Women and Marginality

Women and marginality is a topic that is wide spread throughout Latin America. Since colonial times, women have struggled with finding a place within society. This topic in complex, as it has many sub-topics within it. The first topic that will be talked about is the comparison of how women are viewed in the urban sphere of society to how women are viewed in the rural sphere of society. This will give an overview of how women are viewed by society and the norms they are expected to follow. The second topic that will be talked about is the ideal of Machismo that is prevalent throughout Latin America. This ideal marginalizes women, and is difficult to overcome because it is a strong characteristic of Latin American society. The third topic that will be discussed is women in the political arena. The presence of women in politics is a step in the right direction for gender equality in society, and as time progresses it is becoming readily more accepted by the masses. Finally, the fourth topic that will be discussed deals with issues women face regarding birth control, and sexual and reproductive rights. Through looking at these four aspects, one should be able to grasp the topic of women and marginality, and understand its prevalence throughout all of Latin American culture.

Urban vs. Rural Latin America

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Training of women entrepreneurs in Lima, Peru.
(Photo: UNIFEM/François Deguent)

Women have been largely ignored in the history of Latin America almost to the point as if they didn’t exist. More recently this has begun to change with the rise of social and economic history as a discipline. Women in Latin America live in largely male-dominated societies and have had to adapt to that type of social structure. Sexual and economic roles are closely intertwined in Latin America. Marianismo is an ideal that Latin American women are expected to live up to, the epitome being the Virgin Mary. They are to be good virtuous wives and mothers, support their husbands under all circumstances, sacrifice themselves and put their family and its survival above everything else. This has been the traditional role but more recently a significant amount of women have found occupations outside the private sphere (home), such as in the classroom, in factories, commercial establishments, and in offices. They have also broken into the government and government bureaucracies. Women in professional positions suffer from inequities in salary and treatment, but they also enjoy many of the benefits that have been denied to the mass of urban women living in slums or performing more menial tasks. Domestic labour is still a major type of work for women, and the liberation of upper class women is dependent on the lower-class women who provide this service and take over the role in their families by cleaning their homes, running errands, and taking care of their children. In rural areas, women lead lives of hardship, toil and subordination. Lower-class women encounter both economic and sexual exploitation because not only are they poor but they are also female. Class is an important factor in looking at the place of women in Latin American and the areas they reside in.


Rural women are among the poorest of the poor. They suffer the consequences of internal conflicts, migration of men both within and outside their country, and structural adjustments. They lack access to education, health care, contraceptives, and opportunities for employment. Women n rural areas suffer from problems stemming from the traditional gender-based division of labour, this sees their role being a mother, homemaker and reproducer. The gender division of labour determines rural women's workload, but also influences the way their productive work is perceived that being that their form of participation in society is different from that of men. Since women in rural areas usually work in the household, her work is seen as secondary. If a women does work in the public sphere they don’t get paid at all or if they do get paid it is much less than her male counterpart so they are not seen as a producer for the family, therefore a hierarchal structure emerges in the home. This leaves the women in a subordinate position which is directly related to her reproductive role. There also remains a gender inequality in access to education; some factors being lack of access to quality schooling, girls are heavily relied upon in the household, lack of safe transportation and low levels of education of their parents. In Peru “only 6 percent of females ages 6 and above living in urban places have no education, but 24 percent of rural females have no formal schooling” (http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod/ib99-1.pdf)) and the percentage of females with at least a secondary education is 57 percent in urban areas and 16 percent in rural areas (http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod/ib99-1.pdf)) Rural women are also disadvantaged in their access to health care. Reproductive health care remains inadequate in many rural areas of Latin America, and maternal mortality continues to be high “In 1996, over 80 percent of urban women in need of prenatal care received such care from a trained health professional, but fewer than half of rural mothers did”(http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod/ib99-1.pdf). They are also particularly vulnerable to poverty. Women don’t often own titles to land which makes them susceptible to eviction and in turn limits their economic options.

