Latin America: women still struggle for equality at work and at home

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Portrait of young woman, Colombia. Photo: Jamie Martin / World Bank
Igualdad (equality) is perhaps one of the most important words in our language and in our culture – it helps us build better societies and the well-being of future generations. However, in Latin America and many other parts of the world, it has different meanings for men and women. 

For the past two decades, “opportunities for all” has been the maxim guiding the region’s public policy. But when we speak about gender equality, the urgency of this principle is questioned by many policy makers. The World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development confirms that gender equality is not only central to development, but a core development objective in its own right.

The report concludes that gender inequality within a society has increasingly negative consequences given that globalization is creating an increasingly integrated world. Moreover, gender equality is smart economic policy.

While all of this may seem simple and obvious, reaching these conclusions was not an immediate process or a certainty for all of us on the report team (as co-director Ana Revenga points out in her blog). We engaged in lengthy discussions, much brainstorming, heated debates and in reviewing abundant evidence and literature.

After a year of work, we now know for certain that increased gender equality in Latin America and the world can, among other things:

  • Enhance productivity – correcting segregation in employment, for example, would reduce the productivity gap between men and women by 30% to 50%.
  • Improve development outcomes for the next generation – a mother’s education and economic opportunities positively influence her children’s education and opportunities. 
  • Make institutions more representative.

Leading examples

Although Latin America is often lauded for its advances in gender equality, much remains to be done. Examples of these advances are found in upcoming research by my colleagues from the Bank's Latin America & Caribbean region. These include: Argentina had already achieved gender equality in primary school enrolment by the end of the nineteenth century. In just 20 years, Colombia managed to reduce its fertility rate from six children to fewer than three per woman, a process that took 100 years to achieve in the United States. In Brazil, women’s participation in the labor market tripled between 1960 and 2010, reaching 60%. Costa Rica is one of 11 countries with the highest percentage of female members of Congress, at 38%.

But the region should not, and cannot, rest on its laurels. Gender inequality persists throughout the world, even in rich countries, and it must be addressed. In terms of the four global priorities we propose in the World Development Report, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have the following pending tasks: 

  1. With respect to excess deaths of girls and women, the combination of inequalities among disadvantaged segments of the population – inequality due to gender, ethnicity, distance and income – has created some pockets, such as in the case of the maternal mortality rates in Haiti and rural areas of Andean countries, despite the elimination of excess female deaths, even in lower-income countries.
  2. The same could be said for disparities in girls’ schooling. In disadvantaged segments of the population, girls’ enrolment in primary and secondary school continues to be below that of boys. In Guatemala, the illiteracy rate among indigenous women is 60%, 40% higher than that among non-indigenous women.
  3. Although women in the region have increased their labor market participation, they continue to face unequal access to economic opportunities:

    a. Nearly 70 million women have joined the labor force in the region in recent decades. However, they are more likely than men to work as unpaid family laborers or in the informal sector. They also frequently work in traditionally “female sectors” with lower earnings. Women farmers tend to farm smaller plots and less profitable crops than men, or work in smaller firms in less-profitable sectors.

    b. Even with higher education levels, women earn less than men. In Mexico, women earn an average of 20% less than men. In Argentina, 12% less. In Brazil, the figure is 25% less. 
  4. Finally, the region faces the daunting challenge of eliminating differences in voice in households and in society:

    a. Women – especially poor women – have less say over decisions and less control over resources in their households than men. Forty percent of women in the region do not participate in decisions concerning major household expenses.

    b. Women continue to be victims of domestic violence. In Cusco, nearly two of every three women are victims of some type of domestic violence in their lifetimes; in Sao Paulo, this is a reality for one of every four women.
    c. Women participate less in formal politics than men and are under-represented in its upper echelons.

Why do gender gaps persist? This is the question we attempt to answer in our report.

Clearly, economic growth by itself does not deliver gender equality on all fronts; neither do the policies implemented to date in the different countries of the region. So what policies will make a difference?

We encourage thinking about gender gaps from a different perspective, with an emphasis on identifying the underlying mechanisms of three key structures –markets, formal institutions (that provide public services) and social norms. The messages that these structures send and their interaction are what lead inequality to be reproduced within the home and, consequently, in society.

A new dialogue needed

With respect to public policy, Latin America has again been praised for its innovation and positive results of some initiatives. Some examples: Honduras and its progress toward reducing maternal mortality; the conditional cash transfer programs to increase girls’ school enrolment; childcare, microfinance, vocational training and job placement services that have helped women from Colombia to Peru to Argentina improve their employment possibilities. Extensive domestic violence and parliamentary quota laws in Latin America and the Caribbean have contributed to making the home a safer place and creating more socially representative spaces in the region.

So, if we know how to design and implement policies that work and that serve as an example for the rest of the world, why have we failed to end inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean? What remains to be done?

Our conclusion is that we need to engage in a new dialogue. We need to share and replicate good practices among the countries of the region, review existing policies and design new ones to specifically address the main causes of gender inequality.

This means taking decisive action to break down barriers that impede progress. And it signifies considering multi-sectoral policies that address the many limitations generated by the functioning of markets and institutions, both formal and informal.

This is the only way we can guarantee that igualdad can truly be a word without parallel in our language and our societies



Ana Maria Munoz-Boudet

Senior Social Scientist, World Bank

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