New report finds Latin America's best and worst countries for gender equality
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New report finds Latin America's best and worst countries for gender equality

Electing a female president isn’t enough to balance out systemic gender inequality in politics and the workplace across Latin America, according to a new study on global gender inequality.

The World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report, released Tuesday, ranked 142 countries around the world based on their achievements toward gender parity. Unsurprisingly, at least for most people who pay attention to women’s rights in the region, Latin America did little to distinguish itself — with one notable exception.

Nicaragua not only led Latin American nations, but made it up into the top 10 of the overall list, beating countries like Germany, New Zealand and Canada.

The report’s conclusions were based on four major categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. These broad sectors included more specific indicators like the percentage of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates, percentage of women employed in formal and informal sectors, businesses with women as top managers, access to contraception, access to land ownership, length of maternity leave and even legal parental authority within marriage and after divorce.

The top countries in the world, as might be expected, were mostly concentrated in Europe, with Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark taking the top five spots. Below that, things were a bit more interesting, with Nicaragua, Rwanda, Ireland, the Philippines and Belgium rounding out the top 10.

Also unsurprising were the countries with the poorest scores on the index. The bottom five — Mali, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen — were all countries with deeply restrictive laws and norms regulating gender relations, and included several nations that are experiencing severe internal conflicts.

Latin American report card: The good and the average

Nicaragua’s high ranking may come as a surprise to many women’s rights activists , as the country suffers from rising rates of femicide and violence against women. However, the country earned top marks for women’s political empowerment, with more women than men holding ministerial-level positions in the government.

The next Latin American country to make the list was Ecuador, coming in at 21st, just after the United States. Ecuador had near-equality on educational and health indicators, and its .71 ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions was one of the best in the region (though, of course, still well below equal). When it came to labor force participation, though, the small Andean country didn’t fare so well — only 58 percent of women are connected to the country’s workforce, compared to 85 percent of men.

Cuba (30), Argentina (31) and Peru (45) rounded out the regional top five.

Even having a female head of state — a key indicator on the survey —  wasn’t enough to counterbalance other problems, as Chile (ranked 66th) and Brazil (71) were close to the middle on both the global ranking and within the region overall. Chile suffered from poor wage equality and little representation of women in managerial and senior official positions, while Brazil had one of the region’s lowest rates of women in parliament, with an abysmal .09 ratio of women to men.

Latin America’s failing grades

The lowest country in the Americas was Belize, with a lowly ranking of 100. Latin America’s worst marks went to Guatemala, at 89, which fell just below #86 Venezuela and neighboring El Salvador at 84.

One of the biggest surprises was the dismal score for Uruguay, often held up as a model country for development, equality and progressive policy in Latin America. The small South American nation, which has led the world on legalizing marijuana and social programs, nonetheless lags far behind when it comes to gender equality, coming in at 82nd on the ranking, just after Paraguay (81) and Mexico (80).

Read more: Which Latin American country is most socially inclusive?

The low score for Uruguay seemed to be based on the low rates of women’s participation in the political arena and labor force. Uruguay has nearly achieved or even passed equality in all of the educational and health indicators, with significantly more women than men enrolled in secondary and tertiary-level education, and there are many more female professional and technical workers than male in the country. Yet women’s participation in the labor force is far below that of men, and the wage gap for equal work is almost 50 percent. The outlook is even worse when it comes to political participation, with tiny numbers of women in parliament and ministerial positions.

With upcoming Senate and presidential elections at the end of November, Uruguay may have a chance to change this, but such radical change seems unlikely to come from just one round of voting.

Other Latin American countries included in the index were Panama (46), Costa Rica (48), Colombia (53), Bolivia (58) and the Dominican Republic (78).

Safety first

These results are particularly interesting coming on the heels of a study that found major Latin American cities have some of the world’s least safe public transportation systems for women.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 15 of the world’s largest cities — including Paris, Tokyo and Moscow — found that Latin American capitals had among the worst marks for women’s perceived safety on transportation. The Colombian capital of Bogotá earned the dubious honor of being the city where women felt least safe on public transportation, followed by Lima and Mexico City. Women in Bogotá said they were afraid to travel after dark, while Mexico City was where women felt most at risk of verbal or physical abuse on public transportation.

Read more: Bogotá deploys “decoy” female officers to combat harassment on public transportation 

As the survey pointed out, many studies show a link between safe transportation and women’s economic empowerment, as well as their ability to safely get to work or school, making transportation a key factor for nations that want to improve gender equality, particularly in the economic and educational realms.