Ruth Zavaleta Salgado


June 9, 2008

Ruth Zavaleta Salgado

President of the Leadership Body of the Chamber of Deputies in Mexico

“I have a dream: I hope that someday there are no borders and no wars. That there is peace throughout the world, but especially that we can communicate, that we can walk and go wherever we want, do the work we enjoy, settle where we want to settle, without conflicts of any kind. I believe that the Internet and virtual networks such as iKNOW Politics are steps toward this...” - Ruth Zavaleta Salgado

iKNOW Politics: What challenges have you faced as a woman in a leadership position, first as vice president and now president of the Leadership Body of the Chamber of Deputies? Has your past experience helped you in this process? How? 

I think the main challenge is to work toward institutionalization. After a complicated and polarized electoral process in 2006, in which our party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD) won the Mexican presidency, we saw that the leaders of the Chamber of Deputies at the time, who were members of the opposition party, were not acting in the interests of the institution, but out of political motivations. This posed a difficult challenge. One of the things that was crucial in dealing with that was that I had held other public offices, such as local deputy (2000-2003), when we won approval of the Transportation and Highways Law. Another important experience was having served as delegation chief in Venustiano Carranza (2003-2006), where I learned the importance of doing balanced institutional work, strengthening and promoting the bodies in which I worked for the benefit of the population. Being a woman poses additional challenges, because there is a chauvinistic culture in our country.

It is very difficult to overcome that, because even women are permeated by that culture. Expressions of contempt or misogyny are sometimes considered normal, or in some cases even taken as a joke. This happens in politics as it does in other areas. Sometimes a deputy or another party leader speaks disparagingly about my work in the Chamber of Deputies, especially my emphasis on institutions. But I don’t see that as a barrier or an insurmountable obstacle. I think one way of bringing about change is by responding with work and winning the acceptance of the population.

It is very important for people to know, think, see and believe that it is possible to break out of that culture and that we can create different conditions.

iKNOW Politics: What is the current state of women’s political participation in Mexico, both in political parties and in the legislative and executive branches?

It is recognized in the law, mainly in the Constitution. In practice, however, there is not full compliance, especially in the areas we call provinces or municipalities, particularly those that are farthest from cities. These are not governed by the Constitution, in terms of equality or the human rights of women, but by practices and customs, which greatly limit women’s democratic participation, even today, 100 years after the birth of Simone de Beauvoir.

The case of Eufrosina Cruz in Oaxaca, which made news worldwide, is emblematic. As an indigenous woman, she was blocked from holding public office because of the customs of her community. I repeat, one of the main obstacles is that the law and established regulations are not enforced, and those who suffer most from this are women.

iKNOW Politics: The Mexican Equality Law is considered a very advanced law in the region. To what degree has it been implemented? Do you believe it is a key point of reference for achieving true gender equality?

The Equality Law still needs enabling regulations; it has shortcomings. We have to monitor to be sure the federal executive branch implements enabling legislation. I think that would help greatly in promoting education, especially for young people and children of both sexes. Right now, however, it is more advanced in rhetoric and on paper than in practice, and I think that if we could enforce it and sanction those who do not comply with these types of laws, it would be much better. Again, there are shortcomings in the enabling regulations.

iKNOW Politics: How is the quota system being implemented in Mexico? What measures or norms exist for sanctioning non-compliance? What plans, goals or challenges lie ahead with regard to the quota system?

In general, I would just hope for parity. In political parties, it depends on the party. Most have a 30 percent mandatory quota for proportional representation on their candidate lists. The current Constitution includes a provision that anyone, male or female, who wants to run can run. But the Electoral Law is very clear about women’s participation and sets a 30 percent quota on proportional lists. Going back to the political parties, the PRD, for example, discussed parity at its last congress and approved it. The PRD is one of the most advanced. It has a rule of 50 percent men and 50 percent women on proportional lists.

