City Hall Still a Reach for Women in Mexico

NY Times
March 7, 2012


CUERNAVACA, Mexico — The small-town party bosses told her to forget it. Her husband, too, scoffed at the idea as preposterous. And deep down, María Teresa Domínguez had her own doubts.

Could she run for mayor of Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos State and a haven for Mexico City weekenders? Was there any chance she, a woman in a city whose institutions have long been dominated by men, could win? Hadn’t her mother always told her that she belonged at home?

“There were many sleepless nights,” said Ms. Domínguez, 54, a university professor and part of a vanguard of women seeking to run for mayor in a country where machismo, corruption and an insider political culture have kept them out. “I always believed I could do more. I can construct, transform this society.”

Even as many Mexicans celebrate a milestone in Josefina Vázquez Mota, the first woman to be selected as the presidential candidate of a major Mexican political party, the number of women in office at the most basic level of government — in the small cities and villages that are a backbone of democracy — still falls notably short.

Only in 6 percent of the country’s cities and towns do women serve as municipal president, as mayors are called in Mexico. By contrast, women hold one in four seats in Congress, for which 40 percent of a party’s candidates must be women.

Political analysts who work with aspiring female politicians in Mexico say that the democratic process at the municipal level remains mired by a conservative and patriarchal culture, vague and unenforced gender quotas, and a lack of transparency accountability.

Mayors are the most visible of local politicians — a double-edged sword. Their power makes them prime targets for criminals (according to the monthly magazine Mayors of Mexico, more than 30 mayors have been killed or have disappeared since 2008), but they are also highly influential allies for state leaders.

“They have the closest link to the citizens,” said Yunuel Cruz, head of the department of political participation at the Mexican National Women’s Institute, the government agency in charge of gender equality. “It is the most forgotten space of our democracy.”

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