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Paraguay: Taking women into account
Latinamerica Press / September 28, 1995

By Larry Luxner

ASUNCION, Paraguay -- President Juan Carlos Wasmosy recently appointed Cristina Muñoz chief of Paraguay's Secretaría de la Mujer, a cabinet position that deals with women's issues. Muñoz, 36, is an economist by profession and the only woman on the ruling Partido Colorado's executive committee. In an interview in Asunción, Muñoz spoke about the difficulties facing women in Paraguay, one of South America's poorest countries.

Q: What is your office's specific objective?

A: The Secretaría de la Mujer is a government agency that came about after many years of struggle by Paraguayan women from all over the country. On Sept. 12, 1992, the Poder Ejecutivo passed Law No. 34, which created the ministry. This law clearly defines our mission, which is "to participate in the development and execution of public policies that will eliminate discrimination against women and to promote equal opportunities that result in the further democratization of our society."

Nearly 40 people work in this ministry, mostly women. We have a budget of around $1 million. In a short time, we've been able to do quite a lot.

Q: Is there a feminist or women's movement as such in Paraguay, and if so, when did it begin?

A: From 1865 to 1870, the War of the Triple Alliance [against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay] exterminated almost all the men, and the women had to assume the reconstruc-tion of the country. The story is that for every man there were seven women. We not only faced the challenge of repopulating the country but also reactivating it economically. Yet history never appreciated our contribution.

Q: Since the end of the Stroessner dictatorship in 1989, have conditions generally improved for Paraguayan women?

A: In the last few years, there's been a political opening, and there have been significant advances in a legal sense, including a new constitution that recognizes all the rights of women. We are changing the laws to reflect this. For the first time, we are incorporating the gender component in public policy.

Q: What are the major problems facing women in Paraguay?

A: Domestic violence, women's health and illiteracy. More than 23% of Paraguayan women can't read or write, compared to 19% for men. Prostitution and AIDS are big problems. We also have a very high rate of infant mortality. It's gone down substantially in the last 20 years, but it still remains high. Our birth rate is 32.8 per thousand, and the average Paraguayan woman has six kids [translating into a growth rate of 3.1% a year]. At this rate, our population will double by 2027.

Q: Yet abortion is still against the law in Paraguay. Why?

A: The Catholic Church is still very powerful, and abortion is illegal in all cases. For this reason, there are many clandestine abortions. The problem, however, isn't the prohibition, but the lack of information. My personal opinion is that the way to combat abortion is an adequate education and access to health coverage, and a good family planning program.

Q: Have any women actually been prosecuted for having abortions?

A: The penalty for abortion is a theme we don't touch directly, because the legislature is dealing with it. But women's groups are working to change this law. In Uruguay, for example, abortions are allowed to save a mother's life.

Q: A number of press reports have surfaced about Paraguay's role in "international adoptions" and trafficking in stolen children. What's your opinion on this?

A: I don't have a problem with international adoptions, only the way it's being done in some cases. With judicial reform, this will be clarified.

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