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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

In Latin America the gender gap kills

Part Seven: A woman's lot
If feminism in North America and Western Europe is identified with the intellectual elite and a movement by women who want to participate fully in all aspects of their cultures, it means something quite different in many areas of Latin America. There it is often identified with the deepest poverty and with women's struggles for safety for themselves and their children. At the most fundamental level, feminism in Latin America can simply mean struggling to stay alive, a battle often joined by church agencies and women of faith.

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

They are officially nameless and faceless, but they had a few things in common: They were young, attractive, poor and female, and they were bound, raped, tortured and murdered.

At least 300 young women have been killed brutally over the past decade in this sprawling border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Several thousand others may have disappeared. Statistics are hazy because of poor record keeping, a symptom of the official lack of interest.

“Women here are afraid, although few admit it,” said Esther Chávez, one of the first people to take up the cause of the murdered women. “They’re afraid that when they go to work or school, they won’t come home again. They have to put on a brave face, though, because they can’t live in constant fear.”

As international attention has focused on the case, the women of Ciudad Juárez have become a symbol of the problems faced by women throughout Latin America. More girls are finishing school in the region than ever before, and there are more women in public office. But women are paid far less than men for equal work, and violence against women -- in the home and in places like Juárez -- has reached levels that alarm women’s rights activists throughout the region.

“Ciudad Juárez is a paradigm of things that are happening in other countries,” Susana Chiarotti, regional coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for Women’s Rights, told NCR.

Indeed, the story has played out in different ways from Juárez to São Paulo, from San Salvador to Lima. Mired in poverty, often in the countryside, where farmers barely earn what they need to survive, women are drawn to the promise of jobs and a future in factories that assemble clothing and appliances that they will never be able to afford.

Over the past four decades, Ciudad Juárez’s population has nearly quadrupled, from 400,000 to about 1.5 million. The explosion began when Mexico allowed maquilas, huge plants that assemble everything from clothing to refrigerators, along the border. The factories were a magnet, and busloads of people left rural areas of southern Mexican states for the border. At one point, Chávez said, 600 people were arriving every day.

The migrants moved out into the desert and built shacks out of anything they could find. For some, Juárez was a stop on the journey to the United States. For others, especially women, it was an end in itself. As in cities around the region, however, the dream was far from reality. With no urban planning, the shantytowns stretched out over the sand without running water, electricity or sewers.

“The plants were supposed to resolve the problem of poverty. But poverty is still here. And in many families today there are three or four people working in the maquilas. They work hard, and yet the family just survives,” said Carlos Vázquez, director of a church-sponsored community center in the Independencia neighborhood.

Working long hours under tremendous pressure was exhausting. Pregnancy, complaining or union organizing would get a woman fired, and there were plenty more to take her place.

Sociologist Graciela de la Rosa has worked for years in grass-roots education in Ciudad Juárez, but the maquila managers usually refuse to let her talk with their workers about health issues. She compares the situation to that of women in Afghanistan.

“We have a lot of people here who are like the Taliban,” she said. “They don’t make us wear burqas, but they kill us. It’s part of the despotism of the border region. They also don’t want to let us into factories to educate women. They say we might organize unions, and they’re deathly afraid of authentic unions.”

For factory owners and politicians, the women were expendable. So when they began to disappear, or turned up dead, no official eyebrows were raised.

“The authorities always had an easy answer,” Chávez said. “They said this happens everywhere or that the women were asking for it because they wore short skirts and went out at night.”

A few arrests were made, but activists say the detainees were scapegoats. While they were in prison, the killings went on.

Machismo is at the root of the problem, according to Graciela Alvarez, Methodist bishop of Mexico City.

“It starts with this aggression against women, and then there’s the laziness and lack of responsibility of the authorities, which is part of the culture of impunity,” she said. “Because the victims are women, there is no prompt or correct investigation -- simply because they are women.”

