When Some Rights Matter More Than Others: Recent National Legislation on Women's Human Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Gusta, Ana Laura Rodriguez; Madera, Nancy | Canadian Woman Studies, Summer-Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

When Some Rights Matter More Than Others: Recent National Legislation on Women's Human Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean


Gusta, Ana Laura Rodriguez, Madera, Nancy, Canadian Woman Studies


On the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action (2015), a report prepared by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (ECLAC), highlighted that legal changes favouring gender equality are the main and most widespread achievement in the region (ECLAC Informe Regional 24). To a great extent, these policy changes are due to women in legislative office with progressive visions of gender relations.

Female legislators committed to a gender equality agenda are part of the cultural change brought about by feminist advocates in the region. It is common to see congresswomen adhering to public campaigns for women's rights, and being vocal about them in the media, often regarding topics such as violence against women, trafficking in women and girls, and equality of representation in governmental bodies. On occasions, some of them also participate in popular demonstrations, such as the massive rallies to repudiate femicides, known as Ni Una Menos. In turn, social activists interact with legislators on these issues, framing their demands in terms of human rights (Alvarez; Macaulay; Martinez Medina; Vargas). If anything, previous research shows that female legislators with close ties with the feminist and women's movements are pivotal in the struggle for improved legal protections (Garcia Prince; Garcia and Valdivieso; Macaulay; Martinez Medina; Rousseau).

In promoting policy debate and proposing legislation, female legislators draw upon several instruments that provide the intellectual foundations for the human rights frame. The 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW offers a practical blueprint based on the principles of equality between women and men, and women's freedom from discrimination in the public and private sphere. Latin America and the Caribbean (taken as a whole) is the region that ratified CEDAW most promptly, as the graphic on the next page shows.

The Convention, regarded as the International Bill of Rights for Women, is regularly updated and supplemented with General Recommendations (United Nations). CEDAW considers the Legislative branch as part of the institutions for delivering its obligations.

Another human rights instrument commonly referred to is the 1994 Inter American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women of the Organization of the American State, known as Belem do Pari (Gonzilez Martinez). With it, Latin America was the first region to approve its own Convention explicitly directed towards eliminating violence against women. In fact, it was not until 2011 that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a regional convention on this matter, known as the Istanbul Convention. In Africa, violence against women is contained in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), approved in 2003. Yet, unlike the Latin America experience, the African Charter Court on Human and People's Rights has never issued a judgment on the merits in a case on violence (Klugman 9).

Both CEDAW and Belem do Para come with mechanisms to hold the States accountable for changes in the living conditions of women. In the case of CEDAW, party members must submit periodic reports to the CEDAW Committee informing their legal and policy advances towards gender equality. In turn, the Committee--a body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention--makes "Concluding Observations" with recommendations about changes in national legislation, under the assumption that de jure equality is a prerequisite for achieving de facto equality (Zub Centeno and Bareiro). In the specific case of Latin America and Caribbean countries, these recommendations centre on violence against women, trafficking in women and girls, sexual exploitation and prostitution, equality in labour relations and economic autonomy, women's health and sexual and reproductive rights, family relations, and women's political participation (Zub Centeno and Bareiro). …

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