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Title: Women in Latin America : the impact of socioeconomic change
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Title: Women in Latin America : the impact of socioeconomic change
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Language: English
Creator: Safa, Helen Icken
Publisher: Helen Icken Safa
Publication Date: 1984
Subject: Caribbean   ( lcsh )
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Full Text



Helen I. Safa

Center for Latin American Studies

University of Florida

Hopkins, editor; Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc.

(Do not cite or reproduce in any form without the permission
of the author)



Helen I. Safa

Center for Latin American Studies

University of Florida

The past decade has seen growing interest in the status of women in Latin

America. This interest is manifest not only in an increasing amount of research

and publications on the topic,(1) but the growth of an articulate and vocal

women's movement in several Latin American countries. Women's issues are now

discussed seriously in the mass media, and strong and stable feminist

organizations have emerged in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican

Republic, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and elsewhere.(2) A feminist magazine

FEM is now published in Mexico and circulates throughout Latin America. The

international climate has favored consideration of women's issues, starting with

the U.N conference on women in Mexico City in 1975, which launched the Decade on

Women. Research and seminars have been supported by private and government

foundations such as the U.N. specialized agencies, the Ford Foundation, the

Inter-American Foundation, A.I.D. and the Social Science Research Council. The

Latin American Studies Association now regularly includes several panels addressed

to women at its meetings, as do other professional associations in the social

sciences and humanities. But what is perhaps most impressive is the number of

conferences on women held in Latin America, and organized by Latin American women

during the past decade, including Mexico in 1977, Rio de Janeiro in 1979, Costa

Rica in 1981, and Barbados in 1982. Two Encuentro Feministas have been held, in

1981 in Bogota and in 1983 in Lima, bringing together hundreds of Latin American


women not only in research, but activists in centers for battered women, feminist

magazines, peasant organization, political parties, etc.

(Navarro 1982)

Feminism had to struggle to gain legitimacy in Latin America. Feminism was

accused of being another form of cultural imperialism imported from the

U.S. and inappropriate to the historical and cultural context of Latin America.

In order to combat this image, the first priority was with making women visible

through documenting and assessing women's economic, social and political roles.

Most initial studies were descriptive, and focused on fertility or on labor force

participation (still the most popular and fundable issues). By the end of the

1970's, however, research findings on women began to raise fundamental questions

that posed a challenge to traditional social science concepts and methods. For

example, studies of female labor force participation documented the failure of

official statistics to accurately reflect women's productive role. This has led

to greater attempts to measure women's unpaid domestic labor, both in the home,

and in the urban informal economy and agrarian subsistence production.

The growing concern with linking research on women to social change led

feminist researchers to join with other social scientists who seriously questioned

the objectives of traditional research and, more particularly, the relationship

between the researcher and the object of study. This concern has been taken

seriously in the women's centers that arose in Latin America in the mid and late

1970's. There is a notable diversification of feminist activities, in research,

action, service provision and training. Many of these activities cross-cut the

class distinctions that appeared to be insurmountable during the early years of

the women's movement. Feminists have become much stronger in their commitment to

the priority of women's issues, even if the issues of autonomy and incorporation

within political parties or larger social movements continues to be open to a wide

range of approaches (Schmink and Barroso 1984).


It is now time to take stock of the past decade of research and action on

women in Latin America in order to assess the significance of these

accomplishments within a broader theoretical framework. What have we learned

about Latin American women? How does the research on women reflect their changing

role in Latin American society? In what way has the women's movement itself begun

to change this role? These are some of the questions this article will address.

We shall focus on four main areas: 1) the role women play in production and

reproduction and the contribution this makes to national productivity; 2) the

impact of development and the growing economic crisis on women in Latin America,

including the feminization of farming, female migration, and the increased

participation of women in the labor force; 3) the impact of these changes on

family structure, including growth of female-headed households and; 4) the role

women play in the new international division of labor, with the growth of female

employment in export processing industries. Clearly these issues reflect some of

the broader changes occurring in Latin America during the past decade, such as the

shift from a rural agrarian to an urban industrial economy, the increase in urban

poverty and growth of an informal economy, and the increasing integration of Latin

America into a global economy. Thus, the focus on women becomes one way of

looking at these other issues from a new perspective.