Some women who have managed to escape from assailants tell similar stories of being forced into a car, sometimes at gunpoint, blindfolded, robbed and sexually assaulted. In some cases, descriptions of the assailants coincide, leading some investigators to believe that there are several criminal gangs operating in the city. One theory is that members of one gang might abduct and rape the victims, then sell them to members of another gang who kill them.

“It’s like a sport,” said Chávez, who was working as an accountant when the brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl spurred her and several friends to take up the cause. She is now director of Casa Amiga, which provides legal, medical and psychological aid to women who have been victims of violence.

Because of the lack of official action on the cases, Chávez suspects police involvement or at least collusion in the murders. Last year, both the Mexican Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International issued reports on the cases. U.S. legislators, media and investigators are also looking into the murders.

President Vicente Fox recently named a special prosecutor to handle the case, but Chávez said the official lacks the authority needed for a full investigation. Meanwhile, the killings have spread to Chihuahua, the state capital.

Even if the killers are caught, that will not solve the problems that have given rise to the violence, which Chávez attributes to “social breakdown” caused by poverty, migration, a lack of opportunities and subhuman living conditions that she says are “a breeding ground for frustration, anger and desperation.”

And the same hopelessness that drove poor Mexicans from rural areas to the border over the last few decades now traps their children. Ciudad Juárez has some 500 street gangs and a growing drug problem among children as young as 10. With the assembly plants closing and jobs becoming even scarcer, young people are easy prey for drug traffickers who recruit them to smuggle drugs across the border into Texas.

Bodies for sale

Chávez suspects that drug-trafficking gangs are also involved in the murders of the city’s women. And drug trafficking melds into another big business on the U.S. border and elsewhere in the region -- the trafficking of women for prostitution, mainly in the United States and Europe.

Trafficking in people ranks third among illicit businesses throughout the region, behind drugs and illegal weapons.

“It’s such a big business that women who dare try to combat it or investigate it are threatened and attacked,” Chiarotti of the regional Committee for Women’s Rights said. She criticized the region’s governments for their laxness, saying that corruption makes trafficking profitable for law enforcement, customs and immigration personnel and other officials.

The same is true, at the local level, of prostitution. A study in Buenos Aires found that 90 percent of the extra income generated by the federal police came from prostitution.

“The police chiefs collected the money and distributed it through the ranks,” Chiarotti said. “That happens in a lot of countries. It’s a way of supporting the police without having to raise salaries.”

Throughout Latin America, by word of mouth and through newspaper ads, women are lured with promises of jobs abroad, usually as maids or nannies. The Dominican Republic is a hub for these deals.

While some of the victims may be naive enough to believe the promises, women’s rights activists say, others know that they will end up working in nightclubs or clandestine brothels. In a form of indentured servitude, the traffickers keep the women’s identity papers and most or all of their pay.

Complicating the picture, Chiarotti said, is the argument by some feminists that some forms of trafficking and prostitution are voluntary, and that women have a right to make that choice.

“That attitude weakens us, because it ignores the structural poverty and the brutal violence to which so many women and children are subjected,” she said.

London-based Anti-Slavery International has drawn a link between migration and trafficking. A study done in 2002 found that the countries that are most successful in prosecuting traffickers are those that have the best protection programs for the victims, sometimes offering them the possibility of legal residency even though they are officially undocumented migrants.

Not all exploitation happens far from home, however.

Elizabeth Valdiglesias was 13 when her godmother offered to take her from her rural village in the Peruvian highlands to Lima so she could go to high school. She moved to the capital with her younger sister, who was 10.

“Since we were together, we figured nothing would happen to us,” she said.

But instead of being taken into her new family as one more daughter, Valdiglesias was put to work as a domestic servant. She received no wages and was not allowed to go to school.

Virtually trapped in her godmother’s house, Valdiglesias lost touch with her family. Like many girls in similar situations throughout the region, she moved from house to house in search of a better situation. Finally, at age 16, she was able to resume her studies through a night-school program offered by Franciscan sisters at Santa María Reyna Parish.