Large rural-urban gaps in educational attainment
Source: World Bank, World Development Report 2008


Women in urban centers are better off than the women in rural areas of Latin America. They still suffer from gender inequalities but education and health care are more readily available. “The 70 percent of the Peruvian population living in urban areas have higher incomes, on average, and more access to resources, government services, and other amenities than do rural residents” (http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod/ib99-1.pdf). In Brazil in the 1990’s, there was an increase in women attending school which bumped up the number of women participating in the workforce. Not only were these educated women entering the workforce, but they were entering the formal sector rather than the informal and self employed sectors. There is still a significant difference in wages of men and women in Latin America, although it is less pronounced in the urban setting. Women earn on average 70 percent of a man's average wage in Brazil. For the most part, the wage difference probably reflects discriminatory practices and is not based on education or relative experience. There have also been changes in the traditional family structure and women are becoming head of the households. Despite persistent gender inequality Latin American there are as many females as males in schools. They are receiving education at the highest levels and forging paths into professions that were once dominated by males such as law, medicine, dentistry, and engineering. The newer generation of young people who are from higher income and educated families generally don’t have as sexist attitudes towards women as their parents. This being said the are still very few women who hold positions of power. Nevertheless, there are still relatively few women in positions of power. They are present in high levels of federal government, but have better representation at the state and municipal levels. Even though women in urban areas have it better off, domestic violence and sexual harassment is still prevalent and is almost a way of life for these women.

The Legal Status of Rural Women in 19 Latin American Countries, Retrieved March 27, 2010 http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/U5615e/u5615e04.htm
Latin America's worst wage gap for women and minorities? Powerhouse Brazil, Retrieved March 27, 2010 http://www.allbusiness.com/trade-development/economic-development/13195079-1.html
International Brief Population Trends: Peru by Thomas McDevitt, Retrieved 25 March 2010 http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod/ib99-1.pdf
Health in Latin America; Primary Sources Retrieved March 25 2010 http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/modules/lesson15/lesson15.php?s=2
United Nations Development Fund for Women,Retrieved March 27, 2010 http://www.unifem.org

Machismo in Latin America

Machismo...(macho-ism) is a collection of laws, norms, attitudes and characteristics of men whose finality, explicitly or implicitly, has been and is, is to produce, maintain and perpetuate the enslavement and submission of women on all levels: sexual, procreation, and in relation to work and love.”-

History of gender changes
When looking to the possible root causes of gender inequality within Latin America the past cannot be over looked. The colonial period transformed women’s social roles and status, redefining the future structure of gender roles in Latin America to come. With the emergence of the new dominant European male taking over the native men of the land were influenced by the new order and women along with the black slaves become the lower class, the issues which contributed to the divide between Europeans and indigenous peoples was now one over gender, with men having all the power and decision making and women being mere objects.

It’s a common trend among men in Latin America to take on the role of the Macho, whose characteristics follow a physical and verbal masculine prototype of the tough, mean, insensitive, and hyper sexualized male. The word is in its simplest terms is sexism. The only difference between the two is that sexism in most cases is conscious whereas Machismo is unconscious(1). This is because the machista is simply acting on principals familiar to his social structure and his behavior is based on the learned system of his culture. Most men who grow up in an atmosphere of violence perpetuated by their own fathers learn that this ‘tough guise’ is the only way to mask feelings of frustration or depression over poverty and unemployment.

Women today
The gender division from a young age affects women’s lives; in Honduras for example most women live their whole lives dependent on the men in their lives(2). This system has set up an environment were women have little to no chance in developing autonomy for themselves, leaving them susceptible to physical and emotional abuse. The lack of social advancements for female gender roles has also been controlled by the dominant religious ideology in most of the continent. With most of Latin American countries being roman catholic the presence of men within authority figures and women as passive compliers has aided in the maintenance of gender inequality and oppression of women’s rights. The women today who are breaking out of the rural confines of these gender structures are those middle class women within the large cities who have been able to chose to work outside the home, only because the poor rural women are there in place of the working women to tend to her home and take care of her children, only to return home late in the afternoon to prepare food for her own family. Even with the opportunities of the middle class workingwomen she still will face a very similar chauvinist attitude within the workplace, one where she will have to overcome challenges to her ability as a women-seeking independence.

