L'institut Nord-Sud



Gender Policy is Failing Women in Colombia



Although Colombia seems to have a number of the right policies for improving gender equality, structural challenges and slow uptake risk making equality a distant goal.

Colombia has come a long way since the days when it was stereotyped as a conflict-ridden ‘machista’ country. It has strong laws in favour of women’s rights, political will and institutions that support gender equity. Last year, for example, law 1475 established a 30 percent quota of women candidates in all elections. The same percentage of women must occupy the highest level of the government’s public service. (By comparison, the Latin American average for female representation in legislatures was 22% in 2010). As well, Cristina Plazas, who is reportedly close to the president, is the Vice-Minister of the High Presidential Council for Gender Equity, an innovative institutional mechanism with a mandate to support gender equity and women’s rights.

At the same time, there is a vibrant civil society giving voice to women’s rights and grievances. The Political Advocacy Roundtable of Rural Women, a loud and boisterous coalition of individuals concerned about women’s livelihoods in the Colombian countryside, is but one example of this social mobilization. On average, women are better educated than men in Colombia and they are not afraid to speak out about their opinions.

Yet in practice, Colombian women still suffer from regular forms of violence, exploitation and social marginalization. The country’s standing on the Social Institutions and Gender Index (which looks at the underlying causes of inequality) is slipping: this year it ranks 26th out of 86 countries, whereas in 2009 it ranked 18th. Oxfam continues to report ongoing violence against women, including the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in the country.

It remains difficult to know how women fare in the workforce as compared to men: while most Colombian women have informal jobs, the National Statistics Office and Labour Ministry only monitor the salaries and work conditions of formal employment. Academic research, however, finds that the gender wage gap is slightly higher in Colombia (14%) than on average across Latin America (10%). And while enforcement of labour law is weak generally, there are some disconcerting differences in the treatment of male and female workers in some agricultural sectors, such as the highly profitable  cut flower industry, where women are subjected to pregnancy screenings before being hired and fired if ever they should become pregnant.

How can Columbia, who appears to be enacting all the right policies, guarantee that gender equity is put into practice?

A couple of key problems which may point to the beginning of an answer: the gap between policy and funding and monitoring programs (labour policy is a good example here); high crime levels and many unsafe geographic regions result in a porous application of the laws protecting women (and men);  and – unfortunately – the persistence of the low social status of some women (particularly afro-descendant and indigenous Colombians).  This latter issue might be the stickiest of all, since changing attitudes and culture takes time. (Reports that Colombia is lagging behind its regional neighbours in terms of female representation, despite the above mentioned quota, illustrate the scale of this challenge.)

Can Canada help?

Unfortunately, Canada may not be well-placed to provide advice on issues of gender equity to Colombia. While a recently-signed trade deal could create levers for Canada to influence Colombian social policy, recent actions by the Canadian government suggest that gender equality issues are not a priority. Areas such as a national child care program and funding for Status of Women Canada offices, the only federal agency with a mandate to promote equality for women, have been canceled or cut in the last six years. Female representation in the House of Commons, though not a guarantor of improved gender policy, is at 22%, already lower than that of Colombia. Canada has no quotas for increasing the presence of women in politics.

A Spanish idiom seems appropriate as Colombia continues its social development: a nuevos tiempos, nuevas costumbres, with new times, new customs. Certainly the old customs in Colombia are not working for women. Unfortunately, Canada’s new customs don’t seem to be the role model they could be, either.

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Barbara MacLaren is as a researcher on Fragile and Conflict-Affected States with the North-South Institute. She has research experience with a number of non-profit organizations such as the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, World University Service of Canada and Carleton University’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Research; and multilateral agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank. She holds a BA in political science and international development (McGill University) and an MA in international affairs (Carleton).

Jennifer Erin Salahub leads the North-South Institute’s research on Fragile and Conflict-Affected States. She is interested in the nexus of security and development including democratic security sector reform (SSR), state fragility and the gender dimensions of conflict. Ms. Salahub holds an MA in Political Science (International Relations) from McGill University.