Women in Latin America have endured centuries of violence and war, but have found strength within them in order to survive and hope for a bright future. Poor economic distribution has had a hampering effect on women working to improve their lives; with little income and minimal political voice, women fight to care for their children and family. Women do have the right to vote and have been elected to office, however, in many countries women’s rights are not reflected in political policies. Abortion is rarely permitted, which leaves many women dead after health problems and back ally abortions gone awry. Domestic violence is still a factor and soap operas have even gone as far as to romanticize and normalize the issue; this can be especially confusing to women and girls who live in extremely patriarchal households. Additionally, prostitution and sex trafficking have taken the lives of many women and will continue to do so until the problem is rectified. With the rise in feminism and political power they have taken great strides towards equality, but there is still quite a journey ahead.
The history of Latin America has been scarred with war, injustice and inequality; the effect of these facts have been particularly detrimental to issues that involve women and their rights. Although feminist have left their footprints there are still many women that are struggling for basic survival. Currently Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua have a total ban on all abortions eliminating the long-standing exceptions for rape, malformation of the fetus and risk to the life or health of the mother. A woman’s body is no longer her own, but has become an incubator of Catholic law. Women from countries such as Mexico are illegally brought into the United States and forced into a life of prostitution; these women have been turned into objects that can be used and disposed of at will without regard to the emotional trauma they will suffer. While it is important to recognize the atrocities it is also important to understand the role of women within the Latin American cultures. Women play a pivotal role in family life and are major contributors to the well-being of the community. Women are a growing power and are increasingly being
elected to office; with more women having in input in the government we can hope that the flame of sexism will flicker out.
Many countries in Latin America currently have high levels of poverty. The economic crisis in Mexico has led to many Mexican families reduce their expenses to adjust to what is available in order to survive daily; these adjustments are oriented to alternatives inside the home and can include eating once a day or eating food that is cheap. This situation of hunger and multiple shortages results in important consequences inside the domestic group; the relationships of power and inequality between the genders and generations are made worse. Not only are subsistence activities affected, but also the ability to attend school is limited for many. Another strategy used by households facing poverty is that the woman starts working and later the sons follow. Mostly the women, through adjustments they make in the households’ resources and their participation in the labor market, are the ones who face the current crisis in a decisive manner. This situation has produced extreme conditions in the lives of many households and many women: they face work overload, fatigue and stress due to the lack of food for their children, the need to look for income outside the home, the concern about children when they go to work, and tensions with the partner when the woman earns income (Menjivar 2003: 87-111).
The National Survey of Households (PNAD) collected data throughout Brazil and Colombia concerning ageing and gender inequalities in urban areas. With the adult and elderly proportions growing and the increase in life expectancy, gender inequality has been stressed in advanced age groups. The populations of Brazil and Colombia are aging rapidly and in the next two decades will have, with Mexico, the largest elderly populations in Latin America and the world; the social security systems will experience problems in their economic stability due to the elderly population having higher proportions of beneficiaries, while adult generations will contain a smaller proportion of taxpayers. Households will have to reorganize the family unit and redistribute resources in order to support elderly individuals. Gender and generational inequalities show important country and institutional differences, with implications for the household structure, according to the ability of elderly men and women to give and receive financial support and their ability to choose their desired living arrangements. This may affect the relationship between the women and their families and may encourage women to redistribute responsibilities of elderly care within the household (Menjivar 2003: 152-1660).
The offenses committed against women and men under military regimes were a major part of Latin American history, but at the same time they led to response and empowerment; women became a major voice in the human rights response that took place. Women suffered extensively from state-sponsored terrorism in the period from 1964-1990; some women were killed, but many others were tortured and raped. Many men were killed as well and many more went missing, this meant that the remaining female relatives lived on in greater poverty and often in shame because of the supposed crime committed by husband or male relative. Women came from traditional roles to become the majority of members in the human rights groups. The recognition of the damage invoked upon men and women in Latin America continued into the twenty-first century; one of the innovations of the late twentieth century was women telling their story in a public way. The women accomplished this in best sellers, but more commonly they did so in smaller public ways. In Santiago, Chile they came together on church premises where they were guided by therapist to discuss the critical events of their lives. Women in Peru produced colorful wall hangings to tell their stories, while traveling theatrical companies in Guatemala moved from village to village to mount dramatic narrations in village squares (Cleary 2007: 15-18).