For many researchers, the key to understanding women's subordination lies in

analyzing women's role in production. As long as women's work is undervalued,

they can never be considered equal partners with men, who are assumed in a modern,

industrial society to be the principal breadwinners.

The struggle for increasing recognition of women's role in production

requires a fundamental re-definition of the term "work". At its simplest level,

it is often thought to apply only to wage labor. Since men constitute the great


bulk of wage earners in any modern, industrial society, this automatically assumes

that men have a greater role in production. However, equating work with wage

labor reflects the bias of advanced industrial societies such as the U.S. where.

census techniques and models have been developed. "Work" is defined in terms of

production for the market, yet non-market production is still very prevalent in

Third World countries, including Latin America. Thus, growing food for home

consumption, making clothes or pottery for the family, are all non-market

activities, often carried out by women.

Even if we define work in terms of market production, we would have to

include a whole variety of self-employed peasants and artisans, who still

constitute a large percentage of Latin America's economically active population.

Among peasants and artisans, production is still centered in the home, with work

being carried out by unpaid family members, including women and children. Yet in

many Latin American countries, these unpaid family members are not counted as

working, i.e., as economically active members of the labor force. This is then

one large area in which women's role in production is seriously undervalued.

Women also predominate in subsistence agriculture, where production is not

for the market, but for home consumption. Subsistence agriculture has until

recently been totally neglected in census figures, resulting in a gross

underestimation of women's contribution to agricultural production in Latin

America. In a survey taken by Deere in the Andean region, it was found that the

proportion of women participating in agricultural work was 21 percent instead of

the 3 percent officially reported (Deere 1977).

Actually, the number of women participating in agricultural production in

Latin America is probably increasing due to the "feminization of farming"

occurring in many areas. Since the 1940's Latin American countries are

experiencing an unprecedented period of capitalist expansion in commercial

agriculture. This has added to the pressure on the land, along with population


growth, soil erosion, and land fragmentation. This "decomposition of the

peasantry" Las led men to seek supplementary sources of income in wage labor, on a

seasonal or permanent basis. However, due to the 1< wages and high unemployment

in the cities, the family is often left behind, leaving the woman and children to

care for the subsistence plot. This is particularly true of the poorer strata of

the peasantry, where the underestimation of women's work is probably highest

(Deere, op. cit.).

Such research findings have led critics to question the assumption that

economic development is necessarily beneficial to all strata of the population,

particularly women. Studies showing a positive relationship between women's

activity rates and some index of economic development need to be examined more

carefully for their bias toward market activities. If they underestimate

non-market activities and define labor primarily in relation to the market, the

results may simply be tautological (Beneria 1982: 127). Studies in Latin America

that provide a data base for a fundamental re-evaluation'of women's role in

agriculture and the importance of women in subsistence production are now

available and should be incorporated in aggregate analyses at national and

international levels (e.g., Leon de Leal and Deere 1980; Leon 1982; Wainerman and

Lattes 1981).

Census figures also reveal a clear male bias. This is seen most clearly in

census surveys which automatically designate any adult male as the "household

head." Often the household head in Latin America is determined by a complex of

factors, such as who contributes the most to the household, who owns the house or

land, etc. Nevertheless, women will often maintain that a man is head of the

household, even when he is not the principal breadwinner, because of ideological

assumptions regarding male dominance, to which women also subscribe. Even women

who make major economic contributions to the household, continue to see themselves

dependent on men as economic providers and spokesmen to the outside world (Safa



Women seldom regard domestic labor as "work," nor is it so regarded in census

surveys, due again to the emphasis on market production and paid labor. However,

the increasing attention given to the household economy in Latin America reveals

that woman's domestic labor makes a critical contribution to the reproduction and

maintenance of the labor force. Reproduction is here defined as not only the

birth and rearing of children, who are future members of the labor force, but

housework such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. Housework lessens the costs of

maintaining current workers, who would otherwise have to pay for these services.

