Equality on the March in Latin America

With Michele Bachelet heavily favored to win a runoff election for President of Chile (this would be her second time around in office) a positive trend for women in Latin America continues. Indeed, for a region often stereotyped as male dominated and patriarchal, Latin American women increasingly seem to be in charge. Madame Bachelet joins Cristina Kirchner, President of Argentina, Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, and Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, making Latin America the home to more current female heads of state than any other region of the world. As a female diplomat from Ecuador, a country that itself had a female interim President in the 1990's, this fact is not lost on me.

In the relatively short time since Isabel Peron was elected President of Argentina in the 1970s, Latin American women have surged to the forefront of politics, including a higher percentage of female members of parliament (22.5 percent) than any region of the world except Nordic Europe, according to a 2012 survey by the agency UN Women and Inter-Parliamentary Union.

The same report found that Cuba ranks No. 3 in the world in the percentage of women in the legislature (by comparison, the United States ranks No. 78). Cuba joins Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador and Guyana, where women make up 30 percent or more of their legislatures.

In Ecuador, the President of the National Assembly as well as our two principal Vice Presidents are women; all of them also young political figures. And half of what we consider "strategic" cabinet ministries are now led by women.

Not only are there more Latin American women serving in high office, but there are other indicators of growing gender equality -- including dramatic improvements in primary school enrollment, employment rates, and incomes for women over the past decade.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), there are some 163 million economically active men and 113 million women in the region. By 2020 these figures are forecast to rise to 188 million and 141 million respectively,

There is an upward trend for women's employment, and ECLAC estimates that by 2020, 56 percent of women will be working outside the home, compared to 52 percent in 2010. According to the World Bank, the rate of female participation in the workforce in Ecuador alone has increased from 47 percent in 1990 to nearly 66 percent in 2011.

All good signs.

Working with partners and friends, these trends will continue. For example, the majority of high-paying jobs created in Ecuador due to bilateral trade with the United States -- we export high-demand products like roses, shrimp, and chocolate -- belong to women. It is crucial that we keep trade going because the alternative for poor Ecuadorean women is unacceptable; they will either find themselves unemployed, undercompensated, or in the drug trade.

Persistent cultural barriers must also be addressed. Analyses by the Inter-American Development Bank have argued that even if women are better educated than men, they're paid less when they enter the job market. And violence against women remains a persistent scourge; remnants of the "machismo" culture we are striving to sweep away. On this front, Latin American governments have made progress by passing laws condemning violence against women; Ecuador and Bolivia both have recently introduced gender-based violence as specific crimes under our penal codes.

In Ecuador, we have gone a step further by introducing several grassroots and social media-based awareness campaigns--aimed at both men and women -- that define machismo as inexcusable violence and that help remove the stigma of reporting domestic abuse.

Clearly, more must be done. Social, economic, and cultural barriers remain across Latin America that threaten true equality. But the door is open.

Nathalie Cely is Ecuador's Ambassador to the United States.