It is crucial to respect the quotas that currently exist. Even with the 30 percent quota established in communities and states, there are problems that go beyond legality and have to do with education and respect for investiture. For example, there is the case of federal deputies. Once a woman gets to the Federal District to take her seat, she resigns and turns it over to the substitute, who in most cases is a man — a son, a brother or a boyfriend.

iKNOW Politics: Is there any mechanism in effect for sanctioning non-compliance with legally established quotas?

Yes. In the case of the PRD, if a woman who should be on the list does not appear on it — keeping in mind the proportion, that one of every three candidates must be a woman or a youth — then the Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral, IFE), which is the body that can sanction a party that is not following its by-laws with regard to quotas, will establish the punishment.

iKNOW Politics: In various countries around the world and in the region, women’s caucuses or women’s groups in Parliament have a high degree of acceptance and success, especially in proposing initiatives that benefit women, overseeing enforcement of established norms, and the like. Is there something similar in the Mexican Parliament?

The Gender Equality Commission in the Chamber of Deputies is the main body that addresses women’s issues. It regularly promotes initiatives related to health, education and domestic violence with a gender approach. It also does monitoring of the budget funds approved each year by the legislature (which were proposed by the executive branch). For 2008, we have an extraordinary budget whose use is being monitored by the Gender Equality Commission. In the Chamber of Deputies, there is also a Women’s Studies Center.

The center has a wide range of studies, surveys and proposals related to the fight for gender equality. Although we do not have a women’s caucus in the Mexican Parliament, for sensitive issues such as the violence in Juarez or prevention of AIDS or uterine cancer, women from the different parliamentary factions get together to make proposals, review programs and monitor cases.

iKNOW Politics: Given your position as president of the leadership body in the Chamber of Deputies, what projects do you plan to promote to increase women’s participation in politics? Some media have described a funding proposal that is being prepared for gender issues. How will that be implemented?

Female deputies organize women in their home communities to promote training, education, and access to justice in cases of domestic violence. That is mainly what we have been promoting. I come from the district of Venustiano Carranza, where we go to apartment complexes and neighborhoods and get people together to talk to them about the culture of legality and violence against women, so we can begin eradicating it. We tell them: You have the law on your side. You can help us and we can give you guidance so that you can go to the Public Ministry and file a complaint if there is a problem, and we can make a referral to a shelter.

There are also more specific things that have to do with complementing our training and educating people so they can organize. When they don’t have jobs or when they have economic problems in the family, they can organize to get loans and gain access to resources so they can produce. In the case of Michoacán, for example, there are women who do embroidery and sewing. They are organized in their communities. With regard to the funding proposal, every year the budget is prepared and a special budget is proposed for assisting women in different areas.

Those funds are now being spent. The budget was for more than 2 billion pesos, for example, in the area of justice. The Public Ministries have received special funds for promoting training and education for their staff members to assist women who have problems with domestic violence. Those funds are now being spent; that is a budget we fought for last year, and I’m sure that this year we’ll win the same amount or even more. We’re asking that the amount be increased as the programs show results, in terms of the training being provided to the various stakeholders who provide assistance to women.

iKNOW Politics: What obstacles have you faced as a woman in your political career, especially with your male colleagues in the party or in Parliament? How have you overcome them?

Two examples come to mind. One is related to my work in the Chamber of Deputies. I am regularly attacked by some male deputies, who tend to only see the errors one might commit, especially in public statements. I call them errors, because sometimes the press twists your words or blows them out of proportion. Not long ago, a journalist at a session asked my opinion about the clergy’s participation in politics.

My reply might have been a bit off the cuff, because I suggested that they participate, saying, “Let them vote and be voted for. What’s the problem as long as they follow the rules of the political game?” and didn’t go into any more detail about the issue. To my surprise, the article that was published indicated that I had proposed that Article 130 of the Constitution be reformed and that priests be allowed to vote. Taking advantage of the situation, a colleague who has criticized me publicly at various times went on various television programs, hammering away at that issue. So what is my position in cases like that?