By lowering labor costs, housework also lowers commodity prices, and should, in

the opinion of some feminist economists, be counted in estimating national

productivity (Beneria 1982). This is particularly true in Latin America and other

Third World countries, where the degree of household production is much higher

than in industrialized, wage labor economies. Housework in Latin America is much

harder, and takes many more hours of a woman's time due to the lack of canned or

frozen products, household appliances, and even basic amenities like running water

or electricity. Even in cities, women try to stretch and supplement an

insufficient wage through home production of clothing and garden crops and rearing

of small animals (Schmink 1982: 13). They also engage in networks of exchange and

cooperation among women to substitute for purchased goods and services, such as

having the use of a neighbor's refrigerator and tapping into her electrical line

(Safa 1974). Thus, the neglect of domestic labor in a definition of "work" is

again a bias of industrialized societies where housework functions primarily to

transform family incomes into consumable goods and services.


It is often assumed that development automatically leads to an increase in

the level of female participation in the labor force. An increasing number of


studies question this assumption, both on the grounds that women's prior role in

the production process has been undervalued, as documented above, and that women

have actually been pushed out of the labor force by modern techniques such as the

commercialization of agriculture and capital-intensive industrialization.

The effects of the commercialization of agriculture on the feminization of

farming have already been noted. Among the poorer strata of the peasantry, women

are often left behind on meager subsistence plots to support their families while

men seek out supplementary sources of wage income in cities or in seasonal

agricultural labor. Except for some of the new areas of agribusiness, where women

are employed in processing plants, it is increasingly difficult for women to find

wage labor in the rural area. As commercial agriculture has expanded, it has also

mechanized, reducing the need for cheap female labor for harvesting, weeding,

sorting, and other menial agricultural tasks. Both men and women have lost jobs

in agricultural wage labor, but women have been expelled at a faster rate.

This has led to increasing female migration from rural to urban areas of

Latin America, higher than any other Third World area. On the basis of FAO and

PREALC figures, it can be estimated that some 3.8 million rural women migrated to

Latin American cities between 1960 and 1970 (Arizpe 1982: 79). While some women

migrated to join their families in the city, increasing numbers of women are

Migrating on their own to find jobs in the urban area. These women are often

female heads of households seeking to support their families, or daughters sent by

their rural families to earn supplementary sources of income.

Most of the young migrant women find jobs in domestic service. Approximately

one fifth of the female labor force in Latin America is employed in domestic

service, even in the more industrialized countries such as Chile (Leon de Leal

1984) and Mexico (Gonzalez 1976: 187). While some researchers have regarded

domestic service as an avenue of upward mobility for Latin American women (Smith

1973), others have argued that domestic servants generally end up in the informal


sector as petty vendors or even prostitutes (Bunster 1983). Once-they have one or

two children, they can no longer be employed as live-in servants, and are forced

to seek other sources of income.

Some researchers argue that women prefer work in the informal sector to other

forms of wage labor, because it allows for more flexibility in terms of the care

of children, the hours worked, etc. Petty vendors, for example, can take their

children with them as they walk the streets or tend a market stall. Day care

facilities are almost non-existent, and many migrant women lack the family support

network they could have turned to in the rural area.

The most important factor, however, is that most Latin American migrant women

cannot find jobs in formal wage labor, particularly if they are recent rural

migrants and/or are married and have children. Preference in factory employment

is given to young, single women who are either urban born or bred and have

completed at least a primary education (Safa 1983a). This rules out most migrant

women, as well as the less educated who are relegated to the informal sector.

