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Challenges and Opportunities for Gender Equality in Latin America and the Caribbean

The report


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WASHINGTON, March 5, 2003 - Women in the Latin America and the Caribbean have made significant advances with regard to equality but traditional social patterns continue to undermine their participation in the labor market, and hinder the ability of households to escape from poverty, a new study of the World Bank indicates.

According to Challenges and opportunities for gender equality in Latin America and the Caribbean, prepared to commemorate International Women's Day on March 8, women have made significant improvements in education and access to the labor market. However, the report indicates that there is much to be done with regard to poverty and social exclusion, reproductive health care and protection from domestic violence. 

"In spite of the significant progress over the past 20 years, gender inequalities remain an obstacle to the full development of the countries in the region," said Maria Valéria Pena, Leader of the World Bank's Gender Unit for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Inequality translates into losses resulting from the unrealized potential of women's full integration in the economy, the social and economic cost of violence against women, and the loss in human capital from maternal mortality and pregnant girls and boys who drop out of school."

The study, which describes the most important changes in the condition of women in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past two decades and the challenges, both by region and by country, points out that even though the participation of the women in the formal economy has continued to increase, there are still obstacles -especially those in rural areas and affecting indigenous women.

Overall, theparticipation of women in the labor market continues to be much lower than that of men. In Brazil, 56 percent of women take part in the labor market; in Chile, 44 percent; Colombia 56 percent, Mexico 43 percent and Peru 55 percent, while in all of these countries the participation of men is over 88 percent.

Although the salary divide between genders has narrowed considerably in many countries such as Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Mexico, women earn less than men in all countries of the region with the exception of Costa Rica. In Argentina, women earn 98 percent of what men earn, in Mexico 89 percent, in Colombia 84 percent, in Peru 80 percent, 77 percent in Brazil and Chile, in El Salvador 74 percent, and in Nicaragua 64 percent. 

Factors contributing to this phenomenon include the large-scale participation of women in the service sector, which is generally the most poorly paid sector of the economy. What's more, women are generally the ones who are responsible for caring for their families, often leading to a higher turnover rate in the labor force and a preference for part-time work. 

"Even though Latin American women have almost reached the same level of education as men, and in some countries have even surpassed them, they continue to participate less in the labor market and earn less than men", writes María Elena Ruiz Abril, author of the World Bank report. "This is a fundamental issue that should be addressed by public policies".

This situation is all the more acute for rural women, since they also deal with high fertility rates, a high number of dependents andlack of access to land. Although access to land has significantly increased in countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile and El Salvador, Mexico is the country with the region's biggest gender gap in land ownership, with women only holding 21 percent of all land titles. 

The report shows that women, especially older women and heads of household, are more vulnerable topoverty. Accordingly, discrimination concerning access to education and to health care puts indigenous women at a disadvantage at the same time they are fighting against poverty and social exclusion.

"In order to address poverty in Latin American households, we need policies and programs aimed at redressing gender inequalities, since they will benefit not only women, but their families and the Latin American society as a whole," said Ernesto May, World Bank Director for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management in Latin America and the Caribbean.. 

To do this, the report recommends labor policies aimed at reducing the barriers that women face, particularly, poor women, when attempting to enter the job market. These policies include increasing the number of daycare centers, providing family planning services, and a more equitable distribution of the workload at home.

With regard to health care, the document points out that even though maternal mortality has decreased in most countries, it continues to be women's principal healthcare problem, above all in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. AIDS, in turn, has become one of the most serious problems in the Caribbean, where men and women suffer from a similar level of infection. 

In education, the gap between men and women has been closing in all countries in the region, and in some, women have reached a higher level of education than men, such as in Brazil, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Colombia. This is due to the fact that fewer boys enroll in school and leave school more frequently in order to help their families economically. However, during economic crises, it is the daughters that parents are more likely to take out of school. 

For its part, the study emphasizes that domestic violence "remains a challenge for countries across the region", with Haiti being the country with the highest rate of the female population affected (70 percent). According to the document, "the risk of physical abuse for women decreases with household income level and years of completed schooling, and increases with marriage and, disturbingly, with women's independent income in certain countries."

The document explains that even though there are some gender problems that are shared in most of the countries in the region, such as maternal mortality, these same countries often have their own unique development challenges related to gender. 

While access to the labor market is the main problem for Mexico, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela, in Colombia it is domestic violence, and in Guyana, French Guiana and Surinam, maternal mortality. Argentina has problems related to the job market and teenage pregnancy; in Brazil, the labor market and maternal mortality are the foremost problems; in Central America, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay, the main problems are maternal mortality and domestic violence; in Bolivia, they are maternal mortality and teenage pregnancy and in the Caribbean, AIDS and domestic violence are the greatest problems. 

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