San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Women Key in Region’s Battle against Poverty

Could establishing public day-care centers and encouraging more men to contribute to domestic duties help reduce poverty in Costa Rica?

Experts at two international conferences held recently in San José to examine the topic of women and poverty believe the answer is yes. Poverty in Latin America has a female face that should no longer be ignored, they said.

The entry of women into the labor market and their resulting financial contribution to low-income households is fundamental to reducing poverty, according to Luis Mora, regional advisor on gender and masculinity for the United Nations Population Fund.

However, caretaking responsibilities tend to hinder women’s capacity for productive work outside the home, Mora explained at a conference focusing on co-responsibility in the care of dependants held at Hotel Radisson Sept. 14.

The participation of women in the work force in Latin America is affected by factors such as number of dependants, including sick or elderly family members, and their roles as wives, he said.

Poverty in Costa Rica and its neighboring countries has shown no sign of diminishing. Regional government leaders agree on the need for public policy to help enable women to rise out of poverty. A focus on gender in anti-poverty politics and specific strategies to reduce poverty among female inhabitants are crucial, agreed Jeannette Carrillo, executive president of Costa Rica’s National Women’s Institute (INAMU).

During the 13th meeting of the Council of Central American Women’s Ministers (COMMCA), held Sept. 27-28 at Hotel Bougainvillea, in Santo Domingo de Heredia, north of San José, representatives drafted a statement calling for regional governments to urgently adopt policies to combat female poverty.

COMMCA aims to incorporate the statement into the next meeting of heads of state and the Central American Integration System (SICA) scheduled for Dec. 15 in San José.

Carrillo said she plans to present the document to SICA Secretary General Anibal Quiñónez.

She said INAMU has already begun the policy reform process. The institute is currently leading an initiative to evaluate the past decade’s worth of government contributions to women living in poverty with the aim of suggesting reforms, said Carrillo, who is also president of the Central American Council.

The evaluation, coordinated jointly by INAMU and representatives from ministries and institutions such as the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) and the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU), began in May and is expected to conclude at the end of this year with specific reform proposals.

Carrillo told The Tico Times it is evident that during the past decade, government policy has not been effective in eliminating poverty among Ticas.

Poverty’s Female Face

In 2001, 58% of the population in Central America was identified as living in poverty. Of these approximately 21 million people, 51.1% are women, Carrillo said at the conference.

Poor people in the region work mainly in the informal and agricultural sectors. Female workers are predominant in the informal sector – 2.9 million informal workers are female, versus 2.4 million male. In the formal sector, men outnumber women nearly 2 to 1.

Women throughout Latin America also experience serious inequalities in terms of salaries. On average, Latin American men tend to earn 30% more than women, according to Victoria Montero, coordinator of the secretariat of INAMU’s board of directors.

Women in Latin America do work in a context that is very different from 30 years ago, when they experienced less permanence in the workplace and tended to quit after having their first child. Still, such inequalities are deterrents to from working outside the home, especially when children are involved, Mora said.

He highlighted the need for public policy to better integrate women to the workforce. “Public policy is not producing results,” he said.

According to Mora, Latin America is now experiencing a period known as a “demographic bonus,” when the active population (between 15 and 64 years) is much larger than the dependant population (younger than 15 or older than 64).

This stage is expected to end by the year 2020, when a greater number of people will be older than 64.

Mora warned that if there is no social investment during the period of this demographic bonus, by the time it ends it will be necessary to invest much more.

For example, in the future, women who did not work because they had to take care of family members will not have pensions and become immersed in poverty.

Mora recommends pension reforms aimed at recognizing unpaid care-taking services.

He also recommends lengthening school days at elementary and high schools and broadening availability of services for taking care of dependants so that women can work outside the home.

At the COMMCA gathering, Carrillo also stressed the need to change the myth that women are responsible for domestic, reproductive and care taking duties. She told The Tico Times the topic of day care is fundamental.

“We are reviewing the topic to see what the state and the private sector’s responsibility is in this, and communities, families, equally, there is a shared responsibility. We are reviewing existing legislation on day care,” she said, adding that Costa Rica has no state-run day-care program.


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