6. Restricted civil liberties

The Caribbean is the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) sub-region with the highest level of discrimination in relation to civil liberties.

  • The LAC region scores 201 in the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, compared with a global average of 29 and an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 17, denoting a relatively low level of discrimination.

  • Important regional variation exists, with scores ranging from 18 in Central America and South America, to 30 in the Caribbean. For example, eight2 out of the ten Caribbean countries included in the SIGI analysis do not have either legal quotas or special measures to promote women’s equal political participation. Women do not have the same citizenship rights as men in Haiti, and in the Bahamas and Barbados, they cannot confer their nationality on their husband and/or children. In addition, discriminatory practices or laws remain in Dominica and Grenada. Conversely, the Central America and South America sub-regions have more favourable legal frameworks in these areas, with few exceptions.

Since 2014, LAC countries have made progress in terms of the number of legal quotas in place to promote women’s equal political participation.

  • Since the third edition of the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) in 2014, the number of LAC countries with legal quotas to promote women’s equal political participation at the national level has increased from 15 to 19 across the region. The proportion of women in parliaments also reached 30% in 2018. This is similar to the OECD average of 29%, and higher than the world average of 24%. In addition, four of the top ten countries globally3 with the highest proportion of female parliamentarians are in the LAC region.

Discriminatory social norms and practices persist towards female political leaders regarding women’s access to public spaces, and towards indigenous women.

  • Challenges remain regarding the “Political voice” indicator. Persistent negative attitudes and practices continue to be an obstacle for women who wish to engage politically: across the LAC region, 27% of the population thinks that men are better political leaders than women, but this figure reaches 35% in the Caribbean (OECD, 2019[1]). Legislation across the LAC region also needs to protect women from political violence and violence in public life.

  • The “Freedom of movement” indicator is another important challenge. While women are able to move freely in the LAC region, they face some legal discrimination regarding passport applications. In seven LAC countries,4 married women do not have the same rights as men to apply for a passport, as their legal status is still acquired through their relationship with a man.

  • Discriminatory practices exist for women wishing to access public spaces, which stem from a high perceived sense of insecurity. For the 21 LAC countries with available data, 66% of the people who declared they did not feel safe walking alone at night were women.

  • Additional efforts are needed in order to establish a more inclusive and intersectional approach to civil liberties. Women from minority groups face a higher rate of gender discrimination and, at the same time, belong to racial, religious and ethnic minority groups that are themselves discriminated against. This particular situation limits women’s capacity to participate in politics or access the justice system, and Brazil is the only LAC country whose Constitution recognises and prohibits multiple and intersectional discrimination.

Civil liberties are the basic freedoms granted to citizens. Therefore, ensuring that women and men have equal rights to their civil liberties is essential for women’s empowerment and for a healthy society. This includes women’s equal ability to access education or seek employment, without any restrictions around their movement, and their equal ability to claim their rights through a fair trial. Yet, women are sometimes unable to enjoy their civil liberties on an equal footing with men. This can be due, for example, to discriminatory laws in relation to nationality rights, or to negative attitudes towards women’s political participation. Women may also have more limited opportunities to travel due to discriminatory legislation or practices regarding national identity card or passport applications, or because they feel more vulnerable travelling on their own. Restrictions on civil liberties prevent women from accessing public spaces and from having confidence in their governments. The SIGI looks at four major areas that concern women’s restricted civil liberties (Box 6.1).

In the LAC region, women’s limited political voice and freedom of movement are the main issues of concern. Not all LAC countries have supportive legal frameworks that favour more gender-equal representation in parliaments; indeed, discriminatory attitudes tend to favour male politicians. Some legal frameworks also restrict women’s freedom of movement, and women generally view public spaces as unsafe. This chapter provides an in-depth analysis of the factors contributing to the LAC region’s results in the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, highlighting the social norms and practices that are the main obstacles to gender equality.

The LAC region has a low level of discrimination in the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, with a score of 20, positioning it between the OECD average of 17 and the global average of 29. There is variation at the sub-regional level, with scores ranging from 18 for Central America and South America, to 30 for the Caribbean.

Nicaragua is the LAC region’s top performer in the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, with a score of 6. The country’s strong legal framework protects women’s rights across all of the dimension’s indicators. In addition, 46% of Nicaragua’s members of parliament are women, ranking it 3rd in terms of women’s parliamentarian representation in the LAC region, behind the Plurinational State of Bolivia (hereafter “Bolivia”) (53%) and Cuba (49%) (Figure 6.1 and Figure 6.2).

  • In the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic is the top LAC sub-regional performer, with a score of 11, ranking 12th at the global level in the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension. Several governmental bodies in the Dominican Republic monitor gender equality. For example, the Ministerio de la Mujer (Ministry of Women) monitors compliance with the country’s international commitments regarding women’s rights (OECD Development Centre, 2019[3]). Conversely, other Caribbean countries fare worse: Jamaica scores 23 and Trinidad and Tobago scores 29, whereas Haiti scores 59, indicating a high level of discrimination in the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, and ranking the country 112th at the global level.