Violence against Women
Many women seeking independence within Guatemala for example are subject to possible violence from men who feel threatened by the competition in a scarce job sphere. The men within their own families and fellow coworkers often intimidate women exhibiting a more western appearance and seeking success(3). Many women are murdered within Guatemala that the femicide law (Ley contra el Femicidio y otras Formas de Violencia contra la Mujer) was passed in 2008 to attempt to convict the offenders of
these crimes(4). Unfortunately in many countries within Latin America many men are never even tried due to their “power” or influence within small communities and often men who rape a women or young girl often have to propose marriage to get off the hook so to speak.

Young Macho
These issues are due in large to the history of the countries and the influences of the ideologies set in place by colonial traditions of men in power, white men in power. The root of machismo and gender inequality goes beyond gender into racism and classism, with the majority of machos being from rural areas and less from middle class. The social stress put on people of lower social statuses are often expressed through alcoholism and a need to prove oneself. The machista often develops at a young age where he quickly adapts to the lifestyle of macho. He learns to lose his virginity almost instantly and to repeat the behavior as much and often as possible, if not there are consequences to pay from other young boys and men alike. Because the concept of machismo has a negative connotation there are people who are fighting to educate young boys that to be macho does not mean what they have come to understand, they propose that to be a man within pre-Columbian times meant respect, responsibility, and honor and that’s the message they are spreading.(5)

Little Women
Along with educating young boys about a new ideal masculinity young girls are also in need of a similar education on how to attempt to stop perpetuating the machismo phenomenon by inhabiting the complimentary marianismo role. By supporting this ideology women promote staying at home, taking care of the family, and maintaining her “purity” by staying within the household(6), while the macho is known to have several women. By sticking to the marianismo mentality few women question the gender
division and venture outside of the private sphere into social and political positions. Women who decide or are forced into looking for employment are often discriminated against and face very few options, this is due to employers gender based discrimination and their husbands opposition.(7)


Hope for the future
Today we are witnessing a shift in women’s positions within Latin America with the first female president in Chile, a sign of progress. This is due to the “push” and “pull” factor where women are pushed into the workforce due to economic challenges and pulled into areas or interest.(8) Today we can see the doors opening for the women of Latin America along with the opportunities available to indigenous women who are getting together to fight for their rights within small rural communities. The step into correcting negative gender ideals lies within proper education of Latin American communities as well as globally, for the wellness of future generations to come.


2 )
3) http://onf-nfb.gc.ca/eng/collection/film/?id=54178
“Killers Paradise” 2006
4) http://www.thefreelibrary.com/GUATEMALA:+A+KILLER%27S+PARADISE.-a0214619758
6) Tiano, Susan. ‘Understanding Contemporary Latin America”. Hillman, second edition. Pg. 265.
7) Ibid, Pg. 273.
8) Ibid, Pg. 278.

Women in Politics

Throughout the region of Latin America, women have historically been underrepresented in the political arena. Although the overall presence of women is low, within the past decade there have been impressive gains in terms of holding political decision-making positions – this is a visible trend toward the feminization of politics (Buvinic et al., 2004). Interestingly, Latin America differs from the rest of the world’s democracies in general in the ministries where women hold office. In most of the democratic world, women are more concentrated in the less prestigious ministries (culture, education, and family), in Latin America women hold highly prestigious posts (finance, foreign relations, and defense) (Escobar-Lemmon & Taylor-Robinson, 2005).In many countries of the region such gains, in terms of percentages of women legislators, are higher than many of the world's leading nations.
external image 136-20071018-LATAM-WOMEN-1.large.prod_affiliate.91.jpg Women legislators in these Latin American countries exceed those of the
USA in terms of percentages.

