SAN SALVADOR: The first time Karla Hernandez ran for office in El Salvador, she kept seeing a male candidate from her party in expensive television adverts, while she scraped by on a shoestring – relying on volunteers to hand out flyers and knock on doors.
Hernandez was elected anyway, but her experiences reflect the difficulties female candidates face in securing campaign finance – limiting their chances of election despite a 2013 gender quota law aimed at boosting their numbers in Congress.
“It was extremely difficult and I was at a disadvantage,” said Hernandez, who is serving her second term as a lawmaker for the right-wing ARENA party.
“If a man has more financing than a woman, he has a better chance of being elected,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Political parties in the Central American nation spend twice as much per head on average on campaign publicity for male candidates than they do on women, according to a recent report published by Salvadoran NGO Accion Ciudadana (Citizen Action).
That may help explain why the number of female lawmakers in Congress has barely increased seven years since the introduction of the quota law, which requires parties’ candidate lists to reserve 30% of their places for women.
Women now hold only two more of the National Assembly’s 84 seats, representing 31% of its members. At the local level women lead just 11% of municipal governments, though the quota law still applies.
“We talk about the low levels of participation of women, but often we don’t look deeper at what are the real obstacles they face to be able to compete,” said Denisse Siliezar, one of the researchers involved in the Accion Ciudadana report.
The imbalance in political representation is all the more concerning in El Salvador, which has one of Latin America’s highest rates of gender-based violence and among the strictest reproductive health laws in the region, women’s advocates say.
About two thirds of Salvadoran women experience some form of gender violence during their lives, a government report found. In 2019, 230 women were killed and 676 disappeared, according to the country’s Observatory of Violence Against Women – one of the highest per capita femicide rates in the region.
Since 1997, abortion has been a crime in El Salvador, where Roman Catholic and Evangelical beliefs are strong.
“Without women in the spaces where laws and policies aimed at responding to the needs of the population and women in particular are defined, we will continue to have a society without true equality,” said congresswoman Anabel Belloso.
“And as we always say, without women, there’s no democracy.”
Belloso is serving her first term for the left-wing FMLN party – considered a trailblazer for female participation in politics. More than half of its 23 National Assembly members are women, representing the highest percentage of any major party.
Neither ARENA or FMLN responded to an email request for comment about their policy on financing candidates.
Political parties decide how to disburse campaign funds, although candidates can try to fundraise independently.
But putting the onus on women to raise backing can make them vulnerable to sexual harassment, the Accion Ciudadana report said. Donors may seek a “favor” in exchange for support – another possible deterrent for women eyeing a run in politics.
While some high-profile female candidates do receive significant financial support, newcomers often struggle.
As a young woman running her first campaign, Belloso said she found it hard to secure funding in comparison with her male counterparts.
Campaign financing is not the only obstacle to boosting women’s representation in the country of 6.5 million people.
High rates of political violence and online harassment put many women off running for office, and can be a particular deterrent at the local level where politicians can easily be targeted, Belloso said.
Traditional concepts of gender also run deep in the socially conservative country, where many voters prefer a strongman candidate and believe women belong in the home, not in the workplace – let alone Congress.
“We have to prove twice as much as men that we are qualified,” Hernandez said.
Since the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the United Nations has recognized increased female political participation as an important step to achieving gender equality.
At the time of the agreement, only about one in 10 national lawmakers were women around the world, according to UN Women. As of 2019, they accounted for nearly a quarter, an improvement described by UN Women as a “slow increase”.
Many other Latin American nations, such as Colombia, Argentina and Costa Rica, have quota systems that require women to fill a certain number of candidacies or seats.
At about 30%, the region now has the second-highest rate of female political representation after the Nordic countries, according to UN Women.
As Hernandez’s second term comes to an end in the coming months, she is preparing to run again in a legislative election scheduled for February 2021 and her increasing stature within her party has brought with it greater campaign investment. During her second run, she was in the top 15 candidates to receive the most campaign financing, though her $14,000 was a fraction of the $187,000 invested in the male candidate who received the highest amount from his party.
With campaigning about to kick off, Hernandez urged parties to guarantee all women can access financing and to tackle abuse targeting female candidates, which is often personal or focused on their looks in a way that criticism directed at men is not.
Schools also need to educate the next generation so they believe a Salvadoran woman can be president, she said.
“Even though the quota is a reality, when the time comes, fewer women are elected because we have to deconstruct the cultural norm that says women shouldn’t get involved in these things,” Hernandez said.