  • In Central America, Nicaragua is the top LAC sub-regional and regional performer, with a score of 6, ranking 4th at the global level. There, for instance, in the wake of the passage of the Ley de reforma a la Ley Electoral No. 790 (Reform Law of the Electoral Law) in 2012, the percentage of elected female mayors increased considerably from 8.6% in 2008 to 40.1% in 2012 (Gobierno de Nicaragua, 2012[4]; OECD Development Centre, 2019[5]). All other Central American countries, with the exception of Guatemala, display low levels of discrimination, with scores ranging from 10 in Costa Rica to 18 in El Salvador and Panama. Meanwhile, Guatemala displays a medium level of discrimination, with a score of 43.

  • In South America, Argentina is the LAC sub-region’s top performer, with a score of 7. In 1991, Argentina became the first country in the LAC region to introduce an electoral quota, making it mandatory for electoral lists at both the national and local levels to have at least 30% women candidates (OECD Development Centre, 2019[6]). Eight countries5 in South America are classified as having a low level of discrimination in the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, with scores ranging from 13 in Bolivia to 24 in Brazil. Paraguay displays a medium level of discrimination, with a score of 30, and ranks 83rd at the global level.

Citizenship rights include the right to acquire, change, retain and confer nationality, as well as the right to register the birth of children, regardless of one’s group of origin, religious affiliation, disability or sexual orientation. Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) states that “State Parties shall grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality”, and that States Parties should ensure “that neither marriage to an alien nor change of nationality by the husband during marriage shall automatically change the nationality of the wife, render her stateless or force upon her the nationality of the husband”. The same article also states that women shall be granted “equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children” (United Nations, 1979[7]). Similarly, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 16.9 calls on States to “provide legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030 (United Nations, 2016[8]). As such, both citizenship rights and birth registration are essential in order to enable individuals: to access education and employment; to hold accounts at a financial institution; to buy or sell property; to run for elected office; or even to own a mobile phone.

Across the LAC region, women and men have equal rights to acquire, change or retain their nationality in all LAC countries with the exception of Haiti. Under certain circumstances, if a woman marries a foreigner and loses her nationality, she can only recover her Haitian nationality once her husband acquires it (Haiti, 1984[9]).

In both the Bahamas and Barbados, women do not have the same rights as men to legally confer nationality on their spouse and children. For instance, the CEDAW’s 2017 concluding observations on Barbados’ periodic report note that concerns persist over a woman’s constitutional rights to confer her nationality on a child born outside the country, to obtain Barbadian citizenship if a woman is born outside the country, and to confer Barbadian nationality on her foreign husband (CEDAW, 2017[10]). Meanwhile, in the Bahamas, women cannot confer nationality on their children or spouses who are foreign nationals in the same way as men can (OECD Development Centre, 2019[11]). Some discriminatory practices and laws also persist in Dominica and Grenada. For example, evidence suggests that the law in Dominica does not guarantee married women the right to confer their nationality on their spouse, although they may be able to do so through an application process. In Grenada, the information requested on the citizenship application form is not the same for the mother and the father of the applicant (OECD Development Centre, 2019[12]). Gender discrimination in citizenship laws also has important consequences for children, putting them at risk of statelessness (Box 6.2). This can result in children’s rights violations, including, among others: obstacles to family unity; restricted freedom of movement; constrained access to education, healthcare and social services; lack of right to an inheritance; and child marriage (UNHCR, 2019[13]). Gender discrimination in nationality laws not only leads to a sense of exclusion for women but also limits their children in pursuing their dreams and aspirations, thus limiting their contribution to society as well (UNHCR, 2019[13]).

Some groups of women face additional discrimination regarding their citizenship rights. This is the case in Paraguay, especially for indigenous women, who do not have equal nationality rights. A report by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples points out that, although the government of Paraguay is making progress in this area, there are still persistent issues in providing national identity documentation to indigenous persons (United Nations General Assembly, 2015[14]).

All LAC countries provide women and men with the same rights to register the birth of their children, with the exceptions of Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbados. In Antigua and Barbuda, unmarried women face additional obstacles when registering the birth of their children to unmarried men: the name of the father of a child born out of wedlock shall only be entered following production of specific documents, including the acknowledgment of fatherhood by the father (Antigua and Barbuda, n.d.[15]). Barbados is the only LAC country where married women do not enjoy the same rights as married men in this regard: if the parents are married, it is the father’s responsibility to register the birth of the child, whereas if the mother is unmarried, it is her responsibility to do so (OECD Development Centre, 2019[16]). In addition, some discriminatory practices persist in relation to application forms and the information required from parents. For example, in Grenada, birth certificates do not require comparable information about both the mother and the father (OECD Development Centre, 2019[12]).

