City Hall Still a Reach for Women in Mexico

7 March 2012

Karla Zabludovsky

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — The small-town party bosses told her to forget it. Her husband, too, scoffed at the idea as preposterous. And deep down, María Teresa Domínguez had her own doubts.

Could she run for mayor of Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos State and a haven for Mexico City weekenders? Was there any chance she, a woman in a city whose institutions have long been dominated by men, could win? Hadn’t her mother always told her that she belonged at home?

“There were many sleepless nights,” said Ms. Domínguez, 54, a university professor and part of a vanguard of women seeking to run for mayor in a country where machismo, corruption and an insider political culture have kept them out. “I always believed I could do more. I can construct, transform this society.”

Even as many Mexicans celebrate a milestone in Josefina Vázquez Mota, the first woman to be selected as the presidential candidate of a major Mexican political party, the number of women in office at the most basic level of government — in the small cities and villages that are a backbone of democracy — still falls notably short.

Only in 6 percent of the country’s cities and towns do women serve as municipal president, as mayors are called in Mexico. By contrast, women hold one in four seats in Congress, for which 40 percent of a party’s candidates must be women.

Political analysts who work with aspiring female politicians in Mexico say that the democratic process at the municipal level remains mired by a conservative and patriarchal culture, vague and unenforced gender quotas, and a lack of transparency and accountability.

Mayors are the most visible of local politicians — a double-edged sword. Their power makes them prime targets for criminals (according to the monthly magazine Mayors of Mexico, more than 30 mayors have been killed or have disappeared since 2008), but they are also highly influential allies for state leaders.

“They have the closest link to the citizens,” said Yunuel Cruz, head of the department of political participation at the Mexican National Women’s Institute, the government agency in charge of gender equality. “It is the most forgotten space of our democracy.”

Now, a band of national and international experts on politics and campaigns is trying to kick open the doors of city halls to more women like Ms. Domínguez, who is participating in a training program designed to increase the number of women campaigning for local offices. The National Democratic Institute, an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party in the United States, has organized a “Future Women Mayors” academy here that teaches participants the basics of politics, how to devise a campaign strategy and what to do once they get elected.

The organizers said more female mayors would likely mean more money put toward education and health programs, as well as a deepening public emphasis on quality of life. For Julian Quibell, director of N.D.I. Mexico, this would increase and diversify proposed solutions to some of the country’s growing problems, including violence and unemployment.

“We have to break with the idea that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, because more than anything,” he said, “you are excluding a human perspective.”

When Mariana López Vieyra, 25, finished giving a convincing mock campaign speech during one of the sessions — with an air reminiscent of an eager and subtly nervous student in an acting class — the group of 30 women engaged in a lengthy and lively discussion. Which parts were worthy of emulating? How could the message have been delivered more clearly? Many of them took meticulous notes during the exchange.

The academy in Morelos, one of five Mexican states that do not have any female mayors, is the second of its kind organized by the institute. Mr. Quibell led the six-month inaugural program in the nearby state of Michoacán last year. Of the 52 participants, 15 ran for office after completing the course. Rosa Hilda Abascal, 55, who has served as a trustee and a comptroller in her town, is one of the three elected mayors. She called it a bittersweet victory after growing hostility with her husband pushed her close to giving up her political dreams.

“If a lime was missing from the table, he would say, ‘It’s because you’re over there,’ ” said Ms. Abascal, the first female mayor in Zamora, her hometown. She said he finally came to his senses and threw his support behind her, though it took years of convincing.

Ms. Domínguez knows all too well that a skeptical husband can be a major political liability.

“My advantage,” she said, with a sheepish smile, “is that I’ve been a widow for five years.”

Today, she walks around Cuernavaca’s streets, markets and malls, shaking as many hands as possible and taking note of what people tell her is lacking in the city. Ms. Domínguez, of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, is squaring off against three opponents within her party, all men.

They, and her party, may prove to be as resistant to her political aspirations as her late husband. Gladis López, president of Mayors of Mexico, says that political parties often set women up for failure by giving them more visibility in strategically chosen places.

“Where they don’t have possibilities of winning,” she said, “there is more generosity to support them.”

If Ms. Vázquez Mota’s presidential nomination is to help close the gender gap in Mexican politics, the country’s parties will have to not only enforce gender quotas, but also provide women with special training, Ms. López warns. It is unreasonable, she says, that parties expect to move them from what she called “the casserole to the microphone” without any real support.

For Ms. Vieyra, whose mock speech elicited thunderous applause from her classmates, it is only a matter of time before women’s participation in politics becomes fully acceptable.

“It’s like a social cliché,” she said, “like getting a tattoo a few years ago,” mentioning a tattooed colleague within the party and explaining that for the younger members, it is not an issue at all.