News / Americas

Violence, Bias Impede Women's Progress in Central America

Part of an ongoing series about women and the challenges they face across the world.

A group of Mexican women hand out aid in a low-income Ciudad Juarez neighborhood on Jan 23 201
A group of Mexican women hand out aid in a low-income Ciudad Juarez neighborhood on Jan 23 201

Central America has made significant progress in recent years toward narrowing literacy gaps and empowering women. More women are coming to positions in power in places like Costa Rica and Guatemala. But the overall situation for women remains dismal in a region designated by the United Nations in 2009 as the most violent in the world.

The region’s homicide rates have escalated in the past 15 years, according to Manuel Orozco, Director for Central America and Director of the Migration and Development Program at Inter-American Dialogue. He says current homicide rates in most of the region have been occurring at the rate of 10-15 a day since the late 1990s. Out of that tally, the number of murdered women has nearly tripled in almost every country, especially El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Central American Gender Indicators

Orozco attributes the trend to youth crime, violent transnational gangs, and sexual violence, all of which increasingly affect women, particularly those related to gang members who quit, or those who have joined gangs. But that kind of violence also spills over to affect ordinary people like Rosa Leyva, a mother and homemaker in Mexico who said in an email interview that she and her mother always live with the “fear that our sons and husbands … leave our home and not return.”

El Salvador has had the world’s highest number of female homicides for the last few years, according to Jocelyn Viterna, a Harvard University Associate Professor of Sociology.

“There has been … sort of a machismo understanding in El Salvador that men have the right to control what happens in their house,” said Viterna. “And that includes the right to keep women in line, perhaps by violence if necessary. And there is a lack of legal and judicial will to change that situation.”

Despite recent legal initiatives to address the problem, Viterna says gang violence in El Salvador is a bigger problem and judges are unlikely to punish domestic abusers in the first place.

A recent bill pushed by female legislators calls for the creation of a fund to support victims of domestic abuse. Viterna says the fund would create a space for women to escape their aggressors.

“But my concern is that the fund is supposed to be paid for by the aggressors when they go to court," Viterna cautioned. "So if the judicial system … continues to pardon men for domestic violence … it might take a very, very long time to develop.”

These types of violence stem from the culture of the region and perceptions of authority, says Orozco. He argues that the region's social structure gave precedence to males as heads of the church, the country, and the family.

“So we call it the Trinity – il padre de la iglesia, el padre la patria, e il padre de la familia.  The Three Ps basically created a condition by which authority was male-gendered, as well as concentrated in authority,” said Orozco. “This ... has been inherited as part of the popular and political culturing of our societies.”

Orozco says the region is still "prisoner of many notions of gender differentiation, where women are still perceived by some as being below.”He cites Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica as examples of places where women, particularly ethnic women such as Mayans and Afro-Caribbean women, are discriminated against on multiple levels of gender, race, and ethnicity.

Indigenous Guatemalan women from different rural areas participate in a peaceful protest in Guatemala City, demanding a rural development plan to help to reduce poverty (2010 file photo)
Indigenous Guatemalan women from different rural areas participate in a peaceful protest in Guatemala City, demanding a rural development plan to help to reduce poverty (2010 file photo)

Jennifer Catino of The Population Council’s Poverty, Gender, and Youth Program in New York says ethnic minorities across the region face social, economic and political marginalization stemming from histories of social exclusion and discrimination. They bear what Catino describes as a “triple burden” of being poor, living in remote areas, and experiencing ethnic and gender discrimination.

Social and economic disparities characterize the region as a whole, says Catino. “And while national averages tend to look somewhat better than other regions, when you break down indicators like literacy, for example, and look at them by poverty level, by urban-rural residence, by ethnicity, and perhaps most strikingly by sex, you see massive inequalities,” said Catino.

While countries like Guatemala, which only emerged from a bloody conflict 20 years ago, continue to lag behind, most of the region has made significant progress toward narrowing literacy gaps. More women are able to attend school today and study fields previously dominated by men. But decades of exclusion have left women unequipped for today's competitive labor market, as The Population Council's Catino points out.

