Money, Gender and Politics in Latin America: How do female candidates find money?

January 24, 2018

If there are two things that should concern those who study and participate in democratic politics, one has to be the relationship between money and politics. Political financing and the mechanisms to monitor and control how resources come in and out of campaigns continues to be the big “black hole” of current democratic political systems[1]. The other would have to be how to ensure that historically marginalized sectors can be represented in public political space. This includes women as well as many other groups such as indigenous people, afrodescedants, LGTBI people and the like.

In the Latin American region, studies of the relationship between money and politics will likely continue as we continue facing so many challenges to ensure equity and transparency in electoral politics. To this date, an important wealth of literature has delved into the study of the effects of public or private campaign financing for political parties and the outcome of elections, analysis of the triggers of high costs in campaigns, the role of electoral management bodies in the monitoring of campaign resources, and how to ensure transparency and accountability of the funds that come in and out of campaigns, among many other questions (Carrillo, Lujambio, Navarro & Zovatto 2003; Casas-Zamora 2005; Corrado et al. 1997; Córdova & Murayama 2006; Ferreira Rubio 2015; Pinto-Duschinsky 2002; Tuesta 2011; Zovatto 2005, 2003; IDEA 2015; Fuentes y Herrera 2016); however, political scientists and politicians have not exhausted all the questions regarding money and politics, especially those that intersect the effects of political financing systems on greater representation of historically marginalized people (with certain exceptions such as Ferreira Rubio 2009; Estrada Ruiz 2018).

In the particular case of women, much has been said about the institutional and non-institutional factors that facilitate women’s entrance in public political space (Došek et al. 2017; Freidenberg et al. forthcoming). The fact remains that there continues to be a gap between the number of women who become party candidates, and effectively win, and the number of women who vote, and are political party militants. Current studies on this, however, have not addressed one key question: how do female candidates fund their campaigns? Where do women find money? ¿What is the criteria used by political parties to distribute state funds that they receive through public financing mechanisms? What is the weight of informal funds, not necessarily illicit, to finance campaigns? Do they distribute state and private funds in equitable levels for female and male candidates? Or do we, as in other realms, also find a ‘gender gap’ when it comes funds distribution? In the region’s democratic history, many women have run political campaigns[2], and especially at the legislative and presidential levels, it is thus pertinent to ask how did winning female candidates find their campaign funds?

Two places to look for answers to these questions come to mind. On one hand, some answers could be found in the type of political financing system (PFS), namely the set of norms and practices governing the flow of financial resources to political parties and organizations, be they for the political party campaigns, or for the permanent functioning of the political party between elections (IDEA 2015; Urizar, Omaña & Muñoz-Pogossian 2012). On the other, and especially in predominantly private PFS, some answers come from evaluating how in practical terms female candidates and political parties decide to allocate funds and share funding networks and sources.

Regarding the first set of issues, namely the (public or private) political financing system, equity and transparency are crucial (Zovatto 2005; Casas-Zamora 2005). In the specific case of equity, this implies the existence of (a) norms that promote the use of resources that level the playing field for competition, (b) norms that restrict those sources of financing that generate adverse effects, and finally, (c) norms that establish ceilings for the cost of the campaigns.

As evidenced by the comparative literature, public financing systems tend to generate more equity, including for women than those that mostly rely on private funds (such as the cases of Bolivia and Venezuela in Latin America). In this regard, the existence of public political financing system tends to contribute to level the playing field for female candidates by granting them, a priori, funding from which to start their campaign. This requires the establishment of well-defined calculation methods and criteria for the distribution of public funds amongst parties, and among candidates within the party, clear deadlines for the disbursement of these funds, and the inclusion of direct or indirect public funds to support the candidacies of historically under-represented groups, such as women. There are some countries (such as Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama or Honduras) that approved laws that establish the distribution of a percentage of public financing, with a gender perspective, and that, therefore, require parties to give those funds for the strengthening of female party leaders, and for their campaigns. Targeted public financing, direct or indirect, is thus a mechanism to level the playing field for female candidates.

Restrictions on the use of public financing for campaigns must also be in place to ensure greater equity in electoral competition, including for women. When citizens or those who hold power misuse government resources, those funds lose their impartial nature and their capacity to generate conditions of equity is affected. The use of government resources for electoral purposes makes a dent in electoral equity as only those in power have access to its use. This affects the conditions for the electoral competition to take place in a level playing field. In this scenario, candidates who are not in positions of power do not have access to those resources and, therefore, compete in an uneven field. In this context, an equitable campaign financing system should consider prohibiting the use of state resources for electoral purposes through bans on advertising for the promotion of government affairs, to the use of public offices for purposes campaign, to the use of public resources in campaigns, and finally, through prohibitions to the purchase of votes or political patronage. Although these inequitable conditions affect both men and women candidates, evidence has shown that in these scenarios women are more affected given the fact that they are generally not represented in the party committees where decisions about funds are made, and which tend to be composed mostly by men, given their difficulties in belonging to financing networks as well as in accessing direct financing for their campaign expenses.

Finally, the higher the costs of campaigns, the harder it will be for women and other historically marginalized groups to compete, and effectively win. In societies with high levels of socioeconomic inequality, such as the Latin American region, in which private resources are concentrated in very few, opting for the pure model of private financing affects electoral equity and disproportionally affects women and other marginalized groups. In other words, purely private campaign financing systems can seriously threaten equity. As a result, the limits to private campaign financing must also be part of a system of equitable campaign financing. Those that contemplate bans on anonymous contributions, direct or indirect foreign contributions, contributions from contractors and legal entities, including the media, and finally those that consider the possibility of imposing limits on direct and indirect individual contributions are those that tend to promote higher levels of electoral equity. All these aspects of political financing systems must be assessed in light of the effects it can have on women’s capacity to identify funds and run their campaigns. As Došek et al. (2017) indicated, limited access to money and to financial networks—or what the authors call “cash ceilings” (Pomares 2014) can seriously hinder women’s capacities to run electoral campaigns as well as their success as professional politicians.

