Representing the Underrepresented in Latin America

International and regional conventions – such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Organization of American States’ declaration of minority rights – guarantee all Latin Americans the freedom to partake in their governments. In practice, however, marginalized populations are often underrepresented in the political process. In Guatemala and Ecuador, IFES implemented programs to reverse this trend. Ana Santos, senior program officer for the Americas, talks to us about IFES’ experiences in these two countries. 

How can traditional public education campaigns be made more inclusive? 

It is important to make a concerted effort to reach underrepresented citizens through voter education. This should be done with a two-pronged approach: mainstreaming these groups into traditional voter education and designing materials and programs that are specifically targeted to reach indigenous and other minority populations.

Including members of underrepresented groups in the design of content for a voter education campaign is one way to mainstream their involvement. This can be done through focus groups or one-on-one consultations. Another way to engage these groups in voter education is to include representations of marginalized groups in any printed and audiovisual materials in order to reflect the country’s diversity. Voter education messages that are targeted to underrepresented communities should also take into account language barriers and cultural nuances. Materials can be designed and developed to address specific needs (for example, Braille or large-print materials for blind or visually impaired voters); printed and audiovisual materials can be produced in languages spoken by underrepresented communities. 

What results have you seen from these campaigns to reach the underrepresented?

In Ecuador, working with the Afro-Ecuadorian community resulted in greater engagement of this group in the political process in the country, especially at the local level. The youth that were trained in IFES’ leadership program were empowered to become more active in their communities by serving in local government and on local councils as well as on cultural councils to raise awareness of the contributions of the Afro-Ecuadorian community in the country. In Guatemala, voter education efforts translated into local languages contributed to increased voter registration and participation in last year’s electoral process.

Has awareness of the need to reach out to underrepresented populations increased over the years?

Over the past 30 years, a number of small, positive steps have been made – particularly in the improvement of legal frameworks – to include underrepresented communities. However, much more needs to be done; this includes enforcing the policies that have been set in place to increase inclusion of indigenous and other underrepresented communities. Also, these communities must be empowered to engage in the political process and make their voices heard. We need to continue efforts to raise awareness about the valuable contributions and richness of underrepresented groups and remove barriers that lead to cultures of discrimination and disenfranchisement.

What can citizens do to help involve the underrepresented communities within their countries?

An engaged citizenry is everyone’s responsibility. It is important to engage the general public in raising awareness about the importance of participating in the political processes. If you know a person of an underrepresented group, then engage them; talk to them about why it is important to voice their opinions in the polls and encourage them to register to vote and then go to the polls. Also, encourage them to participate by volunteering as active members of the political process; as poll watchers, poll workers or observers, and by participating in voter registration drives.