Married women are often put at a disadvantage by the rather liberal maternity

benefits to which permanently employed women in some Latin American countries are

entitled. Employers discriminate against married women even when maternity

benefits are paid by the state (i.e. Brazil). Rather than be encumbered by these

benefits, employers prefer to hire young, single women, who are also less likely

to suffer from absenteeism when a child is ill, or has to go to the doctor, etc.

Most working women in Latin America are still expected to assume these family

responsibilities putting married women at a double disadvantage in the job market.

Another reason for the relatively low number of women in industrial

employment in Latin America is the use of capital-intensive technology, which

reduces the need for labor. While both men and women are displaced, women are

more affected because of their concentration in such traditional labor-intensive

industries as textiles and food processing, both of which have undergone rapid


technical change. In the textile industry, for example, there has been a switch

from female to male production workers, as plants mechanized and shifted from

natural fibers to synthetics such as polyester (cf. Blay 1978: 144-5). The switch

to capital-intensive industrialization took place more rapidly in Latin America

since much of the industry was foreign-owned and able to import the more advanced

technology already developed in industrialized countries. Labor-intensive

industries such as textiles also declined because of competition with foreign

imports such as synthetics (Chaplin 1967).

As a result, until the 1970's the percentage of women in industrial

employment in Latin America generally declined, or at best remained stable

(Gendell and Rossel 1968). For example, in Brazil, which experienced very rapid

industrialization in the 1960's, the percentage of women employed in the

industrial labor force in 1970 remained at 10 percent, no higher than 1950, while

the percentage of men employed in the same period doubled from 10 to 20 percent

(Miranda 1976: 17-18). In Argentina, the percentage of women in industrial jobs

declined from 31.9 percent in 1950 to 21 percent in 1970, while those in the

services sector increased from-55.8 percent to 74.8 percent during that same

period (Arizpe 1982: 79).

In the 1960's, the increase in female labor force participation was

concentrated among young, single women primarily in white-collar jobs (E.C.L.A.

1975: 10-13). Who are the white-collar workers who are employed as secretaries,

sales women, teachers, social workers, etc.? Are they women who have moved up

from the ranks of domestic service or factory jobs? Apparently not. Most of them

appear to be women of middle and upper class status, who moved into the labor

force for the first time, as jobs commensurate with their status opened up (Safa

1977). Most of these jobs require a secondary or higher education, access to

which is still largely limited to women of elite status, despite considerable

educational expansion in Latin America in the postwar period (Ibid). The


relationship between jobs and educational attainment is shown by Miranda's data

for Brazil, where female domestic and industrial workers generally have an average

of less than four years of education, whereas workers in intermediary white-collar

occupations such as commerce and clerical jobs have an average of four to eight

years of schooling (Miranda 1976: 19). More recent data show that 77 percent of

female factory workers in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in Sao Paulo

now also have a primary school education (Higgs 1983).

In the 1970's, the struggle for survival became even more acute, due to the

economic crisis which most Latin American countries are undergoing. The crisis

was brought on by rising oil prices, unfavorable terms of trade, and a growing

foreign debt and public sector deficit. It is characterized by high rates of

inflation which increased consumer prices by as much as 50-60 percent or higher;

and a decline in real wages and employment, resulting in general economic

stagnation. For example, between 1973 and 1981 wages in the industrial sector in

Argentina fell by around 21 percent, while in Chile they contracted by over 41

percent (Tokman 1984: 16).

The economic crisis has placed an even greater burden on working class

families in Latin America. Faced with rising prices and falling wages, more women

joined the labor force in order to provide additional income for their families to

survive. In Brazil, for example, the female economically active population almost

doubled from 1970-80, rising much faster than for men. Female participation in

industry grew even faster, reaching 181 percent between 1970 and 1980, reversing

the declining trend of the previous decades (Humphrey 1983). According to the

1980 census, the percentage of women employed in industry rose to 18.6 percent.