The Role of Quotas, Feminism and Women's Movements
An explanation of these percentages is that there are 11 countries in the region that have instituted quotas of minimum representation of women in politics (CountryQuota.pdf). There are many factors behind these quotas, but they are largely the result of the pressures of women’s movements (Buvinic et al., 2004). Feminism and the visible role of nation women's movements has had an undeniable impact on the political agenda in Latin America for women (Razavi, 200). Feminist and women’s movements have played an integral role in the gains that women have made in politics. With the revival of the international women’s movement, activism for women’s rights has been reignited. This revival, taken with globalization and the communication revolution, has facilitated the spread of information about the changing role of women worldwide and their achievements in public life (Buvinic et al., 2004). These movements took hold quite rapidly in the region partly because of the high education levels of urban women (girls out perform boys at all levels of education in enrolment rates), and because of the democratization/re-democratization processes since the 1980s that have allowed for citizen movements (Buvinic et al., 2004). Feminist movements of the 20th Century were confined to a small segment of middle class women until the 1970s, when movements gained more general appeal in their agendas to incorporate issues that reflect race, class, and ethnic diversity (Tiano, 2005). More common in their general existence are women’s movements, that react to conditions that hamper women’s ability to perform their traditional roles as wives and mothers, or that threaten household survival – demanding government action to rectify conditions and for their incorporation into the political arena in ways that reaffirm their identity as women (Tiano, 2005). Women’s movements take the form of two broad categories – Those that focus on economic goals and those that challenge repressive government policies (Tiano, 2005). The expansion in such movements helps to account for the widespread increase in women’s increase in political participation (especially those outside of the norm of middle class women) (Tiano, 2005). Within politics there has been a growth of ‘instrumental feminism’, the promotion of the individual female leaders and their parties through mechanisms designed for the advancement of women as a whole, however, this benefits those individual women and their parties but not out of concern for other women (Htun, 2002).

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Graffiti art by Bolivian feminist organization Mujeres Creando - "if Evo had a uterus abortion
would be legalized and nationalized" demonstrating their political interests.

Barriers to Success
Presently, there is still exclusion based on the masculine model of politics, which is seen by the fact gender parity has not been met in participation. Linked to this, one of the most significant barriers to women’s involvement and participation in politics in the continuation of tradition and stereotypical social roles, this means that household and childrearing remain the sole responsibilities of women. This has implications into class, race and ethnicity as well because this is more of an issue for lower class, indigenous or afro-descent, rural women (Buvinic et al., 2004). This being said, the gains of women in leadership in recent times are impressive but are not equal among all women, this can be exemplified through Brazil and Chile where party politics is the turf of middle class women, rural women and women on the urban periphery remain largely marginal (Razavi, 2000). It is also arguable that the presence of women in office does not necessarily translate into support for and representation of women’s issues (to better the circumstances and experiences of women within the region). There is a need for greater government commitment to the enforcement of their implementations – through sufficient funding and adequate training of staff to administer policies (Buvinic et al., 2004). Another aspect of "success" when it comes to women holding positions in politics, has to do with their ability and commitment to improve the conditions and circumstance for all women of the region - this is an aspect closely linked to the work of feminism and women's movements, this will be further discussed below.

A video demonstrating barriers women face despite political gains by
women in Nicaragua. The first female president in the Americas was elected here in 1990.

Do They Make A Difference?
It is often said that the presence of women in the political arena does not translate into support for and representation of women’s issues (Buvinic et al., 2004). In other words, simply being a woman does not mean that one has an awareness of or commitment to issues surrounding gender. However, there are studies and statistics that show that woman do hold policies dealing with the welfare of woman and children in high priority – for example, a 2002 survey of Congressional Women’s Caucus members in Brazil showed 88% stating women’s rights among their priority, and 20% of that 88% held it as their top priority (Buvinic et al., 2004). Overall, the increase of women in political decision making positions has contributed to a better representation of women’s interests. Women from different political parties have formed alliances with one another to put women’s issues on the policy agenda. For example, throughout the 1990s several countries in the region passed legislature to help victims of domestic violence (Htun, 2002). It is unlikely that such attention be devoted to women’s rights issues without the work of women representatives (Htun, 2002).

