This brief text aims to highlight some basic tendencies in the
situation of women in relation to the family, work and poverty as they move into
the new century. The ambivalence in the situation of women are very noticeable,
especially in the spheres of employment and the family; central
elements which define their opportunities for participation. In
all areas, the permanent paradox between the economic and family
contributions of women, their great lack of participation
and the poor representation of their interests can be seen. This
contradiction is even more clearly seen in relation to the serious
obstacles in the way of translating women's demands into effective
State policies which
aim to improve their condition and tend towards modifying the
gender system on the cultural plane.
It is obvious that as the condition of women improves, the space
they occupy becomes devalued. For instance, with women's participation
in the work market: as some occupations become "feminised"
-that is with a higher proportion of women than men going into them-
the income they generate becomes reduced along with the prestige
associated with holding such a job. The differences in income
have been maintained in a way similar to the situation of five
years ago, along with the range of occupations carried out by
men. That is to say, that discrimination has been reconstructed
at a different point in the scale at the same rate as the improvement
in the position of women has upset the balance between the
sexes. The point at which inequality is established has changed
and new openings for inequality appear in social and political
participation, in employment and social security and in the family
The work marked offers advantages and opportunities of freedom
to women, who fought their
way in here and are now fighting to broaden this space, diminishing
the effects of discrimination and segmentation, while labour flexibility
recreates new forms of exclusion and segregation. The family structure
and organisation, meanwhile, are not so well covered by research,
but it is feasible there would be strong negotiations given the
great changes in the lives of women and the tensions which their
double lives as worker and housekeeper impose on their time, their
physical capacities and their quality of life. The impacts the
changes in the work sphere throw onto the family and their internal
hierarchies must not be forgotten either. There are changes in
the "knowledge" and the "power" within the
family, which have been little studied. Although it is credible
to suppose the role of women in the family is still of crucial
importance as a bridge to the new roles and rupture with the old
norms of submission.
The significance of the forms of participation and exclusion
depend on the ambits where they are produced and the meaning
attributed by the actors, hence the discriminations are also
perceived subjectively. How do women experience the situation
of inequality and the changes in terms of negotiation, resistance,
confrontation and also "resignation" in the fora of
employment and family?
On this front, it is important to differentiate the situation
between the old and new generations. So the younger ones begin
their negotiations from a higher starting point? The negation
of the new and subtle forms of discrimination by the youngest
generations, allied with the growing individualism and the exaltation
of an apparent equality in the most modern systems, stand in
the way of changing the gender structures by making the new aspects
of subordination invisible in the subjective consciousness. However,
as a generation, they also have better educational and professional
opportunities and a new outlook on the family.
policies were applied from the outbreak of the debt crisis, and these
tended to prepare the Latin American economies for their insertion
into the new globalized international
which was held up as the only development alternative. As
a result, the most defining characteristics of the current situation
include increasing integration into the international, regional
and subregional market, movements of capital, information and technological
The role of the State as defined by the new model meant a reduction
in social spending, with the consequent repercussions for the
poorer strata of the population. Furthermore, the State was expected
to have greater intervention in the markets and develop new regulatory
functions. Thus the current Latin American State has been gradually
modifying having to face several challenges, including assuring
governability through the clear regulation of conflicts, redefining
its own functions according to the great changes of the new
international economic order and finally, assuring the long term
stability of the economic transformations and their acceptance
on a social level.
In the field of the most recent plans and policies, we need to
stress that plans were designed for equal opportunities and other
instruments to bring in gender policies in several Latin
nations. This process has been largely due to the development
of the women's movements and the pressure they have exerted with
their demands in several countries.
These instruments have been the combined product of a process
of consultation with specialists and analysis of the social experience
of the women's movements (Guzmán
and Ríos, 1995), both regional and European, especially
the experience accumulated in Spain.
However, although we contributed to the creation of a special
situation to redefine functions of public management, there are
great difficulties in getting gender policies accepted and put
into action, related to resistance to change, with a multiplicity
of social and political agents implied, depending on conflicts
of interest and the institutional diversity of each country. The
ideological resistance which has developed against the issue from
religious and political fundamentalists, amongst other
factors, are especially strong.
The recent economic trends do not offer much hope. Even though
some productive sectors have been modernized, allowing for comparative
advantages to be obtained in the export of new goods, the generation
of productive employment has not been sufficiently dynamic to
incorporate all the population of working age. The work markets
have become increasingly segmented, the unemployment and subemployment
rates are especially high amongst women and young people. The
average regional growth of the Gross Domestic Product for 1995
was of barely 0.3 % and represents a fall of 1.5% of the per capita
product, in relation to the previous year. An important achievement
for the region was the reduction of inflation in nearly all the
countries, whereby the regional rate fell from 340% in 1994 to
25% in 1995 (ECLAC,
In 1996 growth reached 3.4%, half of the aim proposed by ECLAC
(ECLAC, 1996b) as necessary to
be able to tackle poverty adequately.
