The Struggle for Women’s Equality in Latin America

A political transformation is taking place in Latin America that is improving the status of women throughout the region. More than half the 20 or so republics in the Western Hemisphere where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken have moved toward the political left within the last decade.

A sign of these times is a phrase from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who refers to himself as a feminist: “True socialism is feminist.” Progressive Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa named “gender justice” — the end to discrimination against women — as part of his vision for 21st century socialism. And at the recent World Social Forum in Brazil, the Assembly of Social Movements issued the following declaration:

“The social emancipation process carried by the feminist, environmentalist and socialist movements in the 21st century aims at liberating society from capitalist domination of the means of production, communication and services, achieved by supporting forms of ownership that favor the social interest: small family freehold, public, cooperative, communal and collective property.

“Such an alternative will necessarily be feminist since it is impossible to build a society based on social justice and equality of rights when half of humankind is oppressed and exploited.”

This article revolves around the question: to what extent have conditions for women changed as a result of the left trend in Latin American politics?

The U.S. has had interests in Latin America throughout the 1800s (the acquisition of much of Mexico being one of them), but Yankee domination throughout the region began in earnest with the Spanish-American war in 1898. It continued, despite Cuba’s breakaway in 1959, for a full century, but is now declining as progressive countries assert their independence. In the process have come economic and social reforms, a number of which have benefited the women of Latin America.

In 1998, leftist Hugo Chavez won his first term as democratically elected president. Brazil elected Worker Party founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002. In Bolivia, the poorest republic in South America, unionist Evo Morales was elected in 2005 after mass rebellions forced out three presidents in two years. Daniel Ortega, who led the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution in the 1970s and ’80s, was democratically voted back into office in 2006. Progressive governments have been voted into office in Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. Chile, the country once ruled by the fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet, is now headed by a female Socialist Party member, Michele Bachelet. The government of Argentina is also headed by a woman, Cristina Fernanedez de Kirchner.

Women in all regions of the world suffer subordination to men, in economic, political and social life and in the home. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is composed of the advanced capitalist democracies, Latin American women suffer less total gender discrimination — in ownership rights, civil liberties, family codes and physical integrity — than other regions of the world except for the OECD states. This isn’t to suggest women have achieved equality in Latin America (or in the OECD states), but they enjoy certain rights denied their sisters, particularly in portions of Africa and Asia.

OECD data also show that there is an important correlation between social institutions and the economic role of women. Female participation in the workforce is low in areas where discrimination is high, for example. Women who are denied ownership rights can’t start their own businesses. Social inequality is also pronounced in countries with low female literacy rates. Infant and maternal mortality rates are a measure of health care available for women.

Women constitute 40% of the Latin American workforce, but many of the economies cannot absorb all the women seeking work, especially the poorest. Also, many women who want to work in the economy are hampered by child care and housework responsibilities. In addition, many women work in the informal sectors or at home and have no access to worker safety nets. Women’s average wages are 60%-70% of men’s, averaging 64% as of 2007. (In the U.S women earn 77 cents to the male dollar.)

Most Latin American states have passed laws guaranteeing property rights for women, but because men often have more resources, women’s holdings are likely to be smaller.

Nearly 90% of adults in Latin America and the Caribbean can read and write, but many are at a low level of literacy due to inadequate educational systems. Yet Latin America has made more progress in literacy than many other developing regions.

Reproductive rights are a key indication of women’s rights. In most of the region, largely because of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, abortions are a crime. But the abortion rate is far higher than in Western Europe or the United States with more than four million abortions each year and tens of thousands of resulting deaths. Only in Cuba is abortion legal on demand. A few other countries permit it for extreme circumstances. In the most recent abridgement of women’s rights, Nicaragua last year outlawed abortion without exception, including to save the life of the mother, the only exception formerly allowed.

Many Latin American women are agitating for legalizing abortion in all or some circumstances. The recent lifting of Washington’s global ban on abortions in health facilities funded by the U.S. may help move this forward.

Divorce is now legal throughout Latin America. The last country in the region to legalize it was Chile, in December 2004. (Now only two countries in the world ban divorce — the Philippines and Malta.

Violence against women is a serious problem in Latin America, as it is in most of the rest of the world. Approximately one in three women in Latin America and the Caribbean has been a victim of sexual, physical, or psychological violence at the hands of intimate partners, according to survey data collected by the Pan American Health Organization in 2006.

Since the 1990s, a majority of the countries in Latin America have taken some action to outlaw violence against women. However, conservative courts often choose not to rule for women, especially in cases of domestic violence. The region’s women and their allies have given a name to the worst crime of violence against women: femicide. This is defined as the murder of women by men because they are women.

