Melissa Gilbert on women’s rights in the Americas
Several weeks ago, in Saudi Arabia, a band of women gained the world’s attention by defying the government’s restrictions on women driving. In a public act of civil disobedience, they proceeded to post videos of their excursions on YouTube.
By comparison, Latin America appears to be light years ahead in promoting women’s rights.
Over the past decade, women have increasingly assumed leadership roles – including the presidencies of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Costa Rica. And Latin American countries are also, incredibly, surpassing countries like the United States, Norway, and the United Kingdom in terms of the percentage of women elected to national legislatures.
But these silver linings also have their dark clouds.
In October, the World Economic Forum released its 2013 Gender Gap Report. The report highlights how women around the world are held back in the areas of economic participation, education attainment, health, and political empowerment. Latin America and the Caribbean scored a paltry 69 percent in 2012, where 100 percent represents perfect equality between the sexes.
For context, this does compare favorably to the Middle East and North Africa, which clocks only 59 percent gender parity. And surprisingly, two of Latin America’s more unlikely countries, Nicaragua and Cuba, ranked 10th and 15th respectively –higher than the US and most of Western Europe.
On the other hand, Chile, one of the most developed nations in Latin America, ranks near the bottom, along with El Salvador and Honduras. Indeed, the economic powerhouses like Mexico, Brazil and Chile may lead the region in terms of GDP numbers, but their gender equality numbers are less than stellar.
This raises important questions about the relationship between economic progress and the failure to address systemic gender inequality.
While the overall Gender Gap Index statistics highlight progress, Latin America faces significant challenges. Women in politics are high-profile success stories, but major problems remain in terms of the social and cultural realities that persist in the region.
The economic realities facing women are particularly sobering. More than 70 million women have entered the workforce since 1980, and continue to face wage and job discrimination. According to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), Latin American women with thirteen or more years of schooling still earn 37 percent less than men with the same education.
Additionally, the UN data show the female unemployment rate (9.1 percent) to be higher than that of males (6.3 percent). And according to a 2013 Grant Thorton international business report, women only hold 23 percent of senior management positions in Latin America.
Intertwined with this persistent wage discrepancy is the fact that women have been largely unable to integrate into the formal labor market. Instead, women forego labor protections and traditional career advancement and rely on work in the informal sector where, among other things, they have increased flexibility to raise their children.
First and foremost, the region struggles with gender inequality as a function of economic discrimination.
Many in Latin America recognize that incorporating the other half of the population into the productive economy can improve growth and development, and most countries have established anti-discrimination laws as well as measures to promote equal education for both girls and boys. However, traditional roles and gender stereotypes limit the effective implementation of labor laws and hinder access to education and other resources.
The engrained societal perception that women are caregivers and meant only to manage the home plays out through a young girl’s years in school and into her own choice of career. In Latin America, most women that hold jobs in the formal sector are teachers, nurses or other care-giving professions.
Particularly in countries with large indigenous populations like Bolivia, the perception of women’s traditional roles also hinders female education, keeping women from working in science, math and technology professions.
While the region has tried to ensure equal education and is on track to meet the 2015 Millennial Development Goal to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, these underlying cultural and societal perceptions of gender roles are holding back more profound progress.
In addition, Latin America is home to some alarmingly high rates of gender-based violence, predominately domestic violence.
In the World Economic Forum’s rankings, for instance, Guatemala ranks the lowest among Latin American countries and 114th out of all 136 countries – primarily due to the impact of gender-based violence.
Unfortunately, such violence appears to be on the rise. In Colombia, one woman is killed by her current or former partner every week and the frequency of acid attacks against women almost quadrupled from 2011-2012. El Salvador has the highest prevalence of femicide in the world and 50 percent of the countries with the highest femicide rates are in Latin America.
The danger is often close to home. According to the latest ECLAC Gender Equality Observatory Report, 466 women were killed by their intimate partner or former intimate partner last year. All told, in 2012 alone, nearly 1,200 gender-based homicides were committed in just eight countries, with violence particularly high, again, in much of Central America.
Thanks to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW), Latin America has made progress in the adoption of laws and policies to end violence against women. In 1994 Latin American countries signed the pioneering Convention of Belém, which required them to educate their people about women’s rights, to fight machismo and pass laws to protect women from violence.
Most have done so. Brazil’s law on violence against women is widely seen as an exemplary model. In Guatemala, a country with some of the highest femicide rates in Latin America, the 2010 appointment of a female attorney general, Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz, has thrown a spotlight on the issue of violence.
She declared violence against women to be a priority issue for the government and created a Criminal Court for Crimes of Femicide and Violence against Women.
While such clear steps show promise, the overarching issues of machismo and impunity limit the application of these laws, as well as the reporting and prosecution of cases. It can be very difficult, as well for women to come forward and report crimes due to the fear of retaliation in their own communities.
Despite political progress, gender-based violence and economic inequality are just two of the many problems women continue to face in Latin America.
Moving forward, the region needs to recognize that women’s involvement and participation in the political sphere, while positive, is not enough to ensure gender equality. The good news is many Latin American countries are beginning to have a broader conversation about discrimination and false perceptions of women – and a number of high profile female leaders are starting to use their hard-earned political power to do something about it.
Melissa Gilbert focuses primarily on gender issues, having previously worked with Freedom House on human rights issues in Latin America. You can find her on Twitter at @melmichelle14.