Nevertheless, rural, poor and/or indigenous women – factors that sometimes intersect – continue to face many customary and traditional discriminatory practices that affect their capacity to properly register the birth of their children. Difficulties in carrying out birth registrations particularly affect rural and remote communities. Bolivia exhibits the lowest birth registration level in the LAC region, with around 75% of children aged under five years registered at birth. The rate falls to nearly 70% for rural Bolivian children (UNICEF, 2016[22]). Similarly, in Paraguay, people in rural areas often do not have easy access to civil registry offices. For parents in rural areas, registering a child’s birth often means a long journey to the next town – something many families, especially poor families, do not have the time or money to do (OECD Development Centre, 2019[23]). Furthermore, distance and other factors affecting minority groups often interact and compound themselves, creating a double hardship. For instance, many members of Paraguay’s indigenous population have no birth certificate or identity papers. Registration authorities face a major challenge in recording indigenous population groups in remote areas and systematically issuing birth certificates and identity papers. Finally, in some instances, parents’ lack of information and knowledge about the benefits associated with registering the birth of their child leads to low birth registration rates. In Guyana, for example, more than one-half of mothers lack knowledge of how to register a child’s birth, underlining the importance of making such information available and accessible for all (UNICEF, 2016[22]).

Intersectionality and multiple discrimination are increasingly gaining traction across the LAC region when it comes to citizenship rights. By definition, citizenship rights include the rights of all citizens; therefore, governments should recognise all citizens as well as their associated rights. Yet, the issue currently remains unaddressed in the LAC region, as Brazil is the only country whose Constitution recognises and prohibits multiple and intersectional discrimination. This highlights the need for more countries to follow suit, so that all women are protected – especially those at risk of facing multiple discrimination. Nonetheless, recent progress has been made in some LAC countries, notably with regard to transgender rights. For instance, in 2018, Chile adopted a gender identity law that allows transgender people over the age of 14 years to update their names on legal documents, thus guaranteeing their right to be officially addressed according to their true gender (Gobierno de Chile, 2018[24]). In 2018, Uruguay passed a similar law, providing the transgender community with increased protections in the area of legal identity (Gobierno de Uruguay, 2018[25]).

Women’s full and active political engagement is essential in order to make rapid progress towards gender equality and to ensure that a range of perspectives is taken into account when making important political decisions. It is also essential to guarantee that the particular needs of girls and women are considered, and that their voices are heard. Yet, legal frameworks often insufficiently promote women’s political participation, and negative perceptions about women political leaders constitute additional barriers. SDG Target 5.5 calls on States to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life” (United Nations, 2016[30]).

The LAC region features relatively good laws in relation to the “Political voice” indicator. Throughout the LAC region, women have the same rights as men to hold public office or political office in the legislative, executive and judicial branches. In line with international and regional treaties, which require countries to take action to strengthen women’s political voice, most LAC countries have a favourable legal framework to promote equal political participation at either the national or subnational level. Most LAC countries for which data are available have legal quotas to promote women’s political participation; such legal quotas exist at both the national and subnational levels in 16 LAC countries6 and at the national level in 19 LAC countries.7 Gender quotas usually dictate that a minimum of 30% of the seats in a parliament must be reserved for women. Yet, in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Nicaragua, the required threshold for women’s representation is set even higher, at 50%. Nicaragua’s legislation to increase gender equality in the “Political voice” indicator is often cited as a successful case and shows the powerful impact that legal quotas can have. In 2008, the proportion of female mayors in Nicaragua was 8.6%, but it rose to 40.1% after the passage of Law No. 790 in 2012 (Gobierno de Nicaragua, 2012[4]). The Nicaraguan system establishes the implementation of gender parity in the submission of the candidate lists for municipal elections. As of 2020, Nicaragua is the LAC country with the second highest proportion of female mayors, reaching 43% in 2018, behind Cuba at 47% (ECLAC, n.d.[31]).

In addition to legal quotas, other special measures can help promote women’s political participation, such as voluntary quotas, parity laws, alternating the sexes on party lists, and financial incentives for political parties. Examples of LAC countries with voluntary party quotas include Chile, Guatemala and Paraguay8 (International IDEA, n.d.[32]). Some LAC countries have also integrated gender-responsive measures into their legal frameworks. In Panama, only parties that have candidate lists with at least 50% representation of women are accepted. In Argentina and Costa Rica, the law compels political parties to present gender-balanced lists of candidates strictly alternating men and women for national legislative elections, as well as local elections in the case of Costa Rica (Gobierno de Argentina, 2017[33]; Gobierno de Costa Rica, 2009[34]). Throughout the LAC region, 10 countries9 provide incentives for political parties to include women on candidate lists for national elections, and 8 countries10 do so for local elections. For instance, in Chile, at the national level, political parties are eligible to receive additional State subsidies depending on the number of women elected to parliament (International IDEA, n.d.[32]).

