San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cultural Encounter Probes Women’s Issues

JAVILLOS, San Carlos – Former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said human rights begin “in small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”

María Amalia Chaves, regional director of the Child Welfare Office (PANI) for Costa Rica’s Northern Zone, recently reminded this to a roomful of women from around the world.

Just as Roosevelt would have predicted, the small town of Javillos, a half-hour’s drive from La Fortuna de San Carlos and absent from most world maps, on Feb. 11 provided the backdrop for a groundbreaking discussion of women’s issues that aimed to change the course of their rights through cultural understanding.

The roundtable, held in a rustic, open terrace at Proyecto Asís, a wildlife rescue center, Spanish institute and volunteer center, brought together Costa Ricans, a Swiss woman and U.S. citizens, including a group of 13 women ages 38-58 traveling with EcoTeach, a U.S. organization that arranges educational expeditions to Costa Rica.

Reaching the understanding that “women’s problems are similar around the world” – as Anita Enz, 50, from Switzerland, described – the group of approximately 30 spectators and participants, including Laura Navarro, the director of the ombudsman’s regional office, Eraida González, a local representative of the Public Health Ministry and Marta Carvajal, vice-president of an area women’s recycling association, AMURECI, discussed topics in women’s rights, family, work situations and health.

Women’s Rights

Polly Freeman, a freelance writer and editor from Seattle, Washington, set the women’s rights discussion rolling with input on the struggle for equal compensation in the United States – though clarifying that she could not speak for all U.S. women, who make up an ethnically, socially and economically diverse crowd.

While 63% of U.S. women work, and many of them earn one half or more of their family’s income, they get paid only 77% of what men earn, said Freeman, 48, who traveled here with EcoTeach.

She listed U.S. women’s disproportionate employment in low-wage work and the reduced benefits they enjoy in this type of work, as well as sexual harassment at work and under-representation in public posts as some of the challenges they face.

“Studies have shown women conduct politics in different ways than men,” said Freeman, explaining that women tend to be less hostile.

Although political processes could be improved with the inclusion of approaches other than men’s, women still account for only 14% of the U.S. Congress, she said.

Women in Costa Rica suffer similar injustices, as Navarro, a Costa Rican lawyer, argued.

Although the Costa Rican Constitution, much like the U.S. document, recognizes the principle of equality, the realities of Ticas prove very different, according to Navarro.

They are victims of domestic violence, and have been culturally assigned a submissive role that demands they stay at home, care for their children and remain removed from politics, PANI’s Chaves said.

Despite the strong cultural influence of machismo and male dominance, Ticas have entered a transition period and begun to stray from these roles, she said.

For example, during the last administration in Costa Rica, women represented 33% of the Legislative Assembly, topping all Latin American governments in terms of female participation and ranking sixth in the world behind the Scandinavian countries (TT, Feb. 22, 2002).

In Switzerland, where outright discrimination against women is rarely observed, women represent only 22% of the federal parliament, according to Enz, who works in the Ministry for Environmental Protection’s communications department in Thurgau, Switzerland.

Domestic Violence

Despite their increasing political participation, female repression shows up in other ways in Costa Rica.

With 23 women murdered by their husbands, boyfriends or male acquaintances in 2005, Costa Rican women are too often the victims of domestic violence, according to Chaves, who told The Tico Times that while PANI works toward the protection of minors, the position of women in their families is crucial in the overall management of violence in society.

In fact, the canton of San Carlos, home of the country’s first female voter in 1950, harbors the second-highest number of domestic violence cases in the country, she said.

Chaves attributed this situation to the presence of four elements of machismo in the area: the issue of male control over females, be it economic or sexual; women doing everything possible to satisfy the man’s needs at home, even at their own expense; the objectification of women; and the man’s sense of ownership of his wife and children, which feeds his belief that he controls their lives to the extent that he can end or abuse it.

One possible outcome of this sense of ownership can be seen in the Northern Zone, at the border front with Nicaragua, where child labor is not unusual among immigrants and locals alike, in violation of the country’s laws she said.

Throughout the country, approximately 120,000 minors work illegally, and often, girls are burdened with domestic duties on top of their workload, Chaves added.

Problems in Switzerland, while much less dramatic than those in the Northern Zone, still prove burdensome for working women, who are expected to go home and cook for their families after their workday, Enz said.

The Swiss government does not provide childcare, and though it is federally mandated, corporate Switzerland generally refuses to provide it, she said.

In the United States, women tend to be “the hub of action in family,” according to Sally Weissman, who said she and the EcoTeach group represent the first generation of U.S. women to have more options than simply staying at home.

However, most women in high positions in corporate America are single and childless, according to Nancy Hymer from Minnesota.

“One of the challenges we women face is to find a balance in our lives,” she said. She also highlighted the importance of husbands participating in child rearing, a situation which is gradually evolving so that “our children will participate much more.”


Although the conference did not wind down to a set of conclusions on how to resolve the problems women face around the world, several speakers contributed their solutions.

For example, after her presentation on family, Chaves mentioned men should take part in helping women with their burdens, and as Navarro suggested, women must continue demonstrating they can be autonomous.

Also, participating in small meetings like Saturday’s, and sharing views through organizations that provide the space for it, such as Asís, allows for the creation of strategic alliances to strengthen the performance of government institutions and individuals, Chaves told The Tico Times.

Jaime del Castillo founded the 10-acre Proyecto Asís 12 years ago to “share with God’s creation,” and distinguish between living in nature and cohabitating with nature, he said at the conference.

For more info on Proyecto Asís contact del Castillo or his son Alvaro del Castillo at 475-9121. For info on EcoTeach, visit the Web site


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