When the military left presidential palaces, successor governments typically formed governmental agencies to educate civil society in the rights demanded by newly developing democracies. All countries, with the exception of Uruguay, have created public record of state terrorism. The records of human rights violations created and the accountability for the crimes acknowledged in various countries were imperfect but considered to be sufficient for nations to move forward. Women have been in the forefront of demanding that some public historical record be written and some authorities brought to trial. Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil have been convulsed by new demands to examine the past. For example, Chile’s Rettig Commission conducted a thorough investigation of death and disappearance committed mostly by military and police forces in the country. The report was widely publicized and reparations paid (Cleary 2007:18-22).
The transition from military to civilian rule brought a great expansion of human rights, previously defined in terms of death, disappearance, and torture, to concern for other rights. Woman demanded freedom from sexual harassment, equality in the workplace, and other rights. Almost half of Latin American women reported psychological abuse, while one to two women in five experience physical violence. Violence against women remains widespread, especially in less developed countries such as Honduras. The Penal Code of the country classifies domestic violence and sexual harassment as crimes, with penalties of two to four years and one to three years imprisonment. Despite these penalties, the Pan-American Health Organization reported that 60 percent of Honduran women have been victims of domestic violence, while the United Nations Population Fund estimated that eight of every ten women suffered from domestic violence. During 2003 only 3,430 cases of domestic violence and 275 cases of rape were reported to police and fewer cases tried. Honduran law against domestic violence lacked some effective deterrents since the laws imposed no fines and only twenty-four-hour preventative detention could be imposed. Eventually Honduras created a Special Prosecutor for Women in the Public Ministry; this has allowed the government to make greater progress towards resolving more cases through funding special courts to hear only cases of domestic violence. In many countries, improved government services have been provided for women, men, and children affected by violence. The role of the media in reducing domestic violence has been underutilized and in some instances might have actually fostered violence in the household. A study by Columbia’s National Television Commission found that popular telenovelas averaged 315 violent scenes a day. Many states treat domestic violence as a public affair as opposed to being a privatized issue; these states are accepting some responsibility in preventing violence in the home and the prosecution of offenders (Cleary 2007: 20-25).
Despite laws against slavery in practically every country, an estimated twenty-seven million people live as slaves. These include indentured servants, persons held in hereditary bondage, child slaves who pick plantation crops, child soldiers, and adults and children trafficked and sold into sex slavery. According to Sex Trafficking of women in the United States: International and Domestic Trends, some 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States each year, mainly from Asia and Latin America. The majority of the homeless girls assisted by Casa Alianza programs in Mexico are victims of prostitution. Military personnel are prostituting Mexican women in Chiapas. Soldiers pay 100 pesos for virgins, 50 pesos for other girls, the prettiest are sold to high-ranking officers. Girls, 11-13 year olds, are sold by their fathers into prostitution. The girls are dishonored, while their fathers are not. Mexico is one of the favored destinations of pedophile sex tourists from Europe and the United States. An estimated 5,000 children are currently involved in prostitution, pornography and sex-tourism in Mexico. Nearly 100 children and teenagers a month fall into the hands of the child prostitution networks which are mafias or organized crime syndicates. 300 participants of the National Meeting of Sex Workers in Mexico called for an end to police abuse and discrimination that has denied them everything from health care to basic dignity. One person said that they receive death threats from police. Prostitution is legal in Mexico, but brothels are not. Many of the 80,000 Mexican children who cross from Mexico into the U.S. alone, as undocumented immigrants, are fleeing abuse at home, or are escaping from child prostitution rings. As such, they would possibly qualify for permission to stay in the United States. In Mexico there exists terrible child trafficking in the area of Acapulco, Guerrero; many now call this region "the new Bangkok" of child sex tourism (Shaw 2007: 578-589).
Among legislative goals for the advancement of women, equality with men in education has been a major target. The World Bank released statistic that girls and young women have overtaken boys and young men in educational attainment. Latin American data shows more girls than boys in both grade and high school enrollment in nearly all the countries in the region. Greater progress has been made in terms of achieving equality between men and women in education than other areas of social development in Latin America. Advances have been made towards helping out the most poor and most ignored. The second poorest country in the region, Bolivia, ranked first in the world in 2005 for progress it made towards equality for girls in the field of education. Previously, parents prevented their girls from attending schools due to discrimination against women and the lack of separate bathroom facilities. In 1990, only 10 percent of girls were less likely to attend primary school. By 2005, girls were as numerous as boys in grade school (Cleary 2007:23-28).
