Wednesday, October 17, 2018
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Female mayors change capital’s landscape
Anastasia Moloney
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Bogota’s mayor becomes the first in his position to tackle gender roles and discrimination by selecting women to run capital’s 20 administrative districts.

In an old theater in the heart of Teusaquillo, a middle-income neighborhood in downtown Bogota, Sandra Jaramillo addresses an audience of local residents and schoolchildren about abortion.

Dressed in a sharp trouser business suit with a green chiffon scarf, Jaramillo, 33, a lawyer educated in one of Bogota’s top universities, is the mayor of Teusaquillo, and one of many female mayors governing in the capital. Bogota is divided into 20 local administrative districts, and all are led by women.

This is the second public forum about the decriminalization of Colombia’s strict abortion laws that Jaramillo has organized, and such a scene would be difficult to imagine before her appointment as a mayor, just eight months ago. (Colombia’s Constitutional Court voted May 10 to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother fetus.)

"Any mayor can fix roads and build parks,’ said Jaramillo. "If a man was in charge, it’s unlikely that he’d initiate public debates about abortion. Abortion is not a priority issue for men; they’re just not interested in tackling it."

Last July, Bogota’s leftist and influential mayor, Luiz Garzón, caused uproar when he announced that women would be appointed to head all 20 mayoral districts in this capital of 7 million. According to a law passed in 2000, 30 percent of non-elected posts in the local and central government must be filled by women.

Unlike the mayor who presides over Bogota for whom the electorate votes directly, local council committees selected the final candidates for district mayors, narrowing the lists down to three names, of which one was a female. The candidate lists were passed on to Garzón, who picked a female candidate each time.

During press conferences last year, Garzón said that he had been impressed by the leadership qualities that the female candidates had shown during their interviews for the posts. According to Garzón, women are the right choice because they "generate trust when it’s time to do business, they represent more than half of the population, and are aware of and sensitive towards social policies."

"Garzón had to take such radical action," said Jaramillo. "Otherwise, in the patriarchal world we live in, women would never have a chance."

Some believe that Garzón’s policy of positive discrimination was a sincere attempt to address the inequality between men and women at home and in the workplace, and to raise the participation of women in local government. But others, like Jaramillo, believe that his decision was based on politics.

"It was an act of political power, sending a message to his rivals that he’s in charge and he’s the boss," Jaramillo said.

Whatever the motives, Garzón is Bogota’s first mayor to seriously tackle gender roles and discrimination.

At the start of Garzón’s administration in January 2004, he established the Advisory Office on Women and Gender Issues, which oversees Bogota’s Program for Equal Opportunities, known by the Spanish acronym PIO. The program aims to address women’s issues based on six core themes, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, guaranteeing women equal access to education, jobs and health care, and increasing the participation of women in local government.

According to Colombian law, these offices and programs are not obligatory. There are only four other similar offices across the country.

"Garzón’s Advisory Office and the appointment of female mayors have undoubtedly helped raise the issue of discrimination and inequality that women face and encouraged solutions," said Elizabeth Quiñónez, an advisor on health and culture issues at the Bogota institution

The Advisory Office helps formulate public policies aimed at reducing the inequality between men and women and organizes forums where female leaders can share their experiences and form networks of women’s groups and lobbies.

The women mayors are important role models in local neighborhoods and have slowly helped to change gender roles and stereotypes.

"It shows that women can also be successful leaders and govern," Quiñónez said.

Bogota’s female mayors vary widely in age, background and experience, ranging from a 24 year-old lawyer to a 57-year old public administration expert. But like many other female mayors, Jaramillo fights against an almost impermeable wall of machismo.

Working with the local police has been the biggest ongoing challenge.

"One police major just couldn’t accept that he would have to take orders from a woman and that I was his boss," Jaramillo recalled.

The major — a senior position in the Bogota police force — once derogatorily referred to Jaramillo in public as, "one of the mayor’s little favorite women." She remembers that he would undermine her authority and was generally uncooperative and conflictive.

Jaramillo filed several complaints claiming that their personal differences were impeding them to work constructively together. The police major has since been replaced and Jaramillo’s relationship with local police is gradually improving.

"I’ve just won one battle but not the war," Jaramillo said.

According to Jaramillo, the pressure to succeed is greater for female mayors than for their male counterparts.

"I can’t even make one mistake," said Jaramillo. "We’re all closely watched and some people are just waiting for us to slip up."

But Mercedes del Carmen Ríos, mayor of Bogota’s Suba district, says that her gender does not influence the way she governs. "My daily challenge is to focus on social changes, which I think men do too, but maybe the difference is that because women are naturally protective mothers who bear most of the responsibility for looking after the children, we’re more sensitive to those issues," said Ríos.

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