The reasons for this dramatic increase are still debatable, especially since it

does not appear to be due to growth in manufacturing. Instead the increase

appears to be related to changes in the labor process with the deskilling and

fragmentation of the production process, which leads to the replacement of men by


women. In Colombia, for example, 21 out of the 29 percent of women in industrial

employment are working in labor-intensive industries such as food processing,

textiles and shoes, industries that traditionally have employed primarily female

labor. However, half of these women in labor-intensive industries are working at

home and being paid by piecework as independent workers; most of them are

housewives who also carry heavy family responsibilities (Rey de Marulanda 1982:

67). In Rio also, there is some evidence of unregulated sweat shops and home

production of toys, candles, shoes, and clothes for sale in the informal economy

(New York Times 1984). Although industrial homework may provide needed employment

for these older, married women, it is also an effective way of cutting wages and

resisting labor solidarity, particularly in a time of economic crisis. A similar

restructuring and deskilling of the labor process is taking place in the U.S. and

other advanced industrial countries, where women also constitute a cheaper source

of labor for this unskilled work than men.

In most of Latin America, however, the greatest increase in female employment

continued to be in the tertiary sector, in commerce and services. In Latin

America as a whole, 67.2 percent of women workers are in the service sector,

though the majority are still in domestic service (Arizpe 1982: 79). Here, too,

the gains have been less in the white-collar sector, as in the previous decade,

than in poorly paid, unstable jobs in the informal sector. The informal sector

has grown to include the sale of non-traditional products such as perfume, digital

watches and single cigarettes and in Brazil is now estimated to account for 30

percent of the GDP (New York Times 1984: 11). The increase in the informal sector

can be seen in the growing number of self-employed and unpaid family workers in

Latin America, even in relatively developed countries like Argentina, Chile and

Uruguay. From 1975 to 1978 the percentage of self-employed workers in these

countries grew at a higher rate than wage workers, and included in Chile one-fifth

of the female labor force (Prates 1981: 11). Most of these self employed workers


are in the commerce and service sector, which in these countries tended to grow

while employment in manufacturing was declining especially for women (Ibid 26-27).

The growing importance of the informal sector in these countries is also the

result of stabilization models imposed by the International Monetary Fund, which

emphasized the privatization of the economy and the reduction in public

expenditures in areas such as health and education. These cutbacks hit

particularly hard on working-class families who have no recourse to unemployment

insurance or other welfare schemes. Similar stabilization models have now been

imposed in Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American countries.

The increasing number of women in the labor force in Latin America cannot be

seen as a sign of progress. As we have seen, most women are forced to seek paid

employment because of the growing difficulty men are facing in finding stable

work. Women work at the lowest paid, most unstable jobs in the informal sector or

in industrial homework, because of the decline in formal wage work and because

they provide a cheaper, more docile labor force for this disintegrating economy.

We will examine the results of this economic crisis on family.structure in the

next section.


It is a curious paradox that in Latin America, as well as in the U.S. and

western Europe in an earlier period, the ideology that equates female confinement

within the home to higher class status has begun to influence working class women

at the same time that its influence has begun to wane among women of the elite.

Elite women and men previously feared that a working wife would be taken as a sign

that the man was unable to adequately provide for his family and needed his wife's

contribution. Although some men are still threatened by their wives' employment,

this is no longer the norm as increasing numbers of Latin American women enter the

formal labor market. Attitudes have also changed due to the increased need for


consumer goods in most middle and upper class Latin American homes. In order to

afford a car (or two), a color television, stereo and various household

appliances, many women in the middle class have to work, to keep up the

installment payments. The critical difference is that these elite women are

working to support a certain life style, while working class women are working for

their family's survival (cf. Schmink 1982: 13).