Women have not only gained experience as the majority of participants in human rights activism, they also formed the largest number of persons who participated in the wider universe of new social movements in Latin America. The social movement experience transformed gender consciousness. Women in survival movements began to reject violence against themselves and to insist on their right to leave the household to participate in neighborhood or citywide groups. Women’s engagement in politics affected daily life, so they modified it. They created organizations that were independent from male influence. Winning the right to vote served as an important function for women; women became more focuses on the political process. For Chilean women, enfranchisement came in 1949 with their first opportunity to exercise their new right in a special senatorial election the next year, when a woman ran for the first time for national political office. María de la Cruz won many votes but was unable to capture the office until the next election. Peru did not enfranchise women until 1955, and therefore was one of the last three American republics to do so, being followed by Colombia and Paraguay (Chaney 1979: 82-84).
Before the suspension of elections by the military junta in Peru, registration and voting were required by law of all literate citizens. Women formed a lower proportion of the electorate in Peru, not only because women in Chile have voted in more national elections but also because of the higher level of literacy among Chilean women. This situation was further complicated in Peru because the voting registration card served as an essential identification card required in order to obtain any employment covered by minimum wage and hour laws and social security, This card was also required to marry, open a bank account, receive registered mail, receive a degree, and obtain a passport. Those who do not know how to read and write receive a document that serves as an identity card but does not permit them to vote. These methods were used to complicate the registration process and prevent many women from voting, especially in rural areas. Peru also issued a substantial fine equal to several days pay after a failure to vote in an election, this caused a reduced interest in politics (Chaney 1979: 84-90).
Today there is no political party in Latin America that excludes women, but as women go through their studies they must often prepare for feminine careers and thus exclude themselves from future party leadership, not only because their degree preparation often does not qualify them for political posts but also because “feminine” faculties are isolated from student politics. One exception was the highly-politicized Instituto Pedagogía at the University of Chile in Santiago, which in 1969 had nearly equal percentages of men and women students. Women in Latin America generally receive the right to hold office at the same time they received the franchise. In Chile, so that no one would have any doubts on the matter, Ley 9292 expressly states that Chilean women can “elect and be elected even President of the Republic”. This decree is equally explicit in Peru (Chaney 1979:90-106). Women presidents in Latin America have numbered fewer than the fingers on one hand. Mexico put forth Rosario Green, as foreign minister, traditionally one of the posts desired by men. Colombia has placed a woman as Minister of Defense, perhaps the most macho of all positions. Chile has had women as foreign minister and minister of defense in the same cabinet. Both Chileans put themselves forward as presidential candidates in 2006. Michelle Bachelet won the presidency and names ten women and ten men as ministers. Twelve Latin American nations exceed the United States in electing women to national legislatures and eight fall behind the United States. Argentina, Cuba, and Costa Rica rank in the top ten countries in the world, with 36 to 34 percent of female national legislators. These achievements and others like them were accomplished in the early stages of democratization. Since then, feminist scholars have noted with regret the slow progress of women’s issues in Latin American politics and society. Many of those scholars believe that the time of opportunity to redefine gender roles and machismo practices has largely passed (Cleary 2007: 27-32).
The past few decades have marked an increase in participation by women in social movements in Latin America. Latin American women are participating in organizations led by and for women, struggling for their rights as workers in trade unions, as housewives in squatter settlements, and as mothers defending human rights against state repression. The private sphere of the family has always been considered the domain of women, but it is increasingly threatened by economic and political forces. Industrialization and urbanization have reduced the role of the family and strengthened the role of the state. Authoritarian military regimes have torn families apart by taking the lives of children and other loved ones and subjected them to terror and a state of repression. However, women in Latin America are not just defending the private domain of the family against increasing state intervention; they are also demanding incorporation into the state, so that their rights as citizens can be fully recognized. Latin American women are insisting upon distinct forms of incorporation that reaffirm their identity as women, in particular as wives and mothers. These roles legitimize their outrage as military governments take away their children and the rising cost of living prevents them from feeding their families. Women are not the only subordinated group to challenge the state, and social movements have arisen as well among the youth, peasants, the urban poor, and broader-based human rights groups (Safa 1990: 354-357).