It is also important to have effective sanctions for non-compliance with quotas for women’s political representation. While special measures exist in addition to quotas at the national level in five LAC countries11 and at the local level in four LAC countries,12 only the Bahamas and Haiti have legal sanctions for failure to implement temporary special measures. In addition, six LAC countries13 have no laws or regulations on establishing a body that would be responsible for the design, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and enforcement of temporary special measures.

Further initiatives are needed to support women’s political participation by providing training opportunities to enhance their leadership skills. Only seven LAC countries14 have laws that make provision for training to support women’s effective participation in political and public life. Of these, six countries15 have allocated special budgets for the enforcement and monitoring of the legal mechanisms that provide for such training. Among the examples of such training is the Dominican Republic, which offers a six-month programme for women who hold or seek elected positions in government, and also for women who hold decision-making positions in government. The programme focuses on leadership, as well as on promoting a conceptual and practical understanding of the social, political and economic development of the country (OECD Development Centre, 2019[3]). In Panama, Law No. 6 of 17 December 2002 encourages capacity building for women inside political parties by establishing the obligation “to earmark at least 10% of public funding for elections for training women” (OECD Development Centre, 2019[35]). Costa Rica also launched a national and regional training programme to promote women’s participation in politics and the development of their leadership capabilities, which is aimed at empowering women and challenging gender stereotypes that impede their full, active citizenship (OECD Development Centre, 2019[36]).

While more progress is needed, on average, women represent 30% of parliamentarians in the LAC region, which is similar to the OECD average of 29% and higher than the global average of 24%. Among the top ten countries in the world with the highest proportion of female parliamentarians, four are in the LAC region16 (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2019[37]). In addition, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Peru are among the 14 countries in the world with 50% or more women in cabinet (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2020[38]). At the global level, Bolivia, Brazil and Guatemala are among the world’s top performers with the fastest annual rate of increase between 2001 and 2019 in terms of the number of women in ministerial or senior government roles (Equal Measures 2030, 2020[39]). In Costa Rica, the latest national elections in 2018 saw an increase of women’s political representation in the Parliament from 35% to 46% (Salas Calderón et al., 2019[40]). Women in LAC also hold 30% of council member or councillor positions, which represents an increase of 15 percentage points between 1998 and 2018 (ECLAC, n.d.[41]). Despite impressive progress at the regional level, there are disparities at the country level, with women’s representation in parliament ranging from 3% in Haiti to 53% in Bolivia. Women represent more than 30% of parliamentarians in only ten LAC countries17 (Figure 6.3). Finally, whereas in 2015 there were six women heads of state or government in the LAC region, as of 2020 there are only three: in Barbados, Bolivia, and Trinidad and Tobago (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2020[38]).

The LAC region fares better than the rest of the world in terms of attitudes towards women’s political leadership, even though discriminatory attitudes continue to hamper women’s political participation and representation. Indeed, by entering into politics, women move away from the traditional roles that confined them to the private sphere, and therefore they often have to prove their legitimacy to their male peers. Negative attitudes towards women’s ability to become efficient and good political leaders translate into lower political participation for women than for men. The LAC region is no exception, as women’s full and unhindered political participation and representation continues to be constrained. Based on the 12 LAC countries for which data are available, 27% of the population believes that men make better political leaders than women; the comparable figure at the global level is 47%. Uruguay, where only 8% of the population agrees with the statement, is the world’s top performer. Even the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (hereafter “Venezuela”), which is the LAC region’s worst performer in response to this question – with 38% of respondents declaring that men are better political leaders than women –, still outperforms the world average (Figure 6.4).

In the Caribbean, in particular, women face the strongest barriers to political participation. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in collaboration with the Caribbean Development Research Services – which was aimed at assessing attitudes and perceptions of women and men in political leadership in Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Lucia –, society in these LAC countries apparently shows broad support for women to be represented in political leadership, believing that women should be equally represented. People in the LAC region also perceive women to be more focused than men on core social development priorities (UN Women, 2018[43]). However, in practice, women have yet to become significant decision makers in the corridors of power. As of 2017, in all Caribbean countries (with the exceptions of Guyana and of Trinidad and Tobago), women held less than 30% of elected positions (UN Women, 2018[43]). This is despite the fact that the Caribbean progressed more than the other two LAC sub-regions in terms of political representation between 2014 and 2018. Indeed, the share of women parliamentarians increased by seven percentage points in the Caribbean, compared with increases of four percentage points in South America and one percentage point in Central America (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2014[44]; Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2019[45]).

Among the barriers to women’s increased representation are attitudes that confine women to the home and disregard their potential to contribute to political decision making and leadership. Women with more supportive families are more likely to run for elected office, as they have more time to dedicate to it. However, institutional barriers continue to constrain their ability to join the political sphere, such as established recruitment practices and internal party selection that can disadvantage potential women candidates. Women also tend to lack access to existing social networks for effective campaign funding (UN Women, 2018[43]).

