Paraguay's women battle to break political glass ceiling

·4-min read
Soledad Nunez, Paraguay's opposition vice presidential candidate talks to Reuters in Asuncion

By Lucinda Elliott

ASUNCION (Reuters) - In Paraguay's election on Sunday, Soledad Nunez, a 40-year-old engineer and former minister, is looking to break into the South American country's male-dominated political arena as its first elected female vice president.

Paraguay - which has a reputation for misogynist 'machista' culture even within the often conservative region - has been tough for women seeking to enter politics. Only 15% of lawmakers are women, below the Latin American regional average of around a third.

At the last election five years ago, only one of the candidates for president or vice president was a woman. But there are signs of change, with seven female candidates out of 26 this time around.

"Something is shifting, even if slowly," Nunez told Reuters in an interview, recalling how when she was a student a university professor had told her engineering class of eight women and over 90 men that ladies should be cleaning the floors and cooking.

"From a young age... I saw very few women in leadership roles, across politics and in industry," said Nunez, who at 31 became the youngest ever female minister in 2014.

"Having a woman at the top will have consequences," she said. "Just being there is important because it inspires confidence in others to take part."

Nunez is the vice presidential candidate for the main opposition coalition, hoping to unseat the ruling Colorado Party. Opinion polls ahead of the vote have been mixed and the contest is expected to be close.

If elected, Nunez and her presidential running-mate Efrain Alegre have committed to gender parity in the cabinet. Around a quarter of current ministers are women.

The more right-wing Colorado party has also approved gender parity plans for the cabinet, though two men are on its ticket.

Lea Gimenez, a former Paraguayan finance minister from the Colorado Party, told Reuters that there was a "tough, hard-fought" process for women to get into local politics.

"Many times the women who start to venture into politics are newer than the men and that implies a learning process," she said. "But I'd want to make it for having done a good job and not for a quota."

Progress for Paraguayan women has been patchy.

They were among the last in Latin America to be allowed to vote or register as candidates in elections, in 1961. In 1992, when democracy was restored after a 35-year dictatorship, gender equality was enshrined in the constitution.

In the elections five years ago, not a single female governor was elected among the 17 state governors. But in municipal elections in 2021, around a quarter of posts went to women.

In 2021, an electoral change was implemented that means voters must rank their favored lawmakers, as opposed to a closed list choice - the aim being to create a wider and more competitive field of contenders.

Some women are worried that may work against female candidates, who often contend with having less political apparatus and campaign funding.

"Each candidate will have to campaign alone, creating huge costs for individuals, which is detrimental to female nominees," said Senator Esperanza Martinez, 63.

Martinez, from the left-wing Frente Guasu alliance, is among 45 senators up for re-election. Only eight Senate seats, around one-fifth, are currently held by women, a number she expects to decline after the election.

"There can be a long list of female candidates to choose from, but they won't be voted in if they don't have visibility and travel across the country," she said. "What little we represent in the Senate will get worse under this system."

Rights activist and politician Lilian Soto agreed: "From now on, you'll need more resources to get yourself known," she said.

Martinez said, however, that the cabinet gender parity policy was an important step, which comes amid broader debates in universities and businesses around women's rights, often being pushed by younger generations.

"By insisting on gender parity, it opens up the debate further," Martinez said. "However, the bars to entry in politics are still too onerous to ignore."

(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)