The two class groups also differ in their degree of household

responsibilities. Middle and upper class women generally have a domestic servant

(or two) at home, to help take care of the children and the household chores. Men

still are not inclined to assume these responsibilities in most Latin American

homes. Thus, elite women do not face a "double day" in the same way as working

class women, who carry the entire responsibility. In a study conducted in,1977 in

Colombia, it was found that 69 percent of women workers in the low-income sector

continued to have domestic responsibilities compared to 47 percent of upper-income

working women (Rey de Marulanda 1982: 65). Most of these upper-income women have

domestic servants, while the only assistance for lower-income women comes from

female kin or neighbors. One-fourth of the lower income working women in the

Colombian study had no assistance at all, compared to much lower percentages in

the higher income groups. This helps explain why working class women often regard

retirement from the labor force as a sign of upward mobility, and prefer to stay

home than stay on a menial, low-paying job. For most working class women, a job

does not signify possibilities for self-development or even added autonomy.

Generally most of their wages are spent on their families and not on their

personal needs or self-advancement.

The struggle for survival is particularly difficult for female-headed

households. They are increasing rapidly in Latin America, because of many of the

socioeconomic changes noted above, like migration, urbanization, and the growing

economic crises. Census data for 13 Latin American countries reveal that the


proportion of female-headed households is 60 percent higher in urban than in rural

areas (ICRW 1978: 80). As we have seen, these families may migrate to the cities

in search of employment, or female-headed households may form after their arrival,

through separation, divorce or abandonment. Working class women in the city often

do not have community or family pressures to bring upon a man to remain with or

support their families. Women may also prefer to be rid of a man who does not

support them and is abusive of his wife and children.

Many studies have been done to determine the socioeconomic reasons behind the

formation of female-headed households, particularly in the Caribbean, where this

has been the predominant form of family structure since slavery and the colonial

period (Massiah 1983). Historical and cultural explanations have now been largely

abandoned in favor of socioeconomic factors such as migration, poverty and

unemployment. Studies in the Caribbean have shown a negative correlation between

per capital income and the proportion of households headed by women (ICRW 1978:

81). This poverty is due largely to the high level of male unemployment in the

Caribbean and other Latin American countries. As men find it impossible to

fulfill their roles as economic provider, they often abandon their families and

leave the woman with this burden (Safa 1974: 36). The decline in male employment

and increasing percentage of women working as a result of the economic crisis is

likely to aggravate this problem.

Female heads of households are at a strong disadvantage in the labor market.

They have lower levels of education and have heavy family responsibilities, which

often restricts them to jobs in the informal sector as domestic, petty vendors,

etc. One study in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, found that-53.1 percent of the female

heads of households have jobs in the informal sector compared to 12.5 percent of

the males (Merrick and Schmink 1983: 259). As a result, they generally fall into

the lowest income categories, even though they work much more frequently than

women in general. In the Caribbean, metropolitan Brazil and Caracas, Venezuela,


four female heads in every ten were found to be working (ICRW 1978: 73). They

also rely heavily on their children for economic support, once the latter are old

enough to work and not yet supporting families of their own. Female-headed

households, like poor families generally, survive through multiple wage-earning

strategies where all adult members of the household are seeking sources of income

in the formal or informal sector (Safa 1983a).

The increasing percentage of female-headed households clearly shows that

development has not been beneficial to all women in Latin America. On the

contrary, class inequalities and poverty appear to be greater than before, despite

the formation of an emerging middle class. The white-collar workers in'this

middle class seem to be the only ones to have really benefitted from the vast

socioeconomic changes of the post-war period, and even they are subject to

increasing inflation and unemployment. The economic crisis of the past decade has

led to a search for new development models in Latin America, which also have.

affected women.


Critics of Latin American development, particularly from a dependency

perspective, argue that the problems of women in Latin America, particularly poor

women, stem from the kind of development models adopted in the area. Most of

these models have made Latin America dependent on trade with the U.S. and other

advanced industrial countries. Despite efforts to institute policies of import

substitution, designed to develop domestic industries and reduce the reliance on

imported goods, the continued relience on imported capital and technology only

fostered a new form of dependent capitalism, now mediated largely through

multinational corporations.

