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Latin American women driving region’s prosperity

Joao Pedro Azevedo's picture

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Women are increasingly becoming Latin America's critical development partners. Moms, students, working professionals, women from all walks of life, are a driving force behind a gender revolution that has made huge contributions to our region's prosperity.

Over the last decade, Latin American countries have made big strides in reducing poverty and bringing down inequality. And much of that progress, we now know, can be credited to women. So much so that, had there not been so many women in the workforce, extreme poverty in the region in 2010 would have been 30 percent higher. Something similar can be said about the region's recent inroads against persistent inequality, as highlighted in Poverty and Labor Brief: The Effect of Women's Economic Power in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It is not so much that female labor force participation increased in the 2000s -- there was only a relatively modest expansion of women in the workforce. But rather their returns to labor grew significantly, in large part reflecting girls' expanded access to education.

In most Latin American countries, the percentage of girls enrolled in primary school has been steadily catching up and they're even outperforming boys at secondary and tertiary levels. Labor market participation has also grown by 15 percent on average between 2000 and 2010 —thanks to greater investments in human capital, fertility declines and women marrying later in life. Yet, for women wishing to expand their economic contribution, barriers still persist.

Barriers which, we believe, can only be addressed by implementing creative policies and programs. Here are some suggestions stemming from our brief:
  • Direct and indirect policies to expand female labor market opportunities, to increase labor force participation and reduce the wage gap and labor market segmentation;  
  • Improve female 'agency' –that is, their ability to make informed decisions. Expected to be important in its own right, this also carries potential benefits for equality of economic opportunities and assets;
  • Support families from single female-headed households, a growing fixture in Latin American societies.
  • Include, when possible, strong monitoring and evaluation systems to better identify initiatives that work to promote gender equality.
Labor market policies have traditionally focused on expanding women's vocational and skills training and job intermediation services to help them engage in non-traditional jobs and find better employment opportunities.

An upcoming study suggests that training and job intermediation programs are most effective when combined with initiatives designed to expand female empowerment and their decision making capabilities (or agency), such as soft-skills training, interactions with female leaders and the community.

For example, programs in the Dominican Republic provide training through private sector employers. Meanwhile in Chile, Chile Califica, has established public-sector providers of vocational training. And in Haiti, the Adolescent Girls Initiative is procuring training in non-traditional sectors to young women through a variety of NGOs and then placing them in internships in the private sector.

In Argentina, women on low incomes are given subsidies for professional training and certification in certain skills. Job intermediation programs, also in the Southern Cone, are helping women find higher quality employment.

Improving childcare

Improved access to childcare and flexible work options offer another avenue to expand female labor market opportunities, according to the study Work and Family: Latin American women in search of a new balance.

Furthermore, evidence from Rio de Janeiro where poor and vulnerable mothers were offered free daycare, indicates that such services can improve participation margins (the number of hours worked or sorting into higher productivity jobs), more than encouraging women to enter the workforce. Policy makers should also not ignore "the other half of gender".

Addressing the role of men and boys in gender roles and stereotypes is an important investment into gender equality. Brazil's Instituto Promundo has done interesting work in this area. While women have increasingly entered the labor force, time-use surveys show that men still do not sufficiently participate in domestic and care work, meaning that women carry a double burden.

One option for policy makers is to increase men's participation in childcare and housework through parental leave policies and the promotion of joint parenting. Governments should consider introducing targeted risk management programs and assistance programs to this vulnerable group.

Boosting Agency

There is no one set of policies to promote 'agency' but it's important to start treating it like any other social assets (such as good health or access to credit) which can be nurtured and developed through good policies and programs.

Smart policies will complement initiatives of the traditional sort, by incorporating specific elements to target 'agency'. An example of this new breed of gender policies is Nicaragua's pilot Atención a Crisis. It uses traditional Conditional Cash Transfer program (CCT) to increase the asset base and risk management capacity of rural poor households exposed to weather risks, such as drought. Its core idea is quite simple but effective.

In addition to receiving cash payments, one-third of the beneficiaries (just women) received vocational training scholarships. Another third received a business grant and technical assistance for productive investments in livestock or non-agricultural activities.

Evaluators found that women who received grants and worked in non-agricultural self-employment, doubled their income (on top of the gains from the program itself) when surrounded by leaders who had also received such grant. Given the increase in female single-headed households, particularly in urban areas, it is important to design programs to support these vulnerable households.

To date, there have been relatively few programs targeting this group. Suggested areas of actions include: conditional cash transfer programs for children of single-headed female households, quality day-care and after-school programs, mentoring for children of working mothers, nutritional and educational support, and youth groups.

Finally, it is important to expand the knowledge base of what works to promote greater gender equity. Our Poverty, Gender and Equity unit will soon be launching a Gender Impact Evaluation Initiative, to fill critical knowledge gaps around policies and interventions for equality of assets, economic opportunities and 'agency'.

The evaluations will identify key policies and initial conditions in order to distinguish what works and what does not (and for whom) in order to achieve improvements in gender equity.

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