranks 12thoverall while being ranked 6th in political participation and this Central American nation is an example that India can emulate to increase the low representation of women in Parliament.

The case of women’s political visibility in Costa Rica
Costa Rica offers one of the comprehensive cases of the successful institutionalisation of quotas. (Image Credit: UNICEF)

By Hoimi Mukherjee

In evaluating Costa Rica’s political legacy after two hundred and one years of independence, one of its notable achievements has been ensuring women’s representation. Currently, there is an elected woman Vice President and more than 47 percent are women in Parliament.

In a context where the political culture is deeply impacted by Machismo which hinders women’s public participation, the increased number of women in institutions reflects efforts to widen the democracy. Machismo as an ideology originated in Iberia and was carried over Latin America during the Spanish Conquest. It stipulates behavioural norms according to gender and an extension of the doctrine restricts women’s public participation.

This ideology is deeply entrenched in the culture and, by extension, in the political culture that affects women’s political presence. To address the lack of women’s representation, experts point to two mechanisms: short-term institutional changes and long-term attitudinal changes. Often, institutional changes are used to alter the dominant attitudes, creating a more conducive environment for changing entrenched institutional norms which prevent women’s representation. Globally, the quotas for women in legislatures at different levels have been an example of such institutional mechanisms.

Before the Spanish conquest, Machismo influenced the gendered division of domains and related appropriate roles for males and females were not seen. The indigenous Brunka women were warriors and chiefs of their community, while the Chorotega women from the Nicoya region were in charge of production.

Even during the Colonial period, some notable women did not conform to the gendered roles by staying in the private sphere: Francisca Carrasco played a noteworthy part in the resistance against the Filibuster Army led by American William Walker. The Spanish colonisation impacted Latin America’s culture through Machismo ideology, marginalising women in the public sphere.

The impetus for increasing women’s political participation in national politics came with the 1995 World Conference on Women. Here multiple networks of women activists recommended the implementation of quotas for women in what is known as the Beijing Declaration.

Among Central American countries, the record of following the recommendations of the Beijing Declaration is mixed: Nicaragua has 51 percent women in Parliament, Honduras 27 percent, Panama 22 percent, Guatemala 19 percent and El Salvador 27.4 percent. The surrounding Central American countries have instituted quotas for women through legislation or voluntary adoption of political parties.

The institutionalisation of quotas depends on political will, especially if parties voluntarily adopt them. Machismo influences the broader political culture, including political parties and dominant ideologies on gender roles which shape the implementation further.

Read More: First-hand account: Central America nation Costa Rica votes for a new president

Costa Rica offers one of the comprehensive cases of the successful institutionalisation of quotas. In 1996, voluntary party quotas reserving 40 percent of the seats were implemented without placement mandate and an amendment in 2009 aimed to increase the allocation to 50 percent for women. In 1997, merely 16 percent of the members in the unicameral national legislature were women; this increased substantially to  47.37 percent after the 2022 elections.

This number expansion is attributed to several factors: a closed list system, multi-member constituency and effective monitoring by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. In a closed list Proportional Representation system, voters elect the party instead of individual candidates, preventing potential discrimination against women nominees. Multi-member constituencies allow for a more significant number of candidates being elected and subsequently, the scope of representation.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal is a pillar of Costa Rican democracy, granted the same independence and status as the Legislature and Executive. It has been hailed for the increase in women’s representation for its strict monitoring of the implementation of quotas and campaign rules. 

With the increasing number of women in Parliament, there seems to be a “contagion effect”, where the higher representation of women in one organ spills over to another. It is evident in the number of women Vice Presidents being elected. In 1986, Victoria Garrón de Doryan was the first female to be popularly elected to the Vice Presidency. Nine women have assumed the popularly elected position since then, including incumbent Mary Munive in 2022.

The enhancement in women’s political visibility normalises their presence in the public sphere, challenging notions of Machismo and altering the gendered ethos. The growing acceptance of women politicians was reflected in the election of Laura Chinchilla in 2010 as the President, even though her term was underwhelming for women’s interests and marred with accusations of mismanagement.

This more excellent representation reduces the “Gender Gap”, a difference that quantifies the disparities of access based on gender. The Gender Gap is evaluated annually by the World Economic Forum in their Gender Gap Report by measuring the gaps in three aspects: Political Empowerment, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival and Economic Participation and Opportunity.

Read More: Connecting India and Central America: Growing economic relationship

Costa Rica ranks 12thoverall while being ranked 6th in political participation and this Central American nation is an example that India can emulate to increase the low representation of women in Parliament. The impetus to effect such changes is the political will, which is sadly absent as the Women’s Reservation Bill has been neglected in national policy agendas.

Yet, these institutional changes cannot eradicate the deep-rooted cultural influences. Experts opine that Costa Rica may not have a woman President for some time due to the mismanagement under Chinchilla’s rule. It illustrates women are generalised as incompetent due to the actions of one, a tendency not seen in male leaders. Second, women’s empowerment does not experience linear progress; there are reversals based on attitudes and conservative backlashes, as seen in Brazil under Dilma Rousseff. Finally, political empowerment does not translate into a simultaneous reduction of gaps, as Costa Rica is ranked 94th in Economic Participation and Opportunity. The delineation of spheres and hindrances to women’s economic empowerment is rooted in the values of Machismo. To tackle these,  the government has planned incentives like support for women entrepreneurs, facilities for working women like creches and subsidised transportation.

The author is Doctoral Candidate, Latin American Studies Programme, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.