The existence of an active women’s movement is an important factor in winning rights for women. Within the region, there have been active struggles for women’s rights throughout the 20th Century to the present, even under the most oppressive regimes. Women have been formidable opponents of tyrannical governments, such as the dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. The indigenous women’s movement played an important part in Bolivia’s progressive gains. Women voted in large number for Venezuela’s Chavez, and supported the revolution in Cuba.

There are some tensions within the Latin American women’s movement as there are in such movements around the world. Women’s movements are often separated by social class. They have different goals, different needs, a different orientation, and they can’t always unite on gender. In cases of economic hardship, poor women’s struggles are more likely to unite brothers and sisters of the same class than they are to unite sisters across class lines. Similarly, there is often disunity between movements of indigenous women and European-descended women.

Where the interests of class, race and gender do intersect, there are different orientations about what to fight for. Very broadly, one polarity sees the fight for equality with men as meaning that focusing on traditional women’s work (child care, housework) will lock them into these gender roles. The other polarity begins by fighting where women are now (mothers, housewives) and wants rights and benefits right now for this women’s work: paid maternity leave, stipends and social security for housework, free and readily available daycare. The benefits women have won to date are in both realms.

Movements of indigenous women are helping to transform the politics of the region. Women account for nearly 60% of the 50 million indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean, and they face triple discrimination as women, as indigenous and as poor. Also, much of the ecological devastation of Latin America is taking place on indigenous land, and women are in the forefront of the battle for natural resources.

Here is more detail on a few specific countries:

CUBA: Literacy is 100% for women and men, and women are 65% of university graduates; pay equity is embedded in law; nearly 40% of women are in the labor force, constituting 46% of all workers and half of all doctors; some 43% of deputies in the National Assembly are women, the highest percentage in Latin America and among the highest in the world; maternal mortality, at 34 per 100,000 is extremely low; infant mortality of six per thousand births is the lowest in Latin America. Abortion is free, as is all health care.

The Cuban constitution grants women equal economic, political, cultural, social and familial rights with men and prohibits discrimination based on race, skin color, sex, national origin, and religious belief. These rights are further supported by provisions in various laws, including the Family Code (1975), which requires men to participate equally in domestic labor, guarantees equal rights to women and men in marriage and divorce, and equal parental rights; and 1979 and 1984 revisions to the Penal Code, which provide additional penalties for violations of sexual equality.

The women’s movement has been important in furthering women’s gains. Women took part in the revolution, including in leadership roles. The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), a non-governmental organization with close ties to the government, is the national agency responsible for the advancement of women and is involved in every facet of society in promoting equality. Crimes of violence against women, especially rape and sexual assault, are severely punished in Cuba. The Federation of Cuban Women travels the country to find out if there is hidden violence and to set up mechanisms for reporting and for community intervention.

VENEZUELA: Women, especially poor women, have been a very large part of President Chavez’s base in elections, in the street to oppose the U.S.-backed coup, in the recall referendum in 2004, and in supporting his programs. With a majority of people living in poverty and 65% of households run by single women, Chavez’s social welfare programs are widely supported. These include adult education, free health and dental treatment, and care for women who have suffered domestic violence. There is also a high level of participation at the organizational and community level. But Venezuela also has its share of right-wing women, primarily from the middle class, who constitute the majority of demonstrators in opposition to Chavez.

The 1999 Venezuelan constitution guarantees total social, political and economic rights to all citizens. It clearly states that women are entitled to full citizenship, and it addresses discrimination, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. In addition to guaranteeing full equality between men and women in employment, it is the only constitution in Latin America that recognizes housework as an economically productive activity, thus entitling housewives to social security benefits.

In 2000, Chávez established the National Institute for Women by a presidential mandate, in accordance with the Law of Equal Opportunities for Women. The institute educates women to defend and expand the political, social and cultural rights they have achieved. It serves as a watchdog on the government and as a strategy for educating women about their rights, including how to report domestic violence.

Venezuela has set up Banmujer, the Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela. The only national financial institution of its kind, Banmujer gives small, low-interest loans to women in order to help them form business ventures. The economic and social needs of women are also being met by a set of development programs called “social missions” that began operating in 2003 using oil revenues. These include a nutrition and food distribution program, adult literacy and education, and free healthcare clinics primarily in economically depressed areas. Such programs have helped to raise the standard of living significantly, contributing to a 27.6% drop in poverty rates since the missions began.

BOLIVIA: When Evo Morales was elected president in Bolivia in December 2005, 70% of the population of just under nine million was living below the poverty line. Morales’s incoming cabinet consisted largely of indigenous people, trade unionists, and women. His cabinet also included the first woman to head the interior ministry — in charge of intelligence, the police, migration issues and the fight against drugs. Women were also at the head of the Ministries of Economic Development and of Health. All of these appointees have progressive pro-woman programs.

