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

Malaysian PM Ends Vacation Over Floods

Najib Razak had been criticized for golfing in Hawaii with US president while country suffered More

Photogallery Fear Amid Remembrances for Tsunami Victims

Across continent, services and tributes acknowledge 220,000 victims of 2004 Indian Ocean disaster; region remains inadequately prepared, experts say More

Liberia’s House Speaker Denies Manipulating Election Outcome

Alex Tyler said he’s being used as a scapegoat by people who are refusing to accept defeat in the December 20 special senatorial election 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.
Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syriai
X
Jeff Seldin
December 24, 2014 11:38 PM
Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.
Video

Video Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syria

Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.
Video

Video Russians Head Into Holiday Facing Economic Malaise

Russian preparations for the New Year holiday are clouded by economic recession and a tumbling currency, the ruble. Nonetheless, people in the Russian capital appear to be in a festive mood. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Mombasa in Holiday Tourism Slump Due to Security Fears

Kenya's usually popular beachside tourist destination of Mombasa is seeing a much slower holiday season this year due to fears of insecurity as the country has suffered from a string of terror attacks linked to Somali militants. Mohammed Yusuf reports for VOA on how businessmen and tourists feel about the situation.
Video

Video For Somalis, 2014 Marked by Political Instability Within Government

While Somalia has long been torn apart by warfare and violence, this year one of the country's biggest challenges has come from within the government, as political infighting curtails the country's progress, threatens security gains and disappoints the international community. VOA's Gabe Joselow report.
Video

Video US Political Shift Could Affect Iran Nuclear Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear crisis are continuing into 2015 after Iran and six world powers failed to agree by a November deadline. U.S. domestic politics, however, could complicate efforts to reach a deal in the new year. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video NYSE: The Icon of Capitalism

From its humble beginnings in 1792 to its status as an economic bellweather for the world, the New York Stock Exchange is an integral part of the story of America. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from Wall Street.
Video

Video Islamic State Emergence Transforms Syria and Iraq in 2014

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a potent force in early 2014 changed the dynamics of the region. Their brutal methods - including executions and forced slavery - horrified the international community, drawing Western forces into the conflict. It also splintered the war in Syria, where more than 200,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell looks back at a deadly year in the region -- and what 2015 may hold.
Video

Video Massive Study Provides Best Look at Greenland Ice Loss Yet

The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than predicted, according to a new study released in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences that combines NASA satellite data and aerial missions. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the finding means coastal communities worldwide could be at greater risk, sooner, from the impact of rising seas.
Video

Video US Marines, Toys for Tots Bring Christmas Joy

Christmas is a time for giving in the United States, especially to young children who look forward to getting presents. But some families don't have money to buy gifts. For nearly 70 years, a U.S. Marines-sponsored program has donated toys and distributed them to underprivileged children during the holiday season. VOA's Deborah Block tells us about the annual Toys for Tots program.
Video

Video France Rocked by Attacks as Fear of ISIS-Inspired Terror Grows

Eleven people were injured, two seriously, when a man drove his car into crowds of pedestrians Sunday night in the French city of Dijon, shouting ‘God is Great’ in Arabic. It’s the latest in a series of apparent ‘lone-wolf’ terror attacks in the West. Henry Ridgwell looks at the growing threat of attacks, which security experts say are likely inspired by the so-called "Islamic State" terror group.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Veteran Politician Picked as Haiti's New Prime Minister

If approved, Evans Paul would take over from Florence Duperval Guillaume, who was named interim prime minister on Sunday
More

Colombia's FARC to Free Kidnapped Soldier

Rebels say freeing injured Carlos Becerra Ojeda is both peace gesture, humanitarian act
More

Video Opening Trade With Cuba Bittersweet for Some

Long-time Cuban exiles in Miami say news is double-edged for those who had to leave everything behind
More

Chikungunya Virus Infects More Than 1 Million in Americas

Illness is marked by severe joint pain, inflammation, headaches, rashes and fever; if infection is severe enough, it can lead to death
More

US Wants Open Internet Highway in Cuba

US pushes for more and freer Internet access for Cubans, but is Havana on board?
More

Column: Cuba Shift Could Help Break Iran Deadlock

Transformation of US relations with Cuba has implications for few remaining countries that lack normal diplomatic ties with United States - especially Iran
More