Without doubt these overall results have also had repercussions
on the social budgets of the countries - those which have not
yet recovered the levels of before the debt crisis. In the majority
of countries the levels of social spending increased in relation
to 1990, especially on education and social security,
however, two thirds of the countries show very low levels of per
capita spending in dollars: less than 100 dollars per person per
year are spent on health and education (ECLAC; 1996).
Is poverty concentrated amongst women?
new role of the State, the debt crisis, the effects of the adjustment
programmes and the reduction in social spending have had long
term consequences which have been expressed in the social and
gender planes, in increasing poverty, unemployment both structural
and born of the situation, concentrated on women and young people,
and in an increase of precarious and unusual employment, where
women are found in the less well paid areas of the productive
and sub-contracted occupations. There has also been a reduction
in civil service posts which has affected women in a discriminatory
manner, as the main users and employees of the public sector.
Poverty, with its low income and inability to satisfy basic needs,
constitutes the extreme form of the exclusion of individuals
and families from the productive processes, social integration
and access to opportunities. It is thus one of the most perverse
consequences of a development model, whose fruits are distributed
in an inequitable manner.
From the social exclusion perspective, women in Latin America
continued to be poor for gender related reasons, independent
of the social strata they belonged to because of their families.
Their role in society robs them of the possibility of acceding
to ownership and control of the economic, social and political
resources. Their fundamental economic resource is paid work,
which they have access to only in highly unequal conditions.
Women who live in poor homes tend to be even poorer than their
male counterparts, especially when they are also heads of household.
They must carry out domestic labour, raise children, and care
for the sick alongside holding a paid job. All this work is carried
out in poor conditions meaning extensive working hours and therefore
a poor quality of life which results in physical and mental exhaustion.
At present, woman-maintained households are becoming more common
due to the economic tendencies which force women to seek their
own income, like increasing poverty and demographic and social
tendencies, like migrations, widowship, marital breakdown and teenage
Even though these data are not totally reliable -given the definition
of what constitutes a female head of household in the censuses
and surveys, and as the statistical information is incomplete-
in Latin America at least one in five urban homes is maintained
by a woman (between
20% and 30% of the homes, and in the Caribbean region this reaches
up to 40% and beyond),
which means, in real terms, the absence of stable partnerships.
This growth was very marked in the last decade and it is probable
that the trend will be maintained and/or increased, as long as
the phenomena that caused it are maintained (ECLAC, 1994, 1995 and 1996)
A large amount of these homes are headed by unmarried or separated
women, most of whom are young. They are one of the most vulnerable
groups of women in the region because they experience the greatest
difficulties with maternity. Again, within this section there
is the increasing group of adolescent mothers, who add extreme
youth and poverty to the fragility of the leadership of the home
and Rao Gupta, 1995).
In nations with advanced demographic transition, homes headed
by widows, especially in the urban areas, are an increasing phenomenon
which must also be adequately considered in the design of social
The traditional model of the family which is habitually used
for planning, is made up of a head of household who is the provider,
a housewife who does the domestic work and children who -according
to their ages- are either in the educational system or the work
market until they make up new family nucleus. However, current
studies show this family model is far from predominant. For example,
in Chile, less than half of all families are like this: 33% (Bravo and Torado, 1995), as an increasing
proportion of families have more than one person acting as provider
(ECLAC, 1995), in others,
the only provider is the woman (Valenzuela,
while in extreme cases of indigent families the children are
participating in the work market at an increasing rate (Arriagada, 1996).
Amongst the indigent sectors, there are a greater number of female
heads of household. This sector of women has only recently been
"discovered" by the public policies and several countries
have programmes especially directed towards them, which seek
to reduce the depth of the indigence without modifying their
gender condition and the consequences of overburdening with work
and subordination which their condition implies.
Poverty and gender biases
the measuring of poverty by the family income method does not
allow us to determine whether there is greater poverty amongst
women than men, it is feasible there are gender biases in poverty
if we analyse the factors which determine it. In this way, the
main factors include: the number of contributors to the home,
the number of hours worked, unemployment, the jobs and incomes
of the members of the home. In the case of indigent female heads
of household the number of contributors is smaller.