The violence and harassment that women may experience – both verbal and physical – as female political candidates or when elected also act as strong impediments to a career in politics. This includes: psychological and physical violence; threats to their own or their family’s security; and death, rape, beating or kidnapping threats. For instance, in Mexico, there have been acts of physical violence such as assassinations of female political candidates. In Costa Rica and El Salvador, sexual harassment of women in politics is often normalised within political institutions: psychological violence in the form of “cat calling” has been used to denigrate women who did not do as men wanted. Economic violence is another form of violence, with women candidates in El Salvador reporting a lack of financial support for their campaigns and, within parties, an unequal distribution of resources between women and men (Krook and Sanín, 2016[46]). Bolivia, a country where women account for 53% of parliamentarians, adopted a landmark law addressing harassment and political violence against women (Law 243) in 2012. However, challenges remain in its implementation, as evidence on the ground shows the persistence of threats and the harassment-related resignations of women politicians (Box 6.3). Indeed, harassment, threats and even homicides make being a female politician in Bolivia a risky choice. Estimates show that between 65% and 70% of Bolivian women parliamentarians have been victims of harassment and political violence (UN Women, 2018[47]). The government continues its efforts to address the issue: it approved a law on parity in Bolivian political parties in September 2018, and several articles in this law refer to addressing violence against women in politics (Gobierno de Bolivia, 2018[48]).

The disproportionate amount of unpaid care work performed by women constitutes an additional obstacle to women’s political participation. The LAC region displays among the highest disparities in the world, with women undertaking between 6 and 23 more hours per week than men on paid work and unpaid care work combined. The unequal distribution of caring responsibilities is deeply embedded in social norms that consider unpaid care work as women’s prerogative. The time burden related to care and domestic tasks not only limits women’s education and employment opportunities, but also their participation in politics (IPPF/WHR and Promundo, 2017[52]). Throughout the LAC region, women’s main responsibility for domestic work and childcare is often cited as a factor contributing to women’s low level of participation in politics. Traditional gender roles in the household are reflected in the political sphere: for instance, in Dominica, politics is still considered a “man’s space”, and in El Salvador, politically active women are usually assigned gender-typical tasks in political parties and institutions. Women’s low level of participation in politics is further exacerbated by the absence of provisions for maternity leave and benefits for parliamentarians, as is the case in Trinidad and Tobago (OECD Development Centre, 2019[53]).

Women from minority groups face additional difficulties in pursuing a career in politics. For instance, in the Caribbean (partly due to historical legacy), black and poor people, as well as women, were largely denied access to political decision making throughout the 20th century. While all citizens in the sub-region now have the right to vote, some groups of women from minority groups continue to face barriers to participation in politics (UN Women, 2018[43]). In Central America, Guatemala is making efforts to guarantee indigenous women’s political representation (Box 6.4). In general, women belonging to a minority group are exposed to even more sexist remarks and violence, which are often compounded by racism (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2016[54]).

Freedom of movement is a human right recognised by several international standards, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (United Nations, 1948[57]) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (United Nations, 1966[58]). Restrictions on women’s freedom of movement remain a major barrier to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Such restrictions include, for example, legally codified discrimination in relation to women’s ability to obtain passports based on their marital status. They also include women’s feelings of insecurity when travelling, which may relate to fears of sexual violence, among other reasons. These restrictions reinforce women’s lack of autonomy and impede the fulfilment of their day-to-day activities. In this regard, SDG Target 5.2 calls on States to “eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation” (United Nations, 2016[30]).

Legal frameworks across the LAC region seem to support women’s ability to move freely. In the LAC region, laws give women the same rights as men to apply for identity cards in all but six LAC countries18 where data are missing or where the legal framework is not applicable: for example, the legal frameworks in Grenada and Jamaica do not specifically cover the issue of identity cards, and no identity cards are issued in Antigua and Barbuda or in Belize. Similarly, in all LAC countries, the law gives women the same rights as men to acquire passports and other travel documents for their children if their children are minors. Women and men also have equal rights to travel outside the country.

However, in certain LAC countries, discriminatory practices continue to limit women’s ability to apply for passports for themselves or for their children. For instance, in Barbados, newly married women are required to apply for a new passport and to produce their marriage certificate, as stipulated in the passport application form (Government of Barbados, n.d.[59]). Similarly, in Belize and in Trinidad and Tobago, married women are required to provide information about their husband and their marriage, whereas the same stipulation does not apply to married men (OECD Development Centre, 2019[60]) (OECD Development Centre, 2019[61]). Meanwhile, in Grenada, a passport application for a child aged under 16 years requires the consent of the legal guardian and gives priority to the father. The application form specifies that the legal guardian is defined as “the father, or if the father is dead, the mother, or in the case of a child born out of wedlock, the mother” (Government of Grenada, n.d.[62]).

