Women in Latin America

Women in Latin America have not always enjoyed equal rights to the men in their society. In the past, women were expected take care of children and home rather than work, and were far less educated than men. Living in a largely patriarchal and very religious society where traditions were observed without question meant that gender discrimination was considered the natural way of the world. The second half of the 20th century brought significant changes, at least in formal recognition of women's rights. There were many feminist movements and other non-governmental organizations that called for passing laws against discrimination and those demands have been taken into account. By the beginning of the 21st century there was not a single country in Latin America that had not formally granted women equal rights to men. The problem was that in most cases the changes have appeared in paper only, whereas the real situation is very different.

It is difficult to generalize because of the great variety of political systems, social policies and legislation that each country has. Still, several common trends stand out. The first one is the relatively high maternal mortality rate and problems caused by medical complications after abortions. The practice is against the law in most Latin American countries. Therefore, women resort to illegal abortions, which are often performed in life-threatening conditions. The second tendency that nearly all Latin American countries share is the pay inequality for women and men. The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports that in the region, the poverty rate is 1.15 times higher among women than men. The difference is especially obvious in Panama (1.37), Costa Rica (1.3), the Dominican Republic (1.25), Chile (1.24) and Uruguay (1.21). According to the regional United Nations agency, female professionals in Brazil and Mexico earn half of what their male colleagues do; in Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica the gap is between 30 and 40 percent; and in the whole region, where 200 million people are poor, 85 million women have no income of their own.

A more detailed look in some Latin American countries would reveal interesting facts. In Venezuela, total equality and social, political and economic rights for all citizens are guaranteed under the constitution. Women, especially the lower classes, provided a significant base of support for President Hugo Chavez. His policies in adult education, free healthcare and dental treatment, and care for women who have suffered domestic violence were part of his appeal. The Venezuelan constitution is the only one in Latin America that recognizes housework as an economically productive activity and entitles housewives to social security benefits.

In Bolivia in 2010 President Evo Morales named a cabinet made up of 10 women and 10 men — a gender parity for which the only precedent in the region was the Chilean government of former President Michelle Bachelet, who also named a cabinet of equal numbers of men and women in 2006. Moreover, the Bolivian constitution stipulated that the government must be democratic, participative and representative, with "equal conditions between men and women." The constitution also prohibits and orders penalties for any discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite that, abortion is illegal except for victims of sexual assault or to prevent a life-threatening pregnancy. In fact, Bolivia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world with up to 80,000 procedures carried out annually, according to the UN. There are more than a dozen clinics across the country which perform abortions in relatively safe conditions but the average $150 fee is prohibitive to most women and many turn to alternative methods, resulting in at least one death a day.

Even though in theory women's rights are fully protected in Latin America, the major problems come from ineffective enforcement of the law. A report by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights found legislative advances to equality but pointed out that limited budgeting of the agencies responsible for applying the laws is a major drawback.

Women in Latin America: Selected full-text books and articles

Political Power and Women's Representation in Latin America By Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer Oxford University Press, 2010
Twisted Roots: The Historical and Cultural Influences That Shaped Latin America By Carlos Alberto Montaner; Louis Aguilar; Marilú Del Toro Algora, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Sex, Sexism, and Gender Roles"
"New Politics" in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Renewed Threat to Women By Martinez, Sandra Castaneda Women in Action, No. 3, December 2009
Violence against Women in Latin America: Is It Getting Worse? By Llana, Sara Miller The Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 2012
Latin America: Development and Conflict since 1945 By John Ward Routledge, 2004 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "Women"
Women in Latin America Opportunity through Education By Ladika, Susan International Educator, Vol. 20, No. 2, March/April 2011
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