"There is no better way to add to your political worth than through training and constant capacity-building, especially for women. Men are more willing to take on political challenges without training. For women, it’s much more difficult to take this step or to find the courage. So you have to encourage them. It’s not enough to say, “be brave, be brave,” you have to explain and provide reasons.” - Gloria Young
iKNOW Politics: How did your career in politics begin, what inspired you to get involved? Also what obstacles did you encounter as a woman?
I first got involved in politics in Mexico while I studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In a decade like the 70s, there was no way to avoid it. And, of course, if you study Political Science and Public Policy, you join forces with the left. So my first party experience was with the groups linked to the Fourth International in Mexico. Later, I returned to Panama, where a groundbreaking political movement was under way – very interesting – which was started by a group of people close to Ruben Blades, our salsa singer. In its name, the group captured the essence of what we wanted to be: Papa Egoro (1991), which in an indigenous language means mother earth. So we placed ecological concerns at the top of the list.
Within Papa Egoro, we formed a national women’s secretariat that ended up becoming a party within a party. We were very well organized and had a lot of energy because we had some of the most renowned feminists of the time. I joined because I didn’t believe in traditional politics. Ruben Blades told me, “Do in the party what you would do at home.” This stuck with me and I wondered, “What would I do at home?” To which I answered, “Everything necessary to advance the struggle for equality.” So we created the National Women’s Secretariat of Mother Earth.
When national elections approached, the idea of participating as a candidate had never crossed my mind. I wanted to work directly with women at the national level and strengthen the National Women’s Secretariat. But the rest of the women had reached an agreement, met with me and said, “we want you to be a candidate for Parliament.” I told them that I didn’t believe in those things – in formal, electoral politics. They were full of lies. Also, you needed a lot of money to get elected. Finally, they convinced me with the argument that someone from the women’s movement had to participate. We ran and we won in one of the most important electoral districts in the country (1994).
In Panama, there are three ways of getting elected: by majority vote, ratio or “remainder.” During these elections, 69 legislators were elected, seven winning by ratio. I entered Parliament with a well-defined agenda: a domestic violence law, equal opportunity law, sexual harassment law, a law on the elimination and eradication of sexist language in school books and texts at the national level in addition to the texts of the legislative assembly agendas.
This agenda was considered extremely audacious. Despite that, we achieved Law No. 4 on Equal Opportunity for Women in 1999. With this agenda, we managed to join forces with various sectors in the women’s movement. Contrary to what one would imagine based on other experiences, in Panama the movements were not ahead of Parliament in this agenda. Rather it was the women Members of Parliament who took initiative, including other women who did not necessarily have a gender perspective. The men in Parliament also became more sensitive to gender issues, to the point that our sessions started with a special greeting: “good afternoon, women legislators.” One day we’ll have to write about that experience. I was re-elected for a second term. I’ve been in Parliament for a total of ten years [1994-2004].
I remember clearly when the winner of the Rogelio Sinán award – one of our most avant-garde writers – was a woman: Elsie Alvarado de Ricord, a wonderful poet who at the time was president of the Panamanian Language Academy. Like other prizes related to the arts, this prize was the result of our work in Parliament. We had created a totally different dynamic in the assembly. For the first time, the assembly in Panama published a magazine – Ventanas del Parlamento – which had been advocated by the commission on women’s affairs. The magazine discussed the advances in the women’s movement in the country, various aspects of the academic movement, essays, background articles, etc.
In the commission, we started the custom – which was unfortunately abandoned – of consulting all initiatives with the sectors of organized women in the country. This sort of dynamic was unprecedented because even though the assembly’s permanent work commissions are obligated to consult bills with the sectors concerned, the majority of discussions were held within closed door. The commission on women’s affairs set the tone for what needed to be done. Moreover, we managed for this participation to reach the assembly itself and women’s voices were heard nationally because the sessions were aired on TV and the radio. The radio especially made an impact. You’d get into a cab and you’d end up talking to the driver about these women who are talking about such and such because everyone heard us on the radio. I’d walk down the city streets and they’d stop me to say, “Hey, legislator, I heard they took miss so-and-so [to the assembly] and look what interesting things she had to say!”
iKNOW Politics: Could you comment on the obstacles you’ve faced in your political career, in particular with your male colleagues?
Undoubtedly they were many, beginning with life inside the party. Being in a party is a constant struggle to make your voice heard in a place dominated by males. There have been several women party presidents. The first was Berta Torrijos de Arosemena, honorary president of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), founded by her brother, General Omar Torrijos. She took it seriously and began to make significant changes in the PRD until they changed her instead. The second woman president, elected by vote, was Mireya Moscoso of the Arnulfista party, who later got elected as president of the country. I’ve been president of the Papa Egoro party, chosen internally over Ruben Blades. As president, I had to muddle through the reconstruction and expansion of the party at the national level against all odds and with no support from the party’s founder. I became aware of all that went with being the woman president in a party where a patriarchal system reigned, despite the fact that the women’s secretariat was as strong as ever. However, we managed to include an indigenous representative in the directive board in a country that has five indigenous districts with their own lands and government.
