A woman of her time: Olga Ruiz Vasquez shows how democracy can work

Date: 14 Sep 2012

Olga Ruiz Vasquez, 52, on a campaign tour in June 2012 before realizing her dream of becoming a municipal leader for San Nicolas Tolentino. Photo credit: Jorge Armando de Ávila Ruíz

Olga Ruiz Vasquez is a role model. In July, the 52-year-old widow and mother of five who only has a primary level education, achieved her dream of becoming the municipal president for San Nicolas Tolentino in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. This was after electoral authorities held a total vote recount that showed Olga had clearly won.

Women´s participation in México´s political life is stepping forward. The results of last federal and state elections have registered a favorable upturn for women.Of the 500 federal deputies the increase has been historic and has surpassed the goal established in the Beijing Platform of at least 30 per cent of women in state parliaments, from 116 women (23 per cent) to 184 (almost 37 percent). In the Senate women are holding 42 out of 128 seats (32 per cent) and in the municipalities the percentage of municipal presidents have increased from 6.3 per cent to more than 9 per cent. There is where the big challenge is and why Olga´s story is so relevant.

Olga's achievement could not have been accomplished without the mentorship provided by SUMA, Spanish for sum of all parts, and a programme supported by UN Women. It is an alliance of five civil society organizations working to increase women involved in decision-making in Mexico, through the programme“Strengthening Women's Political Participation and Promoting an Economic Empowerment Agenda.The organizations have been supported since 2011 by UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality in cooperation with the National Institute for Women. The Fund aims to advance women's economic and political empowerment through high-impact, multi-year grants globally.

“The training and mentorship provided by SUMA have been vital to complement my political experience. I was competing for the third time and it helped me to be persistent, assertive and to see myself as a strong political woman with real possibilities to win as municipal president, she says. Olga founded the National Action Party (PAN from its initials in Spanish) in her municipality and from 2007 to 2011 was president of the party's municipal committee.

The electoral situation in the municipality of San Nicolas Tolentino has been characterized by distinct political forces in local power. Though it wasn't a municipality with other political tendencies, Olga was convinced that if her party selected her as a candidate she could win the presidency in 2012.

Olga had attempted to win the municipality on two previous occasions, the latest in 2009 when she was selected as a candidate by her party but lost the popular election by only 139 votes to the opposing candidate.

The road to her recent win was rocky. Olga requested urgent support from SUMA to prepare a legal claim over her party's internal selection process as PAN's National Election Committee decided on November 1, 2011, that the candidacy for her municipality would be determined by the party leadership and not through a selection process among party members in voting centres.

But Olga stayed undeterred, and fought—knowing she had a better chance of being selected as a candidate through the more democratic process. She came under a great deal of pressure to step down, so another candidate with influence among party leadership could take the candidacy, but she persisted.

Olga's tenacity and discipline were essential to achieve her objective. She participated in SUMA's specialized training process as well as the mentoring component, which took into account the political context that Olga presented.

The organization has been supported since 2011 by UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality in cooperation with the National Institute for Women. The Fund aims to advance women's economic and political empowerment through high-impact, multi-year grants globally.

Working with Olga, SUMA suggested that she not file a legal claim with her party, but negotiate internally. In her favor Olga had a long history of party militancy and had remained loyal to the party when other parties had courted her.

She also had demonstrated important grassroots work throughout her municipality which had won respect and admiration from voters, and established strong external alliances. In the end, Olga was designated as the candidate. Winning the internal selection process is the biggest obstacle for most women candidates in political parties in Mexico.

As the new municipal president of San Nicolas Tolentino for the 2012-2015, Olga feels prepared to lead, She will take her post on October 1, 2012 and wants SUMA staff to be present as guests of honour, and as her greatest allies.

To date, the programme has already trained more than 500 women and has provided direct mentorship to nearly 100. This is an unprecedented training programme in Mexico and this will lever great achievements for women´s political participation in the country.

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