San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

On Women’s Day, Reflections on Gains, Goals

Rosie the Riveter’s bicep flexed a little bigger and the “We Can Do It” message above her head flashed a little bolder on Sunday as the world celebrated International Women’s Day. More than 800 registered events in over 50 countries paid tribute to the 100th anniversary of the worldwide holiday.

And while much progress has been made in the fight for women’s equality in Costa Rica, many believe that some areas could use improvement.

As part of the celebration, The National Institute for Women (INAMU) presented the results of a survey, The First National Perception Survey about the State of Women’s Rights, which was designed to understand the general perception of women in Costa Rica.

The survey was conducted with the help the University of Costa Rica’s School of Mathematics during the months of October and September of 2008. The study questioned 1012 Costa Rican citizens – 506 men and 506 women 18 years or older from rural and urban areas and diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

While the results indicated that most participants thought that both men and women shared equal legal rights, it painted an unattractive picture of the social image and discrimination that women endure.

In response to the question “Do you think, in general, women are discriminated against by men?” almost 73 percent of men responded “yes,” along with 85.2 percent of women.

Marcia Martínez attended the presentation of the survey results at the 1887 Theatre in San José and agrees that women have to live with negative perceptions. She said driving is a perfect example.

“People think that we aren’t as important when we drive,” Martínez said as she recalled being cut off three times on her way to school. “Men drive faster and when they see a woman in the car, they think they can do whatever they want.”

Sonia Picado, president of the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights (IIDH) said the negative perceptions about women are “nothing more than cultural constructions” that “don’t reflect reality.”

Picado pointed out that the way we use language plays a key role in perpetuating stereotypes about women.

“A man who talks in an energetic manner is a strong man, but a woman who talks in an energetic manner is a hysterical woman,” Picado said.

She also pointed out the negative image that is attached to prostitution.

“A man of the street is considered cool. A woman of the street is a prostitute. This is a human construction that we have to modify,” she said.

The way to improve these images, she said, is to be aware of negative use of words and fight for a language that is “gender considerate and sensitive.”

But despite some of the negative perceptions that surround the group, women have seen significant advances in the Costa Rican political realm in the past several years.

According to INAMU, female participation in the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly has seen steady growth since women began to occupy elected office in 1953.

From 1953 to 1958, three women held  legislative seats. The Arias administration –2006 until 2010 – elected 22 women to serve in the assembly.

These 22 women make up 38.6 percent of the legislative body, earning Costa Rica a top five ranking among countries with the highest numbers of female representatives in congress, according to INAMU.

Part of the reason that Costa Rica’s female representation is higher than those of most countries is doubtless because of a quota system that was implemented in 1999.

In response to a request from INAMU, the Supreme Elections Tribunal passed a resolution on September 23, 1999 that required 40 percent of the names on a ballot for eligible delegate, alderman and community representative positions to be females.

The resolution modified a law passed in 1990 aimed at increasing female participation in the government but which lacked specific numbers and percentages.

Jeanette Carrillo, executive president of INAMU, admitted that the 1999 resolution was controversial but ultimately felt it was necessary.

“When the culture doesn’t permit equality, individuals, organizations and the state need to intervene to transform the culture,” she said. “Public service is the most dignified profession that a country can have and it only makes sense that it demonstrates equality.”

Picado agreed, but said that 38.6 percent, while impressive in context, is still too small of a number.

“Women make up half of the world, and this needs to be represented in governments,” she said. “If democracy is for everyone, why doesn’t it include everyone? Democracy has to be inclusive to be successful.”

While Picado didn’t go so far as to say that another quota law should be passed, she noted that women “not only need equal opportunities but access to equal opportunities.”

Outside of congress, the number of women in the Costa Rica labor market has seen slight increases over the past several years.

Every July, the National Statistics and Census Bureau (INEC) conducts a survey to determine how many people participate in the workforce. The annual research reveals that in Costa Rica, men have traditionally outnumbered women.

According to the 2008 survey, 37 percent of of Costa Rican jobs are filled by women, and the other 63 percent by men.

Although the gap between the numbers may seem large, Carmen Ulate, a professor of women’s studies at the National University (UNA) says the survey doesn’t tell the whole story.

Ulate said the percentages gathered by INEC “include the formal sector but don’t include the informal sector.”

“There are a lot of women who work out of their home and aren’t in the professional world,” she said. “Some women aren’t available to work in the labor sector and have to work in other sectors.”

Ulate noted that women make and sell products out of their home are one example of those not considered by the survey and explain the low percentage.

But others felt the numbers were low because of labels that women receive.

Vera Aguilar celebrated International Women’s Day at an INAMU event and said that equality is still missing from the labor market.

“There is a stereotype that women can’t work as well as men but we are just as valuable in the professional world,” she said. We can do it.”


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