The suffrage movement in Latin America engaged for the most part middle- and upper-middle-class women and, as in the United States, conferred limited benefits because women did not plan any concerted activity beyond enfranchisement. The first activists in women’s rights were markedly different types in Chile and Peru. In Chile the women’s movement from its beginnings to the 1870’s was tied to the entrance if women into higher education and the professions, while in Peru the precursors were, with few exceptions, novelists or poets. These differences may account in part for the significantly greater progress Chilean women have made in public life. In Peru, ideas about women’s emancipation first were articulated in the 1870’s by a remarkable group of women writers. Literary and journalistic endeavors were the first professions open to women because they could be carried out in the house. These women also talked about the flight of the Indian and the peasants, the corruption of political leaders, the indifference of the landowning class and of the church. Maria Jesus Alvarado Rivera was an extraordinary women’s movement leader in Peru. Maria laid the basis for her advanced ideas on such problems as health, euthanasia, control of venereal disease and the necessity for a prenuptial medical examination, the use of film in education, as well as for her social agitation on behalf of women, children, the Indians and the working class. Maria Alvarado had to labor for four years before she succeeded in founding Peru’s first women’s organization, Evolcion Femenina. Maria was later jailed and sent to exile in Argentina. Women never succeeded in building a unified movement in Peru, and the 200-odd organizations which today constitute the National Council of women have no record of effective action in the field of women’s rights, although some groups did engage sporadically in work for women’s enfranchisement (Chaney 1973:331-336).
Feminism arrived late in Latin America, with Costa Rico being the exception. In part, this was due to the overriding priorities created by war and revolution. The Montemilar encuentro marked the first time that Central American feminists had ever tried to work together on a region-wide event. Feminism was clearly a driving force behind the questions that framed the discussion groups and workshops. Implicit in the discussion at the encuentro was the assumption that all women—not just poor and working-class women—share to some extent the experience of sexism and subordination, and that cross-class coalitions and alliances can be formed to work on common projects. The emergence of feminist and women-related NGO’s—such as cultural projects, service centers, and independent research groups—gives Latin American feminism a stability and wealth of resources that never existed before. If there is one trend which characterizes women’s organizing throughout the hemisphere, it is the growing diversity of organizational forms, strategies, and creative efforts. This diversity is both a reflection of the great vitality and strength of the women’s movement in a profoundly conservative era and an enormous strategic challenge (Chinchilla 1993:17-23).
Birth rates have dropped impressively in much of Latin America. This has been quite a development in to abortion that has received greater attention. Many Latin American countries have argued that more than individual sexual rights are involved in abortion and argue for the protection of life. Nearly all the countries in the region permit abortion under limited conditions-for preserving the life or health of the mother or under conditions of rape or incest. Chile stands alone in not allowing abortion for any reason. Tim Fresca, an author resident in Chile, believes the country is an anomaly and that abortion is still too taboo as a public issue to allow serious debate. Colombia, since 2001 has been moving towards removal of legal penalties for abortion. Its constitutional court ruled in 2006 in such a way that allows abortion in cases of rape, fetal abnormalities, and danger to the life of women. Much attention was given to Chile over the debate of divorce and it wasn’t until March of 2004 that divorce was finally legalized (Cleary29-33).
Nearly 65,000 induced abortions are performed annually in Guatemala, and about 21,600 women are hospitalized for treatment of complications. Over a quarter of births are unplanned; combining unplanned births with abortions yields estimates that 32% of pregnancies in Guatemala are unintended, with an unintended pregnancy rate of 66 per 1,000 women. Unsafe abortion is the leading cause of reproductive morbidity and mortality in countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted, as in the case in Guatemala. In Guatemala abortion is against the law except to save a woman’s life. The Postabortion Care Program of the Epidemiological Research Center in Sexual and Reproductive Health (CIESAR) reported that 13,928 incomplete abortions were treated in 22 public hospitals between July 2003 and December 2004. In Guatemala, as in other countries, women may resort to abortion when they have unintended pregnancy. Some are unable to care for a child, some already have all the children that they want; others do not want the pregnancy because it is a result of forced sex or incest; and some women’s lives or health are at risk if they continue with the pregnancy. Guatemala lages far behind other Central American countries in contraceptive prevalence, and levels of use differ markedly between Mayans and Ladinos, the two main ethnic groups. Between 1978 and 1998, the proportion of women using any contraceptives rose from 28% to 50% among Ladinos, but only from 4% to 13% among Mayans. Female sterilization, the pill and rhythm have been the most widely used methods, although as of 1998, the injectable replaces the pill as the third most popular method among Mayans. Dramatic changes in socioeconomic conditions among the Ladinos and Mayans over these twenty years have been key determinants of contraceptive use. Mayans are a hard-to-reach population, but they are becoming more open to adopting family planning when services are accessible and provided in a culturally accepted manner. New estimates of the incidence of unintended pregnancy in Guatemala should help to raise awareness among policymakers and program managers of the difficulty that women and couples are having in planning pregnancies and births (Singh 2006: 136-145).
