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

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Mexico Captures Wanted Drug Kingpin Hector Beltran Leyva

Beltran Leyva is one of four brothers who allegedly headed a vicious Mexican drug cartel after it split with the Sinaloa cartel
More

Mother Says Former US Marine Needs Treatment, Not Mexican Prison

Jill Tahmooressi said son Andrew, 26, has been threatened by prison guards with rape, torture and execution since his arrest in March
More

Rio 2016 Olympics Progress Impressive, Says IOC in Change of Tone

Assessment, in stark contrast to ‘worst’ ever remark made by one committee member, comes after latest site inspection
More

Mexican Soldiers Face Murder Charges in 22 Deaths

Three soldiers charged with homicide in death of 22 suspected drug gang members who prosecutors allege were executed
More

Poll: Record Number of Mexicans Crime Victims in 2013

While government data shows murder rate has fallen in past 2 years, crimes such as kidnapping and extortion, which affect wider swath of the population, rise
More

OAS Asks Members to Take In Guantanamo Detainees

Organization of American States issues appeal for member countries to take in detainees from US military prison
More