Women’s freedom of movement is constrained by high levels of insecurity throughout the LAC region. This tends to impede women’s ability to move and travel, particularly at the local level (for instance, between home and work), but restrictions also apply at night-time. Data show that women are more prone to fear walking alone at night than men are, and that a greater percentage of women in the LAC region report feeling unsafe than in other regions of the world (Equal Measures 2030, 2020[39]). On average, across the LAC region, 58% of women feel unsafe walking alone at night, compared with 47% of men. In 1719 out of the 21 LAC countries for which data are available, more than 50% of women declare not feeling safe walking alone at night in the city or area where they live. The proportion of women feeling unsafe is more than 70% in Brazil and the Dominican Republic, and reaches 84% in Venezuela. In addition, women appear to feel consistently less safe than men across all LAC countries except Haiti. In 14 LAC countries,20 the share of women feeling unsafe is 10 percentage points higher than that of men (Figure 6.5).

In particular, in many LAC cities, feeling unsafe while travelling on public transportation curtails women’s freedom of movement. A 2018 study focusing on women’s personal safety while travelling on public transportation – conducted in Buenos Aires, Quito and Santiago – found that, due to the fear of violence and harassment, many women prefer to either not travel or to modify their transportation modes and routes, making it even more difficult to attend to their family and work obligations. Direct implications for women’s participation in public and economic life are important: where transportation is perceived as unsafe, girls and women tend to miss educational opportunities or may refuse to take a well-paying job in favour of one that pays less but is located closer to home. In addition, women tend to pass on their negative attitudes and security concerns to their children, which in turn makes them fearful of using public transportation as well (Silveira et al., 2019[64]).

Governments in LAC countries have increasingly implemented measures to address sexual harassment and women’s insecurity regarding their safety in public spaces. In Guatemala, for instance, the issue of the harassment of women in public spaces was addressed by including women in the strategic planning of urban projects, which helped improve their design, efficiency and reach (Box 6.5). Moreover, laws against street harassment, such as Law No. 30314 to prevent and sanction sexual harassment in public spaces passed in Peru in 2015, have played an important role in making women feel safer in public spaces (Gobierno de Peru, 2015[65]). Similarly, Chile has become the second LAC country where street sexual harassment has a legal definition, making it a specific crime (Law No. 21.153) (Gobierno de Chile, 2019[66]). The reform in Chile took place one year after major student protests and the launch of a feminist movement called #EducaciónNoSexista (#NonSexistEducation), which demanded the end of machismo, harassment in universities and gender-based violence (Global Goals, 2019[67]). Similarly, in 2016, the city of Buenos Aires adopted a law penalising street harassment (Law No. 5742) by fining perpetrators up to ARS 1 000 (Argentine pesos), in addition to sentencing them to community service and/or jail time. The law also applies to harassment in private spaces with public access, such as shopping centres, theatres and bars (Law No. 5742, Art. 2) (OECD Development Centre, 2019[6]). While initially limited to Buenos Aires, the initiative was expanded in 2019, when Argentina modified its Law No. 26.485 on comprehensive protection to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women to include street sexual harassment through Law No. 27501 (Gobierno de Argentina, 2019[68]).

Ensuring that women and men have equal access to justice is essential in order for women to be able to claim their rights. This includes having equal rights to provide testimony in court, to hold public or political office in the judiciary, and to sue or be sued. International instruments, notably the CEDAW (1979) and SDG Target 16.3, guarantee the right of equal access to justice (United Nations, 2016[8]; United Nations, 1979[7]). Furthermore, SDG Target 5.C calls on States to “adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels” (United Nations, 2016[30]). Yet, lack of information and limited legal literacy, along with a lack of trust in judicial institutions, constitute significant barriers for women to access justice.

Governments are making efforts to guarantee women’s legal equal access to justice. All countries in the LAC region provide women and men with the same capacity to sue and be sued, and women’s testimony carries the same evidentiary weight in court as men’s in all types of court cases (civil, criminal, or family courts). In order to guarantee the enforcement, monitoring and promotion of the law, ten LAC countries21 have legal mechanisms in place to ensure that women are able to exercise their rights to sue. In 11 LAC countries,22 procedural rules in civil, criminal, or family courts take into account the particular interests of women and girls. Legal frameworks in ten LAC countries23 provide for the establishment of courts/tribunals to facilitate women’s and girls’ access to justice. For instance, in Mexico, La Ley General de Acceso de las Mujeres a una Vida libre de Violencia (the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence) and the implementation of the Programa Integral para Prevenir, Atender, Sancionar y Erradicar la Violencia contra las Mujeres 2014-2018 (Comprehensive Programme to Prevent, Address, Punish and Eradicate Violence against Women 2014-2018) have led to the successful creation of courts which ensure that girls and women can access justice (OECD Development Centre, 2019[71]).