“At first, I was afraid to go,” she said. “I figured I wouldn’t know anything. I had nightmares about it.”

She ended up first in her class, however. She now has a family of her own, but she is acutely aware that many other girls are following in her footsteps. Valdiglesias spends every Sunday at the Casa de Panchita, a modest house in a working-class neighborhood in Lima that offers domestic employees tutoring, recreation, counseling, computer classes, lunch and a telephone so they can call their families.

More than 670 young women took advantage of the Casa de Panchita’s services last year, according to Blanca Figueroa, who runs the house. Nevertheless, they represented only a fraction of the more than 300,000 women working as domestic employees in the capital.

About half of all workingwomen in Latin America are in the informal sector of the economy, and 15 percent of them are domestic employees. In most countries, women in domestic labor account for about 11 or 12 percent of the female labor force, but the figure rises to 21 percent in Paraguay and Brazil. Paraguay is also one of the countries with the largest number of children, some as young as 6 or 7, in domestic labor.

“It’s extremely hard to help them,” Figueroa said of the young women who seek her aid. “Even when they have been mistreated by employers, they don’t want to return to their rural homes. What they want is better employment, but they usually have no job skills,” she said.

A public hearing held last year while a law on domestic labor was being drafted shows how far domestic workers still have to go to gain recognition.

At the hearing, five legislators, one of them a woman, presented their proposals for the law. Each took great pains to explain why their drafts did not include minimum wage for domestic workers. Their argued that if employers were required to pay minimum wage, which amounts to about $120 a month, social upheaval would follow because of mass layoffs of domestic workers.

The audience, mainly made up of young women from rural areas who cleaned other women’s homes for a living, was not convinced by the image of upper-class Lima women -- pitucas in local parlance -- firing their maids and doing their own cooking, cleaning and child care.

When the legislators finished speaking, Adalinda Díaz -- a former domestic worker who now runs a center where female domestic workers can find support, training and legal assistance -- had her say.

Nearly dwarfed by the speakers stand, the diminutive Díaz, who migrated to Lima at age 14 to work as a maid, told the lawmakers, “It isn’t paying people minimum wage that causes social chaos, but violating their rights.”

The law that was passed does not include minimum wage, but it does require that employers provide vacation, holiday and severance pay and sign a contract with the employee.

“The law has its good points,” Figueroa said, “but what’s really needed is enforcement.”

Díaz is a veteran of early efforts to organize domestic workers in Lima. Similar efforts have been made elsewhere in the region, including Mexico City. It is difficult to organize domestic workers into traditional unions, however. Some of the barriers are physical -- domestic workers tend to be spread out around a city and hidden behind the walls of private homes. Others are psychological. The women’s low self-esteem makes organizing difficult, according to Irene Ortiz, a Mexico City social worker.

“I’ve often heard them say that they don’t deserve better treatment or pay. A major task we face is convincing the women that they are individuals of worth,” she said.

Ortiz was one of a group of feminists who formed the Atabal Collective with the goal of helping domestic workers organize a union. When that didn’t work, they began a job clearinghouse to match employers with women looking for work. The Casa de Panchita in Lima operates a similar service.

Despite laws providing nominal protection, domestic workers remain at the bottom of a well-established power chain in Latin American life. Many tell stories of abuse in which only the names change -- of being falsely accused of theft by an employer who wanted to fire them without giving them severance pay, or of being raped by male members of the employer’s household.

Women who are sexually abused generally do not complain, because they do not want to lose their jobs.

“If they get pregnant, they’re usually fired,” Valdiglesias said, “but sometimes the family throws them out and keeps the baby.”

On summer afternoons in Lima’s parks, young, dark-skinned, dark-haired women in crisp blue or white uniforms push fairer-skinned babies in strollers. But domestic service is not just a luxury for the upper crust. Middle-class women in small towns also have maids, and are sometimes more abusive than the wealthy.

And a feminist consciousness is not always enough to break through entrenched customs. According to Amparo Arbores, a staff member at the Atabal Collective, feminist support for the organization dropped off over time.