Abortion is legal in Brazil if it is the only means to save the woman’s life or if the pregnancy is the result of rape. At the end of 2001, all but a few state capitals in Brazil had at least one public hospital which had openly carried out a legal abortion, and plans for service provisions were in progress in the rest. There is no doubt that the strength and organization of the women’s rights movement in Brazil has been a fundamental factor. Their campaigns have resulted in enough political leverage to influence the Parliament and the Executive on several occasions, most often in blocking the passage of regressive laws, which have been tabled regularly though less often than in previous years. The Penal Code, which dates from 1940, establishes in Article 128, two conditions under which abortion is not a criminal act: when pregnancy is the result of rape and when there is no other mean to save the woman’s life. The problem was that the law had almost never been applied. Women, health providers, and society were not largely aware of the conditions under which abortion is not criminalized in the Penal Code. Those who knew what the code says did not know how the law could be put into practice. Although some women had judicial approval many hospitals refused to perform abortions, especially those in the Rio area. Although the number of legal abortions carried out in the country has increased, it is only a small number compared to the number of unintended pregnancies occurring every year after forced sexual relations. The media has made women fearful that in attaining an abortion they will be exposed to public knowledge; it also sends them the message that women need a judicial order to obtain a legal abortion, which is false. The anti-abortion movement is very active in Brazil and there are highly qualified professors of obstetrics and gynecology who strongly oppose the practice of abortion. These factors are making it increasingly difficult for women to attain abortions even though they are legal. It is important that the alliance between women’s health and rights advocates and obstetricians-gynecologists is crucial to making the public aware of their legal rights and to helping women to attain legal abortions (Faundes 2002: 120-127).
Nicaragua’s Penal Code permits “therapeutic abortion” without defining the circumstances that warrant it. In the absence of a legally clear definition, therapeutic abortion is variously considered legal only to save the woman’s life or also to protect the health of the woman, and in cases of fetal malformation and rape. Access to therapeutic abortion often depends on the judgment of individual doctors. When the law is ambiguous, health professionals may feel reluctant to provide legal abortion services. In February 2003 a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl, living in Costa Rica, was discovered to be pregnant as a result of rape. Costa Rican doctors denied that the pregnancy would endanger her physical or mental health and refused to consider an abortion. Nicaraguan doctors believed that carrying out the pregnancy posed equal risk to ending the pregnancy and left the decision up to the parents. The girl had an abortion without any complications. This situation illustrates how vague law can expose women and girls who seek abortion to ideologically-driven information and clinical care. Abortion law reform advocates are afraid to call for the development of regulations for therapeutic abortion because it might result in counter initiatives to eliminate therapeutic abortion from the Penal Code altogether. Research indicates that a dramatic drop occurred in therapeutic abortion requests after 1989. Only two requests have been recorded after 1999; this decline coincided with the election of Violeta Chamorro and a conservative government. Doctors denied requests from women with confirmed diagnoses of pre-eclampsia, hepatitis, diabetes, colon cancer, alcohol addiction, mitral valve prolapsed, measles, and mental retardation. Three records cited the lack of “judicial confirmation’ as a reason for refusing requests when pregnancy was due to rape. Between 2000 and 2002 a total of 33 women died who had pre-existing health conditions that may have been exacerbated by pregnancy. These women suffered from tuberculosis, leukemia, renal and cardiac problems. Many doctors expresses discomfort with the role that the “wantedness’ of a pregnancy might play in a woman’s motivation to seek therapeutic abortion. Nicaragua’s abortion law serves neither of the ethical principles it aims to uphold: beneficence or justice. Nor are all Nicaraguan women free to exercise a right to which the law entitles them (McNaughton 2004: 18-26).
Women are able to vote, hold public office, and freely work outside their homes if it is their desire, but not all aspects of Latin America are female friendly. Domestic violence, forced prostitution and sexual trafficking all pose serious threats to the lives of women. More progressive approaches toward reproductive rights would cut down on unwanted pregnancies, illegal abortions and the death rate of mothers and children; laws that are ambiguous need to reformed so that their meaning is straight-forward. The unequal distribution of economic wealth is affecting both men and women whether it be the ability to feed ones family to access to higher education to being able to safely walk the streets at night or to being able to have a sustainable living once one reaches retirement age. Continually bringing these issues to the surface can only improve the situation and set Latin America on the right path.