However, access to justice can be limited where laws protecting women’s basic rights are absent. For example, legislation or measures to protect women from violence in political and public life only exist in six LAC countries.24 In Bolivia, La Ley Integral para Garantizar a las Mujeres una Vida Libre de Violencia (the Comprehensive Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free from Violence) includes a provision that mandates simplified and accelerated legal processes in cases of gender-based violence (Gobierno de Bolivia, 2013[72]). In addition, only Brazil and Mexico have legislation or measures in place that address violence and harassment directed at human rights defenders. Legislation to criminalise violence against women in politics is also at various stages of development in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Peru. In Guatemala, while there is no specific law on violence against women in politics, during the 2015 electoral campaign, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal) sanctioned and fined several political parties which engaged in propaganda that included sexist practices (Tribunal Supremo Electoral de Guatemala, 2015[73]). In Mexico, in 2017, a coalition of governmental agencies led by the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial (Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary) elaborated and implemented a judicial protocol on violence against women in politics (Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación et al., 2017[74]; Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación et al., 2016[75]).

The laws and mechanisms in place could be further strengthened across the LAC region. In six LAC countries,25 the law does not provide for the establishment of a specialised body tasked with monitoring gender equality, but there is such a body in the other 23 countries. In seven of these countries,26 the specialised body has the power to receive and resolve complaints from women who are victims of discrimination. However, these specialised bodies have their limitations. In some cases,27 they do not have the power to monitor the compliance of national laws and policies with international human rights standards. In other cases, such as in the Bahamas, Bolivia and Guatemala, these specialised bodies do not have the power to conduct education and public awareness campaigns on gender equality and women’s human rights.

There is a low level of trust in judicial institutions among the LAC population. Compliance levels with the rule of law in most LAC countries is insufficient, and citizens have a negative perception of the delivery of civil justice (OECD/CAF/UN ECLAC, 2018[76]). Citizens also have declining levels of trust and satisfaction in their public institutions, which deepen social disengagement: almost 64% have no confidence in their national governments, and 75% believe their institutions are corrupt (OECD et al., 2019[77]). On average, 61% of people do not trust the judicial system in their respective countries. In 17 LAC countries,28 more than 50% of the population stated that they do not have confidence in the judicial systems and courts in their country. Overall, the level of distrust ranges from 46% in Guatemala to 77% in Chile. In five LAC countries,29 more than 70% of the population does not have confidence in the judicial system.

The high level of distrust is similar for both women and men across the LAC region. On average, 59% of women and 63% of men do not trust the judicial system, out of the total number of respondents lacking confidence in the judicial system (Gallup, 2017[63]). The difference between women and men ranges from 2 percentage points in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua, to 8, 9 and 14 percentage points in Mexico, Honduras and Haiti, respectively. The share of women who have no confidence in the judicial system is higher than the share of men in only five LAC countries.30 In Ecuador, for instance, the difference between women and men reaches eight percentage points – 51% of women report having no confidence in the judicial system, compared with 43% of men (Figure 6.6).

Lack of trust in judicial institutions can constitute a major barrier to women’s equal access to justice and their ability to overcome discrimination in practice. It often translates into the underreporting of human rights violations, including violence against women. For example, women who are victims of violence do not turn to judicial institutions, as they believe that little will be done for them. This leaves victims defenceless while the perpetrators’ sense of impunity perpetuates violence against women, as this portrays such violence as an accepted practice (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 2011[78]). In El Salvador, for instance, women usually have little confidence in authorities, fearing that laws will not be enforced, and therefore they do not file complaints. As a result, a large number of crimes remain unreported (OECD Development Centre, 2019[79]).

Among the many reasons for lack of confidence in the justice system is the fact that women in some countries cannot properly undertake judicial proceedings for acts of intimate partner violence, marital rape or sexual harassment. In such instances, these types of violence are often considered a private matter. In addition, women’s low level of confidence in the justice system is exacerbated by the fact that their testimonies may be accorded an inferior status compared to those of men (OECD, 2019[1]).

Women’s adequate representation in the judiciary is essential in order to ensure gender sensitivity in this area, and it can help to accelerate the reduction in the number of barriers women face in accessing justice. Between 2015 and 2018, the representation of women in LAC countries’ highest courts or supreme courts increased from 28% to 32% (ECLAC, 2019[80]). Between 2017 and 2018, seven LAC countries31 increased the number of women sitting on their respective supreme courts (ECLAC, 2019[80]). In the LAC region, Cuba, Jamaica and Barbados display among the highest shares of women sitting as judges in the highest court or supreme court, with 62%, 68% and 71%, respectively (ECLAC, 2019[80]).

In addition, although a woman’s testimony carries the same evidentiary weight as a man’s in customary and religious courts or tribunals in all LAC countries, some groups of women face additional difficulties in accessing justice. This is due to customary, religious or traditional practices or laws that discriminate against women’s legal right to sue – notably in Bolivia, El Salvador, Grenada, Mexico and Uruguay. In Bolivia and El Salvador, women also face greater hardships than men when being sued. Furthermore, in El Salvador, customary practices discriminate against women in terms of providing testimony in court. For example, when conflict occurs among members of indigenous communities, such as in cases of gender-based violence, each community has its own internal rules and tries to find a solution by convening its members. Only when the case cannot be resolved internally does the community reach out to the national judicial system (Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos, 2010[81]). Similarly, discriminatory traditional practices in El Salvador discriminate against women’s legal right to be judges, advocates or other court officers. This is notably the case among indigenous communities: traditional gender roles continue to make women mainly responsible for household chores and caring for children. This traditional subordination of women translates into the inexistence or very low representation of women in judicial positions and administrative responsibilities (Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos, 2010[81]).

