Interview: Flavia Freidenberg Discusses Strategies to Increase Women’s Political Participation

Flavia Freidenberg is a researcher and professor at the Institute of Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Editor’s Note: This interview was led by NDI’s Red Innovación, an online platform managed by NDI for innovators from throughout Latin America as they work to make governments and political institutions more responsive to citizens, transparent in operation and effective in delivering results that matter in people’s everyday lives. Please visit to learn more.

Andrea Fernández (AF): What initiatives should political parties implement to increase women’s participation in politics?

Flavia Freidenberg (FF): I think there are two very important things:

The first one has to do with the real understanding that democracy cannot exist without women. It has to do with a cultural change, and if it is complicated for people to understand that through reasoning, they will understand it through the rule of law. That is, if they do not understand it because they are living in a democracy, then the rule of law will have to set standards and requirements for political parties to receive public money. It is that easy.

We need citizens committed to the idea that democracy cannot exist without women. So as a voter, when you go to vote for someone, you should check what their party does to improve the representation of women, and if the party does not do anything, think twice before voting for them. It is not only about having female candidates so that people like me are happy and stop bothering others, it is about being convinced that democracy is impossible without equal representation. That is a huge problem.

None of the Latin American parties, except maybe some of the Nicaraguan parties, supported  women, ignoring the debt that democracy in the region owes to them. What we have learned over time though is that institutional designs, electoral bodies, and courts all require political parties and the administrative bodies that organize elections to abide by the law. Certain women’s social movements dedicated to monitoring and controlling policy implementation, working together with a group of citizens who are emerging from the shadows, are also ready to ensure that parties abide by the law. In many countries the legislation exists, but political actors are ineffective in enforcing the law, and so the law is too weak.

AF: Is it enough to be elected to exercise power?

FF: That’s an interesting question. Being elected does not always mean that you will have an opportunity to directly influence elected officials, especially within the House, for example. Nor does being a woman mean that you have a gender agenda. I’m a women and until three years ago, I didn’t have a gender agenda. In other words, in the past three years I’ve realized that many of the things that I had supported were very weak if I didn’t have a broader understanding of democracy and equality. And for a long time, I didn’t think that this was relevant; I was a political scientist without a gender perspective. And many people think like this, and I don’t want to criticize them. I don’t want to be the professor saying "you're wrong". No, that is a different vision, an incomplete one, but a different vision.

Therefore, being a female representative does not necessarily mean that your public policies, decisions or bills are going to have a gender perspective. In fact, you could be a man and have a gender perspective. I have electoral magistrate colleagues here in Mexico who are driving the pact for equality, and they have all these dynamics of judging with a gender perspective. You do not necessarily have to be a man or a woman to have a gender perspective. What I am convinced of is that this is an agenda for everyone, it is not only an agenda of women fighting for the rights of women. It is an agenda of society fighting for a better democracy and a better society.

AF: Flavia, this is a very interesting reflection because many people believe that only women have to support gender equality or gender agendas. Involving men is also important, to society in general and for building a better democracy.

FF: What I have learned over the past few years is that you can be a man and a feminist, and you can be a woman and not a feminist. The problem is that we lack education on what it means to be a feminist and the implications of having an equality agenda. In my opinion this debate is missing in most Latin American societies, even when the institutional design includes affirmative action electoral mechanisms.

I think that at this stage of democratization in Latin America, people need to have an equality agenda, and this means not shying away from the global political debate. Last week, I was working with the United Nation Development Programme in Panama,  and you have no idea how hard actors committed to a gender agenda have to work to make this happen. This has nothing to do with economic development. It has to do with the development of progressive values, and in my opinion, in most Latin American societies, a progressive rights agenda is either lacking or is only supported by a minority of people. And this means that societies continue to hang on to patriarchal values and remain exclusionary societies, macho societies, even in the younger generations. You might think that younger generations have different values, but that’s not necessarily true.

AF: Do you think there is currently equality in Latin America?

FF: I think we have achieved higher levels of equality between men and women in many areas in some countries more than others, but I think we still have much to do. And this agenda, which is a gender-proactive agenda of progressive rights, is an agenda that requires the democratization of institutions, and especially of political practices. I believe that this requires a vision of democracy that it is much broader and more egalitarian than the one we have now, and this is the task that lies ahead for everyone.