First, I don’t respond to every provocation, because I think that confuses people, especially when the people attacking you are from your own party. Second, I have a proposal for my party, the PRD, that training and education — beginning with the leadership — be based on respect for women in the party. In other words, we need to promote true political formation if we want to have a truly democratic party. The other example is a story someone made up about a politician who “came to grab my leg.” Although it was a kind of political metaphor, he said it in public and in the media, including on television.

Because of the repercussions of those unfortunate statements, I was forced to respond by saying he was a “barroom brawler.” I used that expression because he discredited my institutional work, using sexual innuendo, and I obviously have to demand respect, even if that respect comes at a cost to me. A lot of people were angry about the tone of my response. But I had to take a stand and gain the respect of all the political forces, especially because I have a job in which I have to manage the balance of positions, of debate.

I couldn’t let them discredit me that way, could I? You get harassed because you’re a woman. I’ve never heard anyone try to discredit any of the PRD governors who meet with Felipe Calderón by saying they’ve grabbed his leg. Really, I think the attitude toward my work in the Chamber of Deputies is very unfortunate and demeaning.

iKNOW Politics: Based on your experience, what do you believe are the best strategies for including men in processes for promoting gender equality, especially in political participation?

One is the legal strategy. For example, including in a specific article in the Constitution (the third article, which talks about education for children in primary and secondary school) a specific reference to the culture of legality, the culture of respect for women’s rights and gender equality. This issue must be promoted in schools and in the family. We have a chauvinistic culture. It’s seen as “natural” that girls have to do some domestic chores and boys don’t. I think this needs to change, based on the law first, but also through the education of the people who work with our children: teachers in grade schools, in universities, in secondary schools.

We have to change the entire system involving teachers. A teacher has to earn as much as a deputy, because if we want first-rate people, we have to have first-rate salaries. I think that men and women could break with culture if there were a different kind of education in our country. I believe this is a strategy that should complement the one the government is promoting on television, with spots about respect for women.

iKNOW Politics: What suggestions or advice would you give young women who are interested in getting involved in politics, but who feel it is a distant world that is difficult for them to attain, not only in Mexico, but in various parts of the region?

You can’t take things too seriously. Sometimes we put straitjackets on ourselves. We have to experience and enjoy the things we think we can do. We have to be passionate about them and experience them. We have to promote them with all our passion. From the time I began as a grassroots leader, then later, as a political party leader, and now as a federal deputy, I have been passionate about all of the positions I have held. But even if I weren’t in a leadership position, I would be passionate, even if I didn’t have a job and was tending my garden. You have to live life with great passion.

It’s not true that we always have to be happy or that we always have to have everything worked out. But I think we should try to be happy more of the time. We have to stretch out those brief moments of happiness, always thinking about how we can solve problems. We can’t sink into depression; we can’t think that all is lost. All is won, because we have life. We have to enjoy it and embrace our femininity. I think that we women have more of a chance to enjoy these things than men do. I believe that whatever we do, we have to throw ourselves into it with great commitment, but especially with great passion, feeling that we can fulfill ourselves that way, that we can enjoy it completely.

iKNOW Politics: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers and readers around the world who will see this interview?

I believe that the Internet is bringing us closer together. The Internet is a tool that helps break down borders, and crossing borders means growth. I have a dream: I hope that someday there are no borders and no wars. That there is peace throughout the world, but above all, that we can communicate, that we can walk and go wherever we want, do the work we enjoy, settle wherever we want to settle, without conflicts of any kind. I believe that the Internet and virtual networks like iKNOW Politics are steps toward this, because you are not in a specific place — you’re in the world.

I really enjoy reading, especially novels; I imagine the places, the parks, the waterfalls. I imagine if a person suffers, if a person laughs, if a person is happy. I believe that when we are networked, when we are in this type of relationship, like the one you are promoting, we can be in a distant place without necessarily having to travel there physically. And I think we need to enjoy that.