Ethnic minority status often magnifies the difficulties and forms of discrimination that indigenous women face in accessing justice. While indigenous women should have access to justice through the formal justice system, the latter should also take into account indigenous institutions and traditions. It should also consider the fact that the process of navigating the formal justice system may be even more difficult for indigenous women due to cultural and linguistic barriers. At the same time, indigenous women may also face obstacles in their own communities due to patriarchal and unequal structures, the beliefs and traditions of which can have adverse effects on women’s health and development (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 2017[82]). For example, in some indigenous communities in Colombia, all official administrative and judicial positions are held by men, making it harder for women to denounce acts of gender-based violence (OECD Development Centre, 2019[83]). Guatemala has taken action to facilitate access to justice for Guatemalans who do not speak Spanish by drawing on the services of interpreters. The country has also developed a guide for all people working in the judiciary, so that they are able to observe the specific rights of indigenous women seeking judicial services (OECD Development Centre, 2019[84]). Nicaragua’s Política de igualdad de género del Poder Judicial 2016-2020 (Judiciary Gender Equality Policy 2016-2020) is also mindful of this challenge and recommends that educational materials related to gender and human rights be translated into indigenous languages (Box 6.6).

Overall, the LAC region’s legislation fares well in terms of ensuring women’s civil liberties: their basic freedoms such as citizenship rights, freedom of movement and access to justice are generally guaranteed. Women also have the right to hold public and political office in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government across the LAC region. The region also has strong feminist movements, and women’s political participation in parliaments is higher than the global average.

However, these important gains should not hide the fact that legal loopholes and discriminatory practices still restrict some groups of women, such as indigenous or rural women, from exercising their rights. Moreover, in some areas of the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, discrimination is linked to a woman’s relationship status. Perceptions also matter, and they point to inadequacies in this dimension as well. Across the LAC region, women’s feelings of insecurity when travelling restrict their access to public spaces.

Negative attitudes towards female political leaders still constitute an additional barrier for women who wish to pursue a political career. Also, in some countries, the low feeling of trust in the justice system means that women do not necessarily report offences committed against them. The disproportionate amount of unpaid care work that women carry out – which is associated with perceptions of traditional gender roles in the household – is yet another obstacle that limits their time available to engage in other activities such as political activism.

Addressing the remaining discriminatory legal frameworks, social norms and practices across the “Restricted civil liberties” dimension, and intensifying measures to promote women’s political participation, would multiply the impressive strides that LAC women, through their active civic engagement, have already made towards achieving gender equality.


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[21] UNHCR (2017), Brazil Plan of Action. First Triennial Progress Report 2015-2017.

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[27] UNHCR (1954), Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, United Nations, New York, https://www.unhcr.org/ibelong/wp-content/uploads/1954-Convention-relating-to-the-Status-of-Stateless-Persons_ENG.pdf (accessed on 18 May 2020).

[20] UNICEF (2019), UNICEF welcomes the decision of the Colombian Government to prevent the risk of statelessness of thousands of children born in Colombia of Venezuelan parents, https://www.unicef.org/lac/en/press-releases/unicef-welcomes-decision-colombian-government-prevent-risk-statelessness (accessed on 20 November 2019).

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← 1. Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) scores range from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating no discrimination and 100 indicating absolute discrimination.

← 2. Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

← 3. These LAC countries are, from the highest to the lowest proportion of female parliamentarians: Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico.

← 4. Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago.

← 5. Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

← 6. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

← 7. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

← 8. Other countries with voluntary political party quotas include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Uruguay.

← 9. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Paraguay and Venezuela.

← 10. Argentina, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico and Paraguay.

← 11. Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Venezuela.

← 12. Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and El Salvador.

← 13. Bahamas, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador and Venezuela.

← 14. Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Panama.

← 15. Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico and Panama.

← 16. These LAC countries are, from the highest to the lowest proportion of female parliamentarians: Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico.

← 17. Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guyana, Nicaragua, and Trinidad and Tobago.

← 18. Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Grenada and Jamaica.

← 19. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Venezuela.

← 20. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay.

← 21. Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay.

← 22. Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Trinidad and Tobago.

← 23. Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico and Nicaragua.

← 24. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua.

← 25. Bahamas, Barbados, Bolivia, Cuba, Guyana and Paraguay.

← 26. Antigua and Barbuda, El Salvador, Grenada, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico and Venezuela.

← 27. Argentina, Bahamas, Guatemala, Peru and Venezuela.

← 28. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.

← 29. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.

← 30. Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay.

← 31. Barbados, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

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