A more puzzling set of issues is related to the informal practices of funds allocation within parties. For these, we have less answers. A series of studies in the United States, Europe and Latin America demonstrates that women tend to raise fewer funds for campaigns (Pomares 2014; Ferreira Rubio 2009). Women also receive less funding from their own sources (family, personal) and from their political parties, funding which is necessary to run a successful campaign and develop a political career. It is precisely this lack of access to funding that dissuades women from participating in politics, especially in countries where the political financing system is primarily based on private donations. For women, economic empowerment is critical for political empowerment. As Došek et al. (2017) explain, this correlation is mainly due to the fact that women tend to belong in fewer numbers and have less access to corporate networks.

As a result, women have more difficulties identifying donors, and have less time to invest in attending events and other political activities that support their campaigns or their political careers (Zaremberg 2009),[3] although they serve as electoral intermediaries on behalf of male candidates and their campaigns (Freidenberg 2017). More comparative research must address practical questions regarding women’s access to money: how do political parties allocate funds internally to support all their candidacies? How are these decisions made? Are these decisions made outside or inside of the party? Do women have a say? Do women go to their supporters within the party and in the electorate for funding? Do they go to the private sector? Do they have networks of campaign financiers? Who provides that access? How do they finance expenses associated with family care, so they can go out and campaign? Do they use their own personal and family funds, or those of the political party? In other words, can countries of the region move towards a model like the one in place in Canada, where the state provides direct public financing for women to finance their electoral campaigns, including family care expenses?

It is 2018 and we still have the same problem: women continue to be underrepresented in Latin American politics, the number of female heads of state is only one in 2018 and only 13.4 per cent of municipal authorities in the region are women (CEPAL 2018).[4] At the same time, those who compete electorally do so in an uneven playing filed. The consensus today is that this is a problem for Latin American democracies. Thus, finding solutions to increase women’s representation in politics is still a pressing issue. It is necessary to carry out more empirical research in order to formulate practical recommendations that could contribute to the destruction of the so called ‘cash ceilings’ that continue to impede women’s access to higher positions of power. Our proposal is to conduct an in-depth study of the norms and practices that are in existence to ensure female candidates’ access to funds based on both a rigorous analysis of political finance systems, and on practical experiences as told by the female candidates themselves. With this new comparative research, we hope to address the structural factors that facilitate access to funds for campaigns for women, but also propose concrete and practical tools for women to find that money.

[1] Some of the challenges regarding political financing in Latin America, including lack of transparency and reliable information, poorly conceptualized regulations, infiltration of illicit financing, and the absence of strong monitoring and enforcement agencies, among others (International IDEA 2015).

[2] In the second half of the past decade, women who have run a campaign and won it include Michelle Bachelet’s victory in Chile (2006-2010, reelected in 2014), Cristina Fernández in Argentina (2007-2011 and 2011-2015), Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica (2010-2014) and Dilma Rousseff’s in Brazil (2011-2014, reelected in 2015. More recently, in 2018, Paula-Mae Weeks became President of Trinidad and Tobago. There are many others who have run and lost such as Hillary Clinton In the United States (2016), Xiomara de Zelaya in Honduras (2013), Evelyn Matthei in Chile (2013), and Marina Silva in Brazil (2014), just to name a few.

[3] Survey research of 300 members of parliament by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that access to funding is one of the most significant deterrents to female political participation (Ballington and Karam 2005). Funding challenges can be overcome through a variety of interventions, including the establishment of independent funding networks, the creation of an internal political party fund to support campaign activities or training costs for female candidates, limits on nomination and campaign expenditures, or the implementation of incentives or penalties through public funding.

[4] For more information on 2016 data, visit the ECLAC Gender Equality Observatory, available at: [Last accessed January 20th, 2018, 17.46 hs]. 



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About Author(s)

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian
Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian is Director of the Department of Social Inclusion at the Organization of American States Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity. Dr. Muñoz-Pogossian holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Florida International University of Miami. She has authored and co-authored numerous publications on elections and election observation, democracy, women in politics, equity and social inclusion, among other topics. She has over 15 years of professional, field work, and research experience in Latin American politics.
Flavia Freidenberg
Flavia Freidenberg es Investigadora Titular “B” a Tiempo Completo del Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México y Profesora de “Política Comparada” del Posgrado en Ciencias Políticas y Sociales de la misma Universidad. Miembro del Sistema Nacional de Investigadores (Nivel II). Editora Asociada de Política & Relaciones Internacionales de Latin American Research Review, la revista de la Asociación de Estudios Latinoamericanos (LASA). Investigadora Titular de la Cátedra CONACYT “Jesús Silva Herzog” en Programa de Estudios Políticos e Internacionales en el Colegio de San Luis Potosí para el año 2018. Doctora por la Universidad de Salamanca (2001) y Máster en Estudios Latinoamericanos (1999) por la misma casa de estudios. Ha publicado en revistas académicas de Estados Unidos, Europa y América Latina sobre elecciones, partidos y sistemas de partidos, reformas electorales, institucionales informales, representación política de las mujeres y procesos de democratización.