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Paraguay's First Woman Presidential Candidate Tries To Crack Macho Culture

Lilian Soto is a longshot to win Sunday's election, but she may have already changed the last South American country to have female voting rights.

Magui Balbuena (L) and Lilian Soto (R)
Magui Balbuena (L) and Lilian Soto (R)
Christine Legrand

ASUNCION - In Sunday's national election, Paraguay, a country still both firmly patriarchal and culturally macho, will have the possibility to vote for the first time for a woman to be their president.

The feminist party, Kuña Pyrenda ("platform" in the indigenous language Guarani), has put forth Lilian Soto, a surgeon and graduate in Public Administration from the University of Ohio, to lead the South American nation of 6.5 million. Magui Balbuena, head of the National Coordination of Rural and Indigenous Women, is running for vice president.

A leftist militant since her student years, Soto, 50, appears confident, even though polls have her trailing far behind leading candidates, Horacio Cartes, a tobacco magnate and former public works minister Rival Efrain Alegre, vying for the presidency 10 months after the resignation of Fernando Lugo, the former “bishop of the poor” ousted by Parliament.

Still, despite her slim chances Sunday, Soto is proud to have “introduced the feminine element into the political debate.” She says that a “feminist and socialist movement was necessary in Paraguay, where gender inequalities, just like social inequalities, are ignored by traditional parties.”

Kuña Pyrenda, created in 2010, gathers female “students, employees, peasants, indigenous, but also from the bourgeoisie,” Soto explains.

The party struggles for the legalization of abortion, in a conservative and Catholic country, where clandestine abortions are the leading cause of mortality for young women. Soto says they favor same-sex marriage and the protection of rights of discriminated minorities.

Single and childless, she has been harassed by journalists with questions about her private life. She had to publicly proclaim that “no, I am not a lesbian!” A former Secretary of State for Public Service in center-left government of Lugo, Soto has made violence against women and defense of mothers central to her campaign.

This is a country where only three out of ten children are recognized by their fathers. The country has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America. De facto polygamy is rife.

A poster at the entrance of the Kuña Pyrenda headquarters in Center Asuncion declares: “If women were able to rebuild Paraguay after war, I want women to govern my country in 2013.”

Priests as fathers

It is a reference to the long and bloody War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870), involving Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, decimating more than half of the Paraguayan population. According to some historians, the war left only 29,000 adult males alive for 120,000 women -- and so Paraguay was dubbed “the country of women.”

“Women worked on the social and economic reconstruction of the country," notes Soto. "The demographic balance between sexes was restored after the war, and politics remain exclusively men's affair.”

Paraguay is the last Latin American country where women gained the right to vote, in 1961. It is also one of the poorest countries in the region. The unemployment rate for women is higher than for men, and wages are on average inferior by half, both in rural areas and cities. Mostly for economic reasons, many Paraguayan women emigrate, leaving the education of their children in the hands of other women, aunts or grandmothers.

It is estimated that more than one million of these women are domestic workers in Argentina. Others work in hospitals in Spain, Greece, Italy or in the United States. “Many are victims of prostitution networks,” says Soto.

She adds that “this tradition of courage and resistance is anchored in the history and culture of the country: during the war, women were at the mercy of occupying armies. Struggle is the everyday life of indigenous women."

Clara Rosa Gagliardone, a prominent attorney, recalls the case of Viviana Carillo, the first woman to denounce former President Lugo for being the father of her two-year old child. His resignation last June was not prompted by revelations that he'd fathered children when he was a priest. And Carillo's denounciations that the then bishop had beaten her were widely ignored.

“Machismo is so deep in Paraguay, that it is considered normal that men beat their wives,” she says with indignation. The memories of the aftermath of the Triple Alliance War is the base of popular acceptance that one must “procreate by any means and without any responsibility. And even with a priest.”

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