“The feminists all have domestic workers in their homes, but they don’t want them involved with the collective,” she said. “They’re afraid their workers will change and will speak up and demand that their rights be respected.”

Squaring off over reproductive health

That’s not to say that the feminist movement has not made its mark on the region. Many of the battles over the past two decades have focused on such issues as birth control and abortion. Because the region is overwhelmingly Catholic and there is little separation of church and state, many of these issues have pitted women’s rights advocates against church leaders.

The Vatican’s declaration of March 25 -- nine months before Christmas -- as the “Day of the Unborn” was picked up by governments around the region, including Argentina, Nicaragua, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Peru and Costa Rica. Peru’s new health minister, Pilar Mazzetti, the first woman to hold the post, sidestepped the issue this year, focusing on health care for pregnant women instead of whether the fetus has constitutional rights.

Mazzetti is in the eye of another church-state storm, however. In late March, several Peruvian bishops spoke out against the “morning after pill” as government officials debated whether to distribute it through public health facilities. It is already available in pharmacies. Debate raged in the press over whether the pill is abortive, with health officials saying no and church leaders saying yes. The pill prevents the egg from being implanted in the wall of the uterus.

In a report issued in December, a high-level commission recommended that the ministry make the pill available, but several members of the committee dissented. One dissenting voice is reported to have come from the Ministry of Justice, which argued that life begins at the moment that the egg is fertilized.

Mazzetti, the fourth health minister since President Alejandro Toledo took office in July 2001, has said reproductive health should not be a political issue and that it is the ministry’s role to make family planning methods available to couples. Despite strong opposition from Catholic bishops and a small group of legislators, some of whom called for Mazetti to be fired, the ministry finally began making the pill available through public health clinics.

This is not the first time that reproductive health issues have made waves in Peru. In the late 1990s, feminist groups and the Catholic church found themselves unlikely allies in denouncing excessive use of surgical sterilization by doctors at state-run health centers. The government’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office registered about 150 deaths from the surgery. Critics said many women were sterilized without their consent or not given the information they needed to make a decision.

Government officials denied that there was a policy of promoting surgical sterilizations, but some Health Ministry personnel reported being pressured by their superiors to perform a certain number every month.

The pendulum swung to the other extreme in 2001, after Toledo was elected. His first two health ministers, Luis Solari and Fernando Carbone, were conservative Catholics whose religious views influenced their policy decisions. During those years, women’s rights advocates complained that health centers were not adequately stocked with contraceptives and that signs pointing to family planning offices were removed from public clinics.

The policies also affected AIDS prevention.

“Their approach had a religious slant, with the production of prevention materials that discredited condom use and emphasized abstinence, chastity, marriage and the like,” said Dr. Robinson Cabello, executive director of Vía Libre, an organization that provides assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS in Lima.

The availability of contraceptives and sex education is linked to another pervasive problem that generally goes unmentioned -- clandestine abortions. In most Latin American countries, abortion is illegal or permitted only if the mother’s life is in danger. Reliable statistics are scarce, but based on partial studies done in the 1990s, women’s rights advocates say clandestine abortions could number 4.4 million a year. Many are done under unsanitary conditions. If something goes wrong and the woman ends up in the hospital, both she and the doctor who performed the abortion could face prosecution.

Women’s rights advocates say that a Bush administration policy prohibiting the mention of abortion by any organization that receives U.S. funds makes it even more difficult to address the problem of unsafe abortions.

“I can’t talk about anything related to abortion,” said Susana Galdós, of the Manuela Ramos Movement in Lima, which runs a nationwide reproductive health education program that receives U.S. funding. “I can’t talk about the statistics, the deaths, the illnesses, the suffering, the drama, even though the Ministry of Health recognizes it as a public health problem.”

Galdós and others say that both access to contraceptives and better sex education can help combat illegal abortions, but sex education is also a battleground where the line between church and state blurs. When former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who first riled the Catholic hierarchy by courting the evangelical vote, made sex education part of the national curriculum, there was strong criticism from Catholic bishops.

