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Mexico has become a world leader of gender equality in politics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mexico is known for its macho culture, and the country has now become one of the world's leaders in gender political equality. Half of all members of Mexico's Congress are now women, as are seven of the country's 32 governors. But while Mexico's glass ceiling is clearly cracking, it's unclear whether 2021's parity will translate into real power. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

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CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: At her gubernatorial inauguration October 31, 36-year-old Marina del Pilar Avila acknowledged she was about to become a lot of firsts.

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MARINA DEL PILAR AVILA OLMEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I'm going to be the first woman to be governor of Baja California, as well as the state's youngest governor," she said. Avila is also the northern border state's first pregnant leader.

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AVILA OLMEDA: (Through interpreter) I promise I will show what we women can do to break glass ceilings to participate in public life as our grandmothers and our mothers dreamed of doing.

KAHN: Avila's political rise in the state across the border from California has been fast. She won her first election as a federal congresswoman just four years ago, then was elected mayor of the state capital and now governor. She doesn't hesitate at all when asked if Mexico's reliance on political gender quotas helped get her into office.

AVILA OLMEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Of course," she says. "They helped a lot. Without them, the political parties would have never run female candidates," says Avila in an interview with NPR. But she also quickly adds...

AVILA OLMEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They aren't just giving it away to us either," she says. Avila, who holds two master's degrees, says a long line of suffragists fought to get us where we are today. That struggle began in earnest about three decades ago. In the 1990s, Mexico's opposition pushed through electoral reforms to break the country from one-party rule. Women at the time insisted those reforms include their participation, too, says Jennifer Piscopo, a political scientist at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

JENNIFER PISCOPO: And their argument was, well, if this is the path to democratization, then democratization includes, you know, being a more gender-equal society.

KAHN: In 1996, lawmakers recommended that 30% of all congressional candidates be women. Six years later, they mandated it, then raised it to 40 and in 2014, set it at 50%.

PISCOPO: It started with a very sort of weak recommendation, and it took a lot of time to ratchet it up to where it is now. But it's a real testament to the work of the women that, you know, it's never enough. And so they keep pushing for more.

KAHN: In 2019, lawmakers went even further, passing a constitutional amendment mandating gender parity in everything - something unprecedented in Latin America and probably the world, says Piscopo. That's given women a chance for top jobs in all levels of government, from Cabinet positions to mayorships.

MONTSERRAT CABALLERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I didn't win this post just because of my gender," says Montserrat Caballero, the newly elected mayor of Tijuana. "I won with my brains." Caballero, who has a law degree and worked as a criminal detective, says men in this northern border city fought hard to keep women like her off the ballot. She's Indigenous and a young single mom.

CABALLERO: (Through interpreter) One politician told me that with my work and experience, I could maybe aspire to one day be his secretary. There's nothing wrong with being a secretary, for sure, but I had already worked three times harder than this guy and other men around.

KAHN: She says the reforms are finally leveling the playing field. Male party leaders for years put women candidates in lesser races or in ones they were sure to lose, and if they won, they'd even force women to resign and give the post to a male substitute. Mexico's electoral courts closed many of those loopholes. But the success of the parity quotas will only be realized if women lawmakers govern on behalf of women, says Denise Dresser, a Mexican political commentator.

DENISE DRESSER: Whether these women are truly figures of their own making or were put in merely as a symbolic figure in order to fulfill the requirements set by the electoral authorities.

KAHN: She says that is still to be seen, especially in a country where femicide and violence against women are at epidemic levels. Newly elected leaders like Marina del Pilar Avila, governor of Baja California, say they understand expectations are high. Avila says she's ready for the challenge, even though she gets catcalls on the streets from men telling her to go home and raise her children. She gave birth to a boy last week in a California hospital.

AVILA OLMEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They don't get it, how women can do many things at once," she says chuckling. "Men's bodies just aren't biologically set up to do as many tasks as we can at the same time." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexicali, Baja California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.