The just-ratified new constitution contains provisions that strengthen women’s rights. It prohibits discrimination based on sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation, as well as familial and gendered violence. It guarantees equal pay for men and women with the same job. It also requires equal participation of women and men in Bolivia’s Congress.

However, reproductive rights are not available to most women in Bolivia. 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 — up to 80,000 procedures annually in a small-sized country, according to the UN. Many are relatively safe procedures performed in more than a dozen clinics around the country. But the average $150 fee is prohibitive to most women, driving many to seek alternative methods, resulting in at least one death a day.

CHILE: Under the Pinochet dictatorship, from 1973 to the 1990s, grassroots women’s movements sprang up, partly in response to extreme poverty and to survive economically. Women formed buying and craft cooperatives and communal kitchens. They also created organizations to reclaim women’s rights and basic human rights, and to search for the disappeared. This organizing transformed women into social activists.

Chilean women are well represented in government and political life. They also have advanced social benefits. When elected, Michele Bachelet named a cabinet with an unprecedented equal number of men and women – making good on a campaign promise. Bachelet administers a program of limited social democracy but with a good record on women’s rights, particularly in the areas of welfare, public pension benefits for women over 65, free childcare for working mothers, anti-discrimination legislation, and affirmative action to increase political representation. Starting in July 2009, all women 65 or older will receive a pension bonus for each living child they have. Women without a history of paid employment will receive public pensions.

Abortion is illegal in all circumstances and is the nation’s highest cause of maternal deaths. But the Bachelet administration did institute a program of expanded access to contraception. One of these measures was a policy to distribute the morning after pill free in public health clinics. The country’s high court outlawed this policy last April. Following this ruling, 10,000 people marched in the streets and hundreds engaged in a mass “apostasy,” renouncing their membership in the Catholic Church.

Violence against women in Chile reflects what is going on in the rest of the region. Last fall Chile’s Chamber of Deputies passed a bill that would recognize femicide as an official crime and increase punishments for violators. The bill also calls for new safe houses to be constructed for women who are victimized by domestic violence. This is now waiting for Senate approval.

MEXICO: Women in Mexico have won some important victories. Probably the most ground-breaking legislation was passed by Mexico City lawmakers (though not in the rest of the country) in April 2007, legalizing abortion during the first trimester. This was upheld by Mexico’s supreme court. Since the law was passed, 5,845 women have had legal abortions in the capital city. Mexico City has also implemented a policy aimed at reducing sexual harassment of women in public transport by placing women-only buses on the street. Still in the works is a law that will make it easier to prosecute those found harassing women in public spaces. Other important measures include the granting of paternity leave, which will not only promote gender equality, but will also aid in raising awareness of the need for men to participate in child care.

At the same time, in Ciudad Juarez there is an epidemic of rape and murder of young women – more than 600 since 1993. Domestic violence claims the lives of 14 women a day in Mexico, but the law in eight states does not consider domestic violence a crime and 12 do not penalize rape in marriage.

We can’t discuss women in Latin America without mentioning migration. Because of the vastly unequal trade arrangements between the U.S. and Mexico, for example, workers are driven off the land to the cities to find work. Many others are forced to try their luck in the U.S., leaving families behind to depend on remittances and on the low salaries of peasant and poor women. In other cases, couples or families migrate together. Not only do they suffer poverty but also poor working conditions, pesticide poisoning, violence and death.

As we asked in the beginning: are women’s conditions changing as a result of the left trend in Latin America? The answer is yes, but there is still a long way to go, as in most of the world. In Latin America we’ve seen a striking transformation of many political, legal and economic rights. Social rights and changes in mind-set and culture will take longer. But the left trend — from social democracy to the movements toward socialism — has made significant progress so far and there will likely be more to come.

Donna Goodman is a member of the Caribbean and Latin America Support Project (CLASP) steering committee and an activist in New York's Hudson Valley on peace and union issues. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Donna, or visit Donna's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Barry99 said on March 14th, 2009 at 9:55am #

    Moderator – I think you want to correct the blurb at the end on Ms. Goodson’s last name.

  2. Barry99 said on March 14th, 2009 at 10:02am #

    Moderator – I think you want to correct the blur at the end on Ms. GOODMAN’s last name – something I couldn’t get right either.

  3. Barry99 said on March 14th, 2009 at 10:09am #

    The Soviet Union encouraged women in the workplace. So the USSR had many female engineers, physicians, professors, etc. – and women also worked in heavy industry and farming as well. Trouble is, Russian society/culture had not caught up with this notion – and the average Russian male expected his wife to do the housework as well. This is known as the ‘Double Day’ -something women around the world must deal with to varying degrees (and that would certainly include American women). So I note with some satisfaction the degree of progress being made by women in Latin America, albeit in fits and starts. I’m wondering how the double-day plays out in the region. I see Cuba mandates equality in domestic chores. How that has gone is especially interesting.