In Nicaragua, President Enrique Bolaños bowed to pressure to withdraw a sex education manual, saying that such material should “reflect our values, our customs, our philosophy of life and the Christian nature of our ethical and moral principles.”

To feed their families

For decades, women have been in the forefront of social movements in Latin America, especially in the shantytowns that have grown up around urban centers as more and more families have migrated from the countryside. Women have organized soup kitchens to feed their families, set up communal child-care centers and marched in the streets to demand electricity, water and other basic services in their neighborhoods. Many of the women involved in such efforts have also been part of base Christian communities.

Colombia’s Popular Women’s Organization grew out of base communities in Barrancabermeja, one of the areas most affected by the country’s political violence. Although not officially connected with the church or the base Christian community movement now, the organization has become one of the country’s most respected peace-building groups, according to Colombian historian Ana María Bidegain.

“Amid a violent war, they raise the banner of pacifism, of saying no to war,” she said. “It is now the strongest pacifist organization in Colombia.”

Women have also been at the forefront in other human rights battles. Every Thursday for a quarter of a century, mothers have marched silently in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo, pleading for information about children who had disappeared during the country’s “dirty war.”

Now the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have become the Grandmothers, taking on the even more delicate task of helping their grandchildren discover their real identities. In one of the dirty war’s most nefarious twists, police and military officers took children from political prisoners, sometimes waiting for women in detention to deliver their babies before executing the mothers.

Some of the children who were raised by military families are now searching for their roots. The Grandmothers help them by offering DNA screening. And the children have formed their own organization, taking up the cause of the parents they never knew.

With their white headscarves embroidered with their children’s names, the Mothers and Grandmothers became a symbol of the plight of women throughout the region who lost loved ones under military dictatorships and during civil wars.

Women’s grass-roots activity spilled over into the church during the 1970s and ’80s, Bidegain said. This made a lasting impression on women’s religious congregations, which began to move out of the schools and hospitals where they had traditionally worked and into the barriadas.

“Concern for the poor was always an element of religious life, but for women religious, the poor were the object of charity,” Bidegain said. “When they moved out into poor neighborhoods, they began to focus on social, political and cultural factors to enable people to assume their full citizenship and assume their rights.”

Those efforts led to a reading of the Bible from the perspective of the poor. That trend has evolved, Bidegain said, and grass-roots groups are learning to read scripture from the viewpoints of women, indigenous people and Afro-Latin Americans.

Now, however, the cycle seems to be starting over. Women religious originally served in schools and hospitals because government budgets were insufficient. Several decades later, lack of government social spending is once again creating gaps in public services that women religious are beginning to fill again. Some female congregations are moving out of the barriadas and back into schools and hospitals, but Bidegain wonders if they are reflecting on what that shift could mean.

“This is giving the church more power in the social sphere, but women religious aren’t aware of this. They don’t see that they’re being used,” Bidegain said.

More women in office

The raising of consciousness among women at the grass roots has translated into increased political power throughout the region, putting more women in government posts than ever before.

Panama’s last president, Mireya Moscoso, who finished her term Sept. 1, was the region’s highest-profile female politician. Women hold 20 percent of the country’s ministerial level posts. In Argentina, about one-third of the legislators are female, although women hold only 7 percent of cabinet-level posts, according to the United Nations Development Program.

According to both Bidegain and Chiarotti, most of the gains made by women in politics are due to quota laws passed over the last decade. While some countries’ laws require a certain percentage of female candidates on electoral slates, Colombia’s requires that 30 percent of top government jobs be held by women. At 47 percent, Colombia now has the region’s highest percentage of women in cabinet-level posts.

In recent years, however, the number of women in public office has dropped in countries that lack quota laws, according to Chiarotti.

And in countries that have such laws, the women who reach public office do not necessarily attribute their success to the legislation. While this could be positive, indicating that women are climbing the political ladder on their own merits, it also has a down side.

