A few years ago, three female presidents presided over countries representing more than half of South America’s population: Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet. Now, after Rousseff was impeached and Kirchner confronts corruption charges, only Bachelet remains. But she too will be gone soon; her term is set to expire next year.
There was hope that the trio’s rise to power would usher in a new era of gender equality on the continent. But rather than delivering on that promise, their tenures seem to have triggered a dramatic recoil against parity in politics, according to the New York Times. Rousseff’s successor, for instance, appointed an all-male cabinet. And the conservative male politician who’s expected to replace Bachelet came under fire last month for telling a rape joke as he sought to rally a crowd.
Several factors—including some of their own making—challenged the women’s presidencies. The commodities boom petered out and hampered regional economies, while corruption scandals undercut their authority and agendas.
But the female leaders also say they are victims of blatant sexism. Kirchner was commonly referred to as a female horse and Rousseff’s likeness appeared on a lewd car decal. Bachelet, meanwhile, has decried editorial writers who slam her for being misguided by her male advisors, as if her decisions are not her own.
There are some bright spots in the women’s legacies. Bachelet, for one, created a ministry of women and gender equality, worked to reduce workplace discrimination and domestic violence, and continues to advocate for strengthening women’s reproductive rights. There’s also a larger lesson to be learned from their fates: As Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, puts it, “In all of these countries where there have been such leaps forward on gender equality, the tide could easily recede.”
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