In the end, a movement was started by Ruben Blades to kick me out of the party and take my seat. He didn’t manage to do get my seat, but they did expel me from the party. And I am proud of it!
iKNOW Politics: Could you tell us about your experience in training and empowerment processes for women? What lessons have you learned and what difficulties have you encountered?
There is no better way to add to your political worth than through training and constant capacity-building, especially for women. Men are more willing to take on political challenges without training. For women, it’s much more difficult to take this step or to find the courage. So you have to encourage them. It’s not enough to say, “be brave, be brave,” you have to explain and provide reasons. You have to acquire tools and know how to use them, even if we’re defeated time and again. In the Papa Egoro secretariat on women’s affairs we had a special unit for training – you can’t imagine all the things we did there. Later, with Mireya Moscoso’s party – which is older and more traditional – we also garnered support for women’s training and the formation of a national women’s secretariat.
This wasn’t enough, however. We formed a strategic alliance between women from different political parties, called the Forum of Women in Political Parties. A certain spirit of unity was created between women politicians, regardless of ideology or party affiliation. We managed to modify the electoral law so that 10 percent of the 30 percent electoral subsidies received by parties went exclusively to training for women.
iKNOW Politics: In Panama, you not only have the Forum but also the Panamanian Association of Women Parliamentarians and Former Parliamentarians (APARLEXPA). You’ve been the executive secretary for both groups at different times. What do you owe these advances in Panama to? What could we do to promote similar initiatives in the region?
Indeed, I’ve been the founder of both groups. To date, the Forum has been around for 16 years and the Association for six years. They are spaces where Panamanian women politicians can work together and have served to increase women’s personal self-esteem and political standing in parties. The Forum has a very strong training component – so strong that it has earned international recognition from organizations that finance extensive training programs for women candidates. We have taken this experience to other countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Five of us women from different parties have gone to other countries, which really helped motivate women in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.
For its part, the Association is an experience that began in El Salvador under the initiative of a great colleague, who I identify with a lot – Gloria Salguero. She has been a minister without portfolio in Elías Antonio Saca’s government [2004-2009] and was formerly the first woman president of Congress. Without a doubt, she’s had a very successful career in Congress. In contrast to the Forum, the Association is for women who have been elected to the Parliament and are thus good examples of what it means to win elections in each country. The Association exists to train women who want to participate in elections, whether national or local. We have been formulating a methodology with a basic academic component as well as a focus on managing basic tools. We have helped many women to overcome shyness, find resources and have the courage to face men in their parties. These women have begun to win elections and that’s why support from women who have already gone through elections or held office is so key. The point is to have them share their experiences with women who are just starting out and help spread accumulated political capital to those who now need it.
iKNOW Politics: What role have networks played in your political career? What benefits do they entail?
I firmly believe in networking. One of the components of our training sessions is how to dominate information and communication technology (ICT). Women, including those from the country’s more rural areas, have to learn how to use and manage ICT if they want to communicate their proposals.
iKNOW Politics has been a fundamental tool for the women in APARLEXPA and the Forum, as well as for all women who have dreams and aspire to educate themselves more. Most of all, the spaces for virtual debate have been very helpful. I don’t know if you are aware of how much iKNOW Politics helps women politicians. Networks need to be expanded to reach much more women because the number of women who currently access these is minimal.
iKNOW Politics: What is your future agenda in order to continue the valuable work you’ve done to date?
I plan on promoting a change in APARLEXPA’s board of directors. This is very important now, following the elections  where our number of deputies in the national assembly fell. The idea is for the position of the president of the Association to be held by one of the two women who got reelected this term. The woman who got the greatest number of votes in the country will be at the helm, supported by very valuable women deputies and former deputies. I will become an advisor for this directive board.
My main goal at this time is to be the first national director of the National Institute for Women, created by law in December 2008. This institute’s structure is completely different than other national institutes. In fact, the executive branch alone doesn’t appoint the director, rather it must choose from a short list resulting from an open, extensive and democratic competition between women who must meet certain qualifications. These qualifications include experience in women’s development and gender equality and demonstrated professional ability. If you also have experience with the social and political movements in the country, even better. The short list is chosen through a mechanism created in 1994 – the National Women’s Council – which is a neutral space between government and civil society organizations, presided by the country’s minister of social development. There are seven civil society organizations that are presenting candidates, five of whom have supported me. I am very proud of that.