May 14 Part 1 Introduction: Power or credibility?
June 4 Part 2 Economics: Little relief in sight for poverty, debt and unemployment
July 16 Part 3 Development: Lasting change by helping the poor without paternalism
Aug. 13 Part 4 Immigration: Opportunity and challenge for Latin America's poor
Sept. 10 Part 5a
Part 5b
Truth: an essential ingredient for reconciliation
Reconciliation from the grass roots up
Sept. 24 Part 6a

Part 6b
Part 6c
Indigenous people: Fighting for rights after centuries of discrimination

Health worker brings education back to his people

Vanishing forests threaten indigenous groups 
Oct. 8 Part 7 Women In Latin America: The gender gap kills
 Part 8 Children: Poverty cuts children’s chances for a future; interview with the Bishop of the Gangs
 Part 9 Church: Despite crisis, Latin America's grass-roots communities remain strong model for effective church
 Part 10 Solidarity: Church groups find countless ways to put faith into action

“They don’t realize that they’ve achieved what they have because of the long struggle by the grass-roots women’s movement and the feminist movement,” Bidegain said.

Having more women in office does not necessarily translate into policy aimed at correcting gender inequities. Women are often limited to gender-based roles as heads of ministries of social affairs, according to Chiarotti.

Policymakers also tend to make “women’s issues” a separate category, she said, instead of looking at the impact of such issues as poverty, debt and development on women.

Over the past decade, the number of women living on less than $2 a day in Central and South America has increased, Chiarotti said. There is also a persistent income gap that runs along both gender and racial lines.

According to a recent study in Brazil, for every 100 reales (the local currency) earned by a white man, a white woman earns between 60 and 70, an Afro-Brazilian man earns slightly more, and an indigenous or Afro-Brazilian woman earns 47.

And while more girls are in school and more women are graduating from college, the income gap is even wider between professional men and women than among unskilled workers.

“That means education is not helping women overcome inequality,” Chiarotti said. “There hasn’t been enough investment in institutions that need to stimulate gender equity, and there hasn’t been enough invested in working to combat violence against women.”

In the new millennium, violence has become a recurring theme for women in the region. And the women of Ciudad Juárez are not alone. The problem has become so serious that a new word -- “femicide” -- has entered the regional vocabulary. Women’s rights activists say it is a nearly invisible problem that merits a serious response.

A year-long study of two national newspapers by DEMUS, a nongovernmental women’s rights and legal aid organization based in Lima, Peru, found reports of 79 murders of women in that Andean nation last year -- more than six a month. The researchers resorted to culling cases from newspapers because police data are not broken down by type of death.

“There’s no distinction between a murder and an automobile accident,” said Cecilia Reynoso, a lawyer who worked on the study.

Nearly 80 percent of the murders were committed by a male partner, family member or acquaintance of the victim, she said. The tone of the newspaper reports tended to excuse the murders, dwelling on the woman’s supposed infidelity or, in some cases, her desire for a divorce. Defendants who confessed to having “lost control” in a jealous rage sometimes received lighter sentences, the researchers found.

As in Ciudad Juárez, most of the victims in the cases studied by Reynoso and her colleagues were young. Forty percent were between ages 16 and 25. The researchers suspect that the newspaper reports represent only about 10 percent of the real number of murders.

“These are men who murder women, justifying their actions by claiming that the woman was unfaithful or rejected their sexual advances,” Reynoso said.

For Chiarotti, domestic labor, trafficking, violence against women and the wage gap are all facets of the same issue -- one that governments tend to pigeonhole as “the problem of women.”

“They think that just passing laws to eliminate the worst discrimination will take care of everything, and they say, ‘What more do women want?’” Chiarotti said. “But if steps aren’t taken to enforce real equality, we’ll never get out of the vicious circle.”

Barbara Fraser worked in Peru for 14 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner. She now lives in Peru as a freelance writer. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary who lived in Central America for two decades. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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