Buvinic, M. and Roza, V. Women, Politics and Democratic Prospects in Latin America. Retrieved March 25 2010 www.iadb.org/SDS/doc/women.pdf

Escobar-Lemmon, M. and Taylor-Robinson, M. Women Ministers in Latin America: When, Where, and Why? Retrieved March 25 2010 http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/stable/3647700

Htun, M. Women in Political Power in Latin America. Retrieved March 29, 2010 www.idea.int/publications/wip/upload/Chapter1-Htun-feb03.pdf

Razavi, S. Women in Contemporary Democratization, Retrieved March 27 2010

Tiano, S. (2005) Women, Work, and Politics in Hillman, R. S. (Eds.) Understanding Contemporary Latin America (pages 273-312). Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

Birth Control Rights and Sexuality Rights of Women in Latin America

Birth control rights and sexuality rights in Latin America are two margins in Latin American society that women have to face continuously. Women are surrounded with the pressures of the conservative religious views that women should not practice contraceptive measures in most Latin American countries. As well, women are constantly facing issues in dealing with their own sexuality in that in most traditional communities around Latin America, they are either considered to be a virgin or they are considered to be a prostitute, showing a very black and white view. To add to this topic, sterilization is a topic of debate in Latin American countries and is viewed very differently from country to country. To clearly explain this topic, contraceptive issues and sterilization issues will be discussed.

In countries such as Canada and the United States, birth control is readily available to women, in Latin America though, this is another story. Due to the heavy influence of the Catholic Church and the mass majority of liberal views on the topic, in Latin America, preventive contraceptive measures (ex. Birth control pills) have been looked down upon by society and hold a massive controversy. Women should have their own right to say if they do or do not want to have kids and to restrict the number of kids they have. Latin American societies view on this topic though seems to discourage it and looks down upon the use of these measures. This discouragement goes as far as not allowing women to have access to these products. An example of these views can be seen in Argentina where the majority of people living there are opposed to the use of birth control and take a pro-life stance (Barrancos 2006). In 1995, the Argentina government made an attempt to begin a program called the National Program for Responsible Procreation. This program would allow women to have access to birth control methods. As the government tried to start this program, the church launched a campaign against the program stating that the Argentina government was “subtly but firmly [moved] to the legalization of abortion”. As a result of these campaigns, the government backed down and ended up not launching the program (Barrancos 2006). Though, as a result of an increase of the HIV virus in Latin America countries, such as Brazil, are beginning to promote birth control methods against the wishes of the Catholic Church (website 1, see below).

Serialization is another margin of society that women in Latin America have conformed to. Governments across Latin America have set programs of sterilization to deal with the amount of children women can have. Women should have to right to decide when they want to have children and these women are subjected to the margins of society that they must only have a certain number of children. An excellent example of this issue is shown in Peru with president Fujimori’s family planning program in 1995. This program stated that it would give the women of Peru control over their own destinies and that they now can have the chance to decide how many children they have. Feminist groups have attacked this program though in that they have discovered that the government is only succeeding at its planning goals and not really caring about promoting the idea of reproductive choice (Burt 1998). This program paid attention to the rural women of Peru and in some situations they were tricked and even forced to become sterilized. To further explain this situation the link below is a short documentary describing this program and its results in Peru.


Another example of sterilization can be seen in Colombia where sterilization is quite popular. The Catholic Church has deemed the practice of sterilization in Colombia a global castration of Colombian society and that the government is practising forced sterilizations. This claim has been refuted by the government who say that this practise is popular as a birth control method and follows in popularity right after the birth control pill. Cardinal Lopez of Colombia has stated that the poor and rural women are being “smothered” by technical jargon and are taken advantage of when deciding to become sterilized. He also added that this practice was immoral and wrong (Riding 1984). Through these two examples, it can be shown that women have to face the margins that the Catholic Church and society place even when determining if they want to or not become sterilized. In Peru, women have to face the government about this issue when the government wants to control population growth and in Colombia where women who would want this procedure are fighting to be accepted by the Catholic Church.


Barrancos, Dora
Problematic Modernity: Gender, Sexuality, and Reproduction in Twentieth-Century Argentina. Journal of Women's History 18.2 (2006) 123-150

Burt, Jo-Marie
Sterilization and its discontents. NACLA Report on the Americas 31.5 (1998): 5

Website 1

Riding, Alan
Battleground in Colombia:Birth Control. New York Times (1923-Current file); Sep 5, 1984; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006) pg. A2