For 1994, it was confirmed that between 17% and 27% of urban
homes were led by women and the indigent homes maintained an
overrepresentation of women heads of household (ECLAC, 1996). It can also be confirmed
that there were gender biases especially in pay per hour received
by men and women, the amount of working people per home, in the
unemployment rates and in the average number of hours worked
(ECLAC, 1995). However,
for all the countries in general it cannot be clearly proven
that the situation is developing towards an increasing feminization
of poverty, for while female leadership of homes increased between
1980 and 1994, there was a greater increase in the number of
these amongst the non-poor than the poor homes. Independently
of the methodological criticisms of the way of measuring female
home leadership in the surveys, the heterogeneity of the women
maintained homes this data reflects, must be kept in view if
we wish to understand the diverse living conditions of the women
along with wishing to modify situations of extreme need and gender
The increase in female led homes in the non-poor sectors is due
to several situations like the increasing number of divorces
and separations, where women do not form new partnerships, and
there are more unmarried women and widows now living independently.
All these situations show new cultural patterns which increase
the diversity of family situations.
Changes in the family and the role of women
processes of the modernization of the family have not only changed
its structure but also its functions. Thus, the family concentrates
on the affective functions of caring for and socialising children,
while other functions of a more instrumental type, like education
for work, and economic production for the market, were redirected
towards other social instances. Historically, the economic productive
family functions have been losing importance given the modifications
in the productive structure, such that there is increasing distance
between the home and production for the market.
In the present day, the market tendencies in employment available
could turn this situation round as the new forms of sub-contracting
and outworking in certain sectors of the economy (in Chile, for example,
in the clothes making trade), have once more placed the woman in
the home, linking productive and reproductive tasks. This strategy
has a distinct character, as the production is directed towards
the market, both national and transnational, and the result in
an economic model which tends to reduce the cost of the workforce
to a minimum.
the family appears to have evolved from a "Victorian" situation
to a situation where the public ambit is expanding and the private
reducing, which is in line with the modern societies, which are
more secularized and where there is greater exaltation of equality
and individualism. In this way, the dividing lines between the
public and private worlds have become more flexible and the permanent
change has tended, in all referring to the family, towards broadening
The more definitive functions of the family, like reproduction
and the regulation of sexuality have diminished as families are
having increasingly fewer children (and there are an increasing number of children
born outside of marriage where their parents do not form a family)
is increasingly occurring outside of marriage.
Thus many of the functions of the family which were previously
carried out within the home began to occur outside this ambit,
producing an inversion of the amount of time people spent in
their homes, and a modification of the ways in which the family
and its functions are seen.
At the moment we are living through a process of change in the
gender system: the family roles are tending to become more flexible
-from a highly segregated model, like the traditional one, to
shared roles, where the participation of both men and women in
the work market is no longer argued over, but the different arrangements
for caring for the children and the housework are negotiated.
The most visible point, and the main factor which began the breakdown
of the traditional model, was the massive incorporation of women
into the work market (which
will continue into the future), most of whom, up until now, have not
broken with the traditional system and carry out a double work-day.
In other groups a slow and difficult process of negotiation has
started within the couple to develop a new model of shared responsibilities
in the home. Some studies indicate that the tasks which present
least resistance to sharing include caring for the children,
but not housework (Sharin,
Without doubt this will be one of the aspects which differentiates
the old from the new generations.
Access to Knowledge
in relation to the access to knowledge differs widely across Latin
America and it is possible to find nations where there are high
levels of education throughout the
population alongside others which have only a minimal educational
coverage and where 47% of the women are illiterate -as is the case
in Guatemala (2). At the beginning
of the nineties there was a great improvement in women's access
to the various levels of education and approximately 48% of those
enrolled in secondary education were women. This improvement will
later be reflected in the labour markets, given the high levels
of participation of women with university level education. Advances
are also being made -although on a lesser scale- in reducing the
segmentation according to educational areas, with a marked increase
in women enrolling in habitually male lines of study in higher
In this, as in other issues, a generational overview is always
useful. We are seeing a tendency in the educational plane whereby
young women are gaining a strong foothold in the basic and medium
levels of education, where, in some countries, they are surpassing
the level achieved by males, while the adult generations show
levels of illiteracy and lower educational levels. In several
regional countries in the nineties, women form a majority university
Cuba, Colombia, Uruguay and Venezuela).
Increasing female economic participation
For Latin America as a whole the vast majority of the jobs generated
in recent years have been in the less productive sectors: small
and micro businesses and
The increase in female employment is found in these groups and
resoundingly outdid the growth in male employment. Thus, between
the early eighties and the mid nineties male urban activity has
been maintained at around 78%, while female activity increased
from 37% to 45%. This increase has mainly occurred amongst women
aged between 25 and 49 years-old, that is, those who are also
undertaking the reproductive tasks to a greater degree (See Arriagada, 1994).
