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LAC Gender Brief


Gender refers to socially learned behaviors and expectations that are associated with the male and female sex. Beyond biological differences, gender roles explain the different cultural and social processes that males and females experience including constraints, limitations, preferences and opportunities.

Gender roles permeate all aspects of development policy. Men and women's demands, preferences, and access to services differ greatly around the world. As such, these gender roles need to be taken into account if poverty-reduction policies are to be effective in providing both men and women - particularly the poor - with the services they need.

Over the last few decades, the social and economic position of females in LCR has experienced unprecedented change — many of the gender gaps that have historically favored men have been narrowed, closed, and even reverted, particularly in regards to endowments. This progress places the LCR region in the forefront of the developing world in terms of bringing about a more level playing field for women and men. Most countries in LCR have practically achieved universal primary net enrollment for girls. The gender gap in school enrollment historically favoring boys has disappeared, and in secondary school, girls have surpassed boys in education enrollment and completion rates. Fertility rates have declined steeply and family structures have changed markedly. Women’s labor force participation rates have also increased and more women are entering traditionally male-dominated sectors. The gender wage gap has also steadily declined. Women’s political participation has greatly increased, as more women have been elected or appointed key positions in parliament, ministries, or heads of state.

However, even in these areas where progress has been made, there is significant heterogeneity when looking at gains by geographic location, income levels, and ethnic group. Indigenous people are among the poorest of the poor in LCR and they have experienced the least change in poverty conditions over time. Indigenous women are typically the most disadvantaged, as they face constraints imposed by their ethnicity as well as by their gender. In Guatemala for example, the illiteracy rate among indigenous women stands at 60 percent, 20 points above indigenous males and twice the rate of non-indigenous females. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are still grappling with many gender inequality issues in regards to economic opportunities, human development, endowments, and agency:


  • Life expectancy is linked to gender roles, as biological reasoning only explains part of the longevity gap between women and men. The residual gap is related to male behavior – i.e. violence, alcoholism and risky behavior – which, in turn, is linked to male gender roles and socialization patterns.
  • Educational attainment. Poor school retention rates and academic under-achievement among boys, particularly in the Caribbean, has become a major challenge in LCR. Secondary school dropout rates for males range from 9-30 percent in some countries. A growing body of literature suggests that there are huge social and economic costs of lower educational attainment, dropping-out of school, risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, and related criminal acts.
  • Maternal mortality remains an important health-related problem for women in LCR, especially in the Andes region and in Haiti. In some countries, high maternal mortality is related to the lack of prenatal services; in others, the existence of high maternal mortality rates combined with widespread access to maternal health services suggest serious health care quality issues.

Economic opportunities:

  • In the last few decades, women in LCR have made tremendous increases in labor force participation with over 70 million women joining the work force. However, important challenges remain to women’s economic empowerment and job quality.
  • While there is some evidence that women have been increasingly integrating into economic sectors traditionally dominated by men, this integration has not been uniform across countries or over time.
  • Furthermore, a persistent gender earnings gap exists in most LCR countries. In an analysis of 18 LCR countries, women earn 10 percent less than men on average, and women in urban areas tend to make 13 percent less than men on average.
  • Women remain over-represented in the informal sector and under-represented in the formal sector.
  • Traditional gender roles in LCR continue to assign domestic and family responsibilities disproportionately to women, putting constraints on their participation in formal jobs.


  • Violent crime is concentrated among young males, who are frequently both victims and perpetrators. Aggressive male behavior has been linked to socialization patterns that teach boys to be ‘tough’, as well as to associate with delinquent peers. These boys typically have a lack of economic opportunities available to them.
  • Women are more likely to become victims of gender-based violence (GBV) so that widespread GBV is one of the most critical issues threatening the agency of women and girls in LCR. Though notoriously under-reported, recent results from Demographic and Health Surveys in LCR reveal striking levels of physical, sexual, and psychological violence against women in the region.
  • High teenage pregnancy rates relate to a girl’s ability to make informed choices and transform those choices into desired actions. LCR has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy after sub-Saharan Africa. On average, more than 10 percent of 15-19 year-olds in LCR are mothers or are pregnant, and the rates are even higher in the poorest countries. For example, in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, between 40-50 percent of young women have given birth before the age of 20. This figure increases to 60-70 percent for young women in the lowest socio-economic groups.

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