Rosa Quesada lives more than 2,000 miles from the towering skyscrapers of New York City. She’s never pushed through the crowds of people who line the sidewalks during a Manhattan rush hour or navigated the web of underground trains. She has no money in the stock markets, nor has she financed a home.
But the crisis that’s put Wall Street in gridlock, strangled the U.S. housing market and exposed corruption schemes of onetime millionaires has begun to seep into her life in Costa Rica.
The single mother of two is skipping meals or eating less, going longer without replacing clothes and considering pulling her eldest out of school so that he can help the family financially.
“All the prices are going up, but the salaries aren’t,” said Quesada, who commutes from her home in Cartago to her workplace at a kiosk in the central market each day.
“Food…clothes…everything is getting to be more expensive.”
She’s not alone in sensing the economic shift in Costa Rica. Sociologists and economic analysts alike say that the effects of the crisis will be borne on the shoulders of women in developing countries around the world.
“It is important to protect women in this crisis, as they will be among the worst affected,” said Mayra Buviniv, World Bank Group director for gender. Women will see greater reductions in salaries and educational opportunities, an increase in poverty and in infant mortality rates and the crisis will reduce progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment, according to her organization.
In Costa Rica, women already receive, on average, 29 percent less in pay, have double the unemployment rate of their male counterparts, and work in jobs below their skill levels more often than do men.
“Since they already hold the highest unemployment rate, since they receive less pay than men on average, since they are located in the sectors of the economy that are most vulnerable; women are going to be hit the hardest,” said Montserrat Sagot, director of postgraduate women’s studies at the University of Costa Rica.
But the worst part isn’t necessarily the job losses or the discriminatory pay, Sagot said. “It’s that no one is really talking about this. No one is proposing any solutions about the differential effects on women (than on men) and no one is taking into account what could happen to women.”
Identifying the Inequalities
Luz Marina Matoneter paused for a moment as she unpacked items to hang from the walls of the little store in the central market. She placed one hand on her hip and said unabashedly, “Women make less than men and work more than men.”
She said she works daily from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
When a young male colleague intervened to say, “Well, I am here at 6:30 a.m.,” she dismissed him, saying, “Yes, but you don’t have to prepare food, clean and watch out for the kids.
“Men work eight hours and then wait for the woman to bring them dinner. They take a portion of the women’s salaries, and what is left over is not spent on the women…No, it buys the food for the kids, the clothes and pays the bills.”
Matoneter said things have gotten worse in the past few months. “(Groceries) have gotten more expensive,” said the mother and grandmother.
“One day you buy beans. The other day you buy rice and, when you buy rice, you don’t buy sugar.”
As she continued to unpack boxes of souvenirs, she said, “Necesita hacer chorizos de tripas”, the literal translation of which is, “You have to make sausages with intestines” or, you have to make the most of what you have.
According to the most recent statistics from the Costa Rican National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), the unemployment rate among women was 6.2 percent in 2008 in Costa Rica and among men it was 4.2 percent. In 2008, the percentage of women in the workplace who were unemployed was 14.3 percent compared to 10.2 percent for men.
Asked whether women were aware of the inequities, Sagot responded, “They are completely aware of machismo.
“They know it and they see it function every day in their lives. And although they might not understand all the implications, they know that they have more difficult lives than men. They know they have to work more hours. They know they have more responsibility. They know that they have less money. I don’t think that all women will understand the big economic picture, but they see it every day.”
Women at Work
Women working outside of the home is a relatively new phenomenon in Costa Rica.
Less than half a century ago, few women looked for work away from home, and those who did were among the neediest.
With the shift away from rural lifestyles, it became more common for women to enter the workforce. Although the trend began in the 1970s, it accelerated through the 1990s, until it became more unusual for women to stay at home than to work away from it.
Making the workforce accessible to women has been a positive transformation, Sagot said, because it gives women more economic independence.
“They can make freer choices and better decisions for their lives without having to depend on a man or their families,” she said. “Not having your own means is a trap because then you completely depend on the person who provides for your survival.”
Although the shift means that one salary is now more often than not insufficient for a family to live on and that women spend less time caring for children, Sagot said the positives of having women employed outside of the home outweigh the drawbacks.
“The benefit is not only in economic independence, but it also gives us a feeling that we are worth something, that we are not only housewives (although I recognize the value of that). It’s very important for some women – for many women – to feel like they can make a contribution to society.”
But women who want to work often cannot find employment or they must find work below their skill and education levels.
Gender discrimination is very prevalent here, Sagot said. For example, Costa Rica has very strict maternity rules. Each new mother is given four months paid leave following the birth of her child, and this deters some employers from hiring young women.
According to recent numbers published by the Ombudsman’s Office, the Labor Ministry received 153 complaints of gender discrimination in 2008.
Many employers consider men to be more reliable because they aren’t responsible for sick children or domestic issues in the house.
The economic crisis doesn’t only impact women in the workplace, it also affects them at home, said Larraitz Lexartza, who represents the Feminist Information and ActionCenter in Costa Rica.
“When men spend more time in the house, we tend to notice an increase in violence against women,” Lexartza said. “We always receive more calls after Christmas and Easter weeks.”
Unemployment among men adds to the problem: “Their role as providers has been taken away…and they try to assert their masculinity in other ways,” said Lexartza. “The (result is) more violence against women.”
Facing the Inequity
Finding the best solution to gender inequalities in the global economic crisis is not easy, Sagot said, but the first step is recognizing that inequality exists.
“If you don’t take gender differences into consideration, and if you just develop gender-blind policies, what we are going to accomplish is to increase the gap between men and women,” she said. “You cannot have a one-size-fits-all solution for the crisis, which is the tendency all over the world, including in Costa Rica. You need to address the impact on each group individually.”
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias’ idea to reduce salaries in favor of keeping jobs is the absolutely wrong way to go, Lexartza said.
“If you have a family of four and you reduce salaries by 30 percent, you automatically sink those people into poverty or extreme poverty,” she said. “The minimum wage already can’t support two people.” But you also have to take measures to mitigate the secondary affects of the crisis, Lexartza said.
Regarding domestic violence, her organization is working to revive a law aimed at reduction of the number of domestic violence cases.
When the law was introduced a few years ago, it reduced the reported cases of domestic violence by 50 percent.
But, under a reform in October of 2008, it became harder to prosecute alleged assailants.
Judges decided that the punishment was too steep for a crime with such a large range of applicability and that people weren’t aware of the law. Within months of the October changes, the level of domestic violence rose to its previous heights.
Thirty-six-year-old Quesada has tried working multiple jobs to support her two sons. Last year, she worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the cafeteria of a school and from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. at another job.
“I only slept two hours,” she said. She has looked for outside help to pay the bills and asked for a day off work to apply for a scholarship to keep her son in school.
She said she was denied.
“You risk losing your job if you take time off work,” she said, “which means you’re really stuck (when looking for new opportunities.)”
As she served slices of flan to passing customers, Quesada said she felt trapped:
“There really isn’t a solution. It’s just to continue to work. If a woman doesn’t work, she can’t eat.”