Economic growth has promoted the demand for female employment
in the structured areas of commerce and services. This depends
on their educational levels, and the younger professionals have
especially been inserting themselves into the more modern areas
of these sectors with relatively high incomes, but always lower
than those offered to males with similar qualifications. The
professional work market continues to be segregated according
to gender, partly as a consequence of segregation in education
and training, and also because of the still present cultural
norms on the role of women in society. For the majority of countries
there is greater discrimination of earnings against women the
higher they go up the educational levels.
Discriminatory practices in contracting persist (both open and hidden) long with
difficulties in access to training, promotion and both horizontal
and vertical mobility.
Despite this, an elevated proportion of women with high educational
levels participate in the labour market, contributing with their
work to the generation of goods and services; and providing an
indispensable income for their family group, both in order to
satisfy the increasing consumer needs imposed by the economic
model and to pay for the increasingly expensive health and education
services resulting from the privatization of these services in
Women's income in the home
As a greater
number of women live alone or are heads of household with dependants,
their responsibility for the survival of their families has increased
in the last 20 years. Often, pregnant teenage girls do not get
the support of their partner, and older adults are not supported
by their male children - tendencies which increase the burden
on women. Although women live with a partner, the male income
obtained is sometimes so insufficient that the women and children
must take on the double burden of domestic work and work outside
the home in order to supplement the family budget. A study in
Mexico found 17.1% of homes, independent of the sex of the head
of household, had an exclusively or predominantly female income
In the ECLAC "Social Outlook", 1995 a simulation exercise
established how much poverty would increase if women did not
contribute to the household. The results were clearly decisive:
without the female income of married women, the poverty in the
home would increase by between 10% to 20%. For the group of homes
in general, married women contribute around 30% of the income
with variations according to the country. Women in 1992 contributed
between 23 and 36% of the household income, and in the indigent
homes, women's economic contributions to the budget was even
Case studies show the economic income of the women of poorer
sectors -in contrast with that of the men- was distributed in
a more equitable manner between the members of the household
and was totally destined to the consumption needs of the family
which confirms the importance of women's income to their homes.
The contribution of domestic labour
societies assign women the daily reproduction they carry out
through housework. This is done in an isolated parcelled-off
manner inside each home, its economic value is not recognized
and it is distributed unequally according to the level of development
of each nation, social class, cycle of family life, geographical
area. The UNDP calculated that in the developing nations 66%
of women's work is outside the system of national accounts (SNA) whereby it is not accounted
for, recognized or evaluated (UNDP,
This greater effort by women is expressed in a greater number
of hours taken up by their market and domestic work.
The institutional support systems to care for children and old
people are practically non-existent. The nurseries and pre-school
services have a low coverage, especially for those who most need
them: the poorest women who work outside their homes. In the
same way, caring for old people and invalids also falls back
on the families, that is, on women, as there are very few support
mechanisms, and these are very costly because they are private.
In Latin America, pre-school coverage for children aged 0 to
5 years-old reached 7.8% in 1980 and doubled to 16.8% in 1991.
In the majority of cases it was concentrated in the private sector
and in urban areas.
In some cases the amount of coverage has been increased and in
others there have been legislative attempts to make pre-school
education obligatory. However, in the majority of regional nations
there is still a lot to be achieved on these fronts. The concern
for the older population is still less explicit, despite the
fact that in several regional nations the older population is
becoming an increasingly important proportion of the population.
We need not only to broaden the support social institutions can
offer to the family but must also modify the participation of
the other members of the home within this, so as to better balance
the gender roles in social reproduction.
In conclusion, the cultural changes related to modifying perceptions
of the functions and structures of the family and their interrelations
with the economy, along with modifications to the gender structures
are still a pending task for the 21st century. It is to be hoped
the contributions and needs of men and women will be better balanced
in the new century, modifying their roles in the social and political
ambits as well as in the employment and family areas in a positive
manner. The organizational and planning capacity of women could
be the keystone of accelerating this process.
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una prioridad social", Presentation at the IV Meeting of
the LatinAmerican Inter-Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights,
Concepción, Chile May 31 to June 1, 1996.
(1994), "Transformaciones del trabajo feminino urbano",
in Revista de la CEPAL No. 53, Santiago de Chile, August.
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Mexicana de Demografía (SOMEDE), Mexico.
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1 The opinions in this article are entirely the responsibility
of the author and do not involve the institution she works for.
She would like to thank Rosa Bravo for her substantial contribution
to this document and Lorena Godoy for her pertinent criticism,
on the understanding that any deficiencies which exist can be
attributed to the author.
2 Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Panama and others have
a female population with high levels of education, while Haiti,
Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua show high levels of female
illiteracy according to data from FLACSO (1995).
*Published in Social