"So opportunities for women are much reduced because they’re not set up from a very young age to be able to be competitive and to participate,” Catino said.

Women like Claudia Gonzales, a native of El Salvador, simply left the country to find better opportunities in the United States. She says finding a job in El Salvador is difficult, especially for women under 20 or over 60 years of age. She is one of millions of Central American migrants enticed by the promise of a better life in the United States and Europe. And according to Orozco's research, there is a decade-long pattern where women, and particularly women with tertiary education, are more likely than men to migrate from the region.

A migrant from Honduras wipes her son's face during a rest stop on the seven hour journey through the Peten Jungle in northern Guatemala (File)
A migrant from Honduras wipes her son's face during a rest stop on the seven hour journey through the Peten Jungle in northern Guatemala (File)

Heidy Sandoval, for example, immigrated to the United States to join her mother in the Washington, D.C. area, where she runs the register at a local restaurant. Finding college too expensive, she supports her mother and sends money back home to her two sisters to help pay for education and bills.

Like Heidi, Vilma* left El Salvador to find a better life for her family in the United States. Her cleaning service in Norcross, Georgia, helps her support her family in the U.S. and allows her to send money and clothes to relatives in El Salvador to help them with schooling and every day needs.

Beatriz*, who works at a restaurant in Manassas Virginia, had a job in her native Mexico that couldn't pay her medical bills after giving birth and getting sick. She came to the United States to find a better paying job - one that now allows her to send money back to Mexico to help support her parents.

About 2.5 million migrant women - about half of Central America's migrants - sent about $13 billion in remittances back to Central America in 2010, according to Inter-American Dialogue’s Orozco. Two-thirds of the recipients were women heads of households.

“And that is having an effect in empowering women and allowing women the opportunity to manage their own resources and deciding how to invest those resources,” said Orozco. “But the homemakers are increasing their independence, are being able to manage their funds more independently than they used to be when they were directly dependent on the husband’s salary.”

Central America's women have, in fact, taken the initiative to improve their lot by becoming increasingly visible in community work and non-governmental organizations - a move that is slowly leading women to greater positions of leadership. According to Orozco, women are increasingly active in NGOs across Central America, accounting for more than 40 percent of executive directors.

"There are far many more NGOs than political parties. And their influence in the social agenda and the political sphere is significantly important," said Orozco.

*Some names have been withheld to protect the identity of undocumented migrants.

You May Like

Obama: Action on Climate Change 'Economic, Security Imperative'

President spoke to reporters on sidelines of UN Climate Summit outside Paris, where leaders are working to agree on binding measures

IMF Bets on China’s Resolve to Reform

IMF announcement already raising questions about just how much Beijing is committed to such reforms

UNICEF: Hidden Epidemic of HIV Among Adolescents

Researchers warn that Asia Pacific nations facing sharp rise in incidence of HIV among adolescents

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Brazil Sues BHP, Vale for $5 Billion in Damages for Mine Disaster

The damburst unleashed 60 million cubic meters of mud and mine waste that demolished a nearby village, killing at least 13 people

Brazil House Speaker Denies Bribery Reports

O Globo says investigators seize document implicating Cunha in corruption probe suggesting he received nearly $12M to support legislation favoring top investment bank

Venezuela Arrests 3 in Death of Opposition Candidate

Last week's shooting of Luis Diaz drew international condemnation in run-up to this weekend's election for new legislature

US Activist Heading Home After Serving Peru Sentence

Lori Berenson returning to New York, two decades after being found guilty of aiding leftist rebels in Peru

Pope Outlines Mexico Trip With 4 Stops, Including Juarez

Comments from pope speaking to reporters en route home from Africa on Monday confirms trip will have a strong immigration theme

16 Dead in Guatemala Prison Riot

Prison spokesman quoted as saying fighting was between members of Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs and fellow inmates who don't belong to gangs