(IPS) - Evo Morales began his second term as president of Bolivia by swearing in a cabinet made up of an equal number of women and men - unprecedented in this South American nation with a strong patriarchal tradition.
"My great dream has come true: half of the members of my cabinet are women, and half are men," said a visibly moved Morales when he presented his new team of ministers Saturday, the day after he was sworn in to a second term.
"This was an impressive surprise," Jimena Leonardo, one of the heads of the Bartolina Sisa federation of peasant women of La Paz, told IPS.
Three of the 10 female members of the cabinet are indigenous social activists.
The 50-year-old Morales, the first indigenous president in this country where Amerindians make up over 60 percent of the population, said that since his days as a rural trade union leader, he had stressed the need for women's participation in top posts to be "chacha-warmi", which means roughly fifty-fifty in Aymara, his mother tongue.
Bolivia has thus become the second country in Latin America, after Chile, to have a cabinet with gender parity, said Mónica Novillo, head of advocacy and lobbying for the Coordinadora de la Mujer, a Bolivian umbrella organisation of more than 200 women's groups.
Referring to the new constitution that took effect in February 2009, Novillo told IPS that "this was a promise that President Morales made when the new constitution was enacted, which has been fulfilled with the swearing in of the new cabinet."
Noting that the women in his 20-member cabinet include "singers, lawyers, activists and social leaders, economists, doctors and workers," the president highlighted the fact that Bolivia will have a female labour minister for the first time ever - while calling on trade unionists not to protest the historic appointment.
Novillo pointed out that there are now twice as many women in Morales' cabinet, compared to his first term, which began in January 2006. The leftist leader was reelected - to a five instead of four-year term under the new constitution - in an unparalleled landslide victory, with 64 percent of the vote, on Dec. 6.
She added that gender parity in the three branches of the state is a long-time demand of the women's movement.
The new constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women, empowers both women and the country's historically downtrodden indigenous majority.
The naming of 10 women ministers was preceded by the election of a female legislator, Ana María Romero of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, as the powerful president of the Senate - another milestone for gender equality touted by Morales.
The proportion of women in the new parliament - in which the total number of legislators was expanded under the new constitution - will be double what it was in the previous Congress: 46 out of 166 seats (28 percent), compared to 22 out of 157 seats (14 percent).
In appointing his new cabinet, Morales had to respond to conflicting pressures from the various social movements that make up his support base and from his supporters among the middle class and intellectuals. He also apparently made a small concession to his adversaries by replacing his interior and defence ministers and chief of staff, who were extremely unpopular among the opposition.
But seven ministers stayed on, including three who were considered key to the success of his first administration: the ministers of economy and finance, autonomy, and foreign relations.
Bolivian women's organisations have been celebrating the new cabinet as a far-reaching achievement in a country where machismo runs deep.
Women have quietly made headway in politics as part of the process of change that brought Morales to power. But only now is the strength of their participation since 2006 gaining recognition, under the leadership of indigenous and community activists from poor rural and urban areas in the country's western highlands region.
Leonardo is one of them - a farmer who led thousands of peasant women as they showed their strength in roadblocks, days-long marches along highways, and protest demonstrations that formed part of the struggle against the free market economic policies implemented by governments between 1985 and 2005.
Researchers and indigenous thinkers say the major changes seen in Bolivia over the last four years are largely due to the strength and drive of women. But up to now, the women's movement had not taken a front seat role.
When he announced his new cabinet, Morales also said that Bolivian women's social conscience, patriotism and dedication to defending national interests, as well as the respect he feels for his mother, sister and daughter, were factors in his decision to break with a long history of discrimination against women.
The female members of the cabinet include popular folk singer and activist Zulma Yugar in the Ministry of Culture; lawyer and former ombudswoman Nardi Suxo as the anti-corruption minister; U.S.-trained economist Elba Viviana Caro in the Ministry of Development Planning; Antonia Rodríguez, the head of an association of women artisans, as Minister of Productive Development; Nilda Copa, a leader of the Bartolina Sisa federation of peasant women of Tarija, in the Justice Ministry; and Carmen Trujillo as Minister of Labour and Social Security.
Others are Dr. Sonia Polo as Minister of Health and Sports; María Esther Udaeta as Environment Minister; Nemesia Chacollo, a leader of the Bartolina Sisa federation of peasant women of La Paz, as Minister of Rural Development and Land; and Minister of Legal Defence Elizabeth Arismendi.
But the organisations that make up the Coordinadora de la Mujer have no intention of resting on their laurels, and have already launched a campaign to achieve gender equity at the municipal and regional levels, demanding that half of the candidates fielded by political parties in the Apr. 4 local and provincial elections be women.