Latin America has now entered a new stage of the international division of

labor, in which they are becoming producers of manufactured goods, not only for


their own domestic market, but for export as well. Since the goods are entirely

designed for export, the primary criteria in export processing is to keep the cost

of production as low as possible, which in the case of these labor intensive

industries, is largely female labor. It is estimated that 80-90 percent of the

workers in export processing plants overseas are women. This is partly due to the

predominance in export processing of garment and electronics industries, which

have traditionally employed a largely female labor force. Management often

explains their preference for female labor by reverting to sex stereotypes which

depict women as having more patience for tedious jobs, nimble fingers, and visual

acuity. A far more adequate explanation, however, appears to lie in the higher

profits that can be extracted from female labor due to lower wages. In 1978

minimum wages in industry ran as low as 23 cents an hour in Haiti, 45 cents in

Jamaica,-50 in the Dominican Republic, and 71 cents in Mexico. Mexico is by far

the largest single source of imports to the U.S. under tariff items 806.30 and

807.00, through which these assembled goods enter the U.S. almost duty-free.

Export processing has become the new development model for several Latin

American and Caribbean countries, and is promoted by international agencies such

as UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) as well as the U.S.

government through the newly proclaimed Caribbean Basin Initiative. The trade

provisions of the Caribbean Basin Initiative set forth by President Reagan would

turn virtually the entire Caribbean into a free trade zone, eliminating tariff

barriers for many manufactured and agricultural products for a twelve year period

(Safa 1983b). In Haiti alone, the volume of export processing has grown from

three million in 1970 to eight million in 1980 and represented 16.7 percent of the

gross domestic product in that year. Nevertheless, per capital income in Haiti in

1981 still stood at $297, the lowest in Latin America.

In order to examine the advantages and disadvantages of export

industrialization for women in Latin America and other Third World areas, it is


necessary to look at who is employed, the kind of jobs created, and where they are

located (Safa 1981). These industries are often located in areas of high

unemployment, both for men and women. For example, the Border Industrialization

Program in Mexico was instituted to replace the employment provided by the bracero

program, through which male agricultural workers had been employed on temporary

contracts in the U.S. Yet the bracero program, which was suspended in 1964,

employed primarily men, while the Border Industrialization Program employs largely

women. This is likely to have a severe effect on family structure, particularly

in areas like Mexico in which it is assumed that men will be the principal

economic providers. In Ciudad Juarez, for example, 31 percent of the women

employed in the export-oriented garment industries or maquiladoras are heads of

households (Fernandez Kelly 1983:,55). The unemployed men, meanwhile, continue to

migrate to the U.S., often as undocumented workers.

The effect on family structure is mitigated through management's preference

for young, single women. Single working women pose less of a threat to the

existing male authority patterns than married women, even though they often make

substantial contributions to the household income. They are also considered a

more docile labor force, and less militant than older women with many years of

work experience.

The status of the job is also important in determining its impact on women.

We have pointed out several times in this paper that employment per se does not

necessarily increase women's status and authority. It depends on the kind of job

they have and what they earn. As we have seen, jobs in export processing

industries are very often low paid and have relatively low status. There is also

a high degree of turnover in these jobs, largely due to the footloose nature of

these industries. Since they do not have a heavy investment in capital plants,

these firms are able to relocate quite easily at any sign of labor unrest as

happened during the Manley period in Jamaica at the end of the 70's (Bolles 1983).


Puerto Rico has lost much of its garment industry because of wage increases and

the lure of cheaper wages elsewhere (Safa 1981). In addition, some firms try to

keep women on temporary contracts, so that they are not entitled to the kind of

fringe benefits, like severance pay and maternity benefit, that they would be

entitled to were they permanent employees.

Thus, many factors limit worker solidarity in these new industries low

wages, high turnover, the recency and youth of this new industrial labor force,

and state control. All of these factors would tend to suggest that employment in

export processing is not leading to the improvement of women's status in Latin

American and Caribbean countries. Surely the job provides a working class women

with a certain amount of income and economic autonomy, but it is quite different

from the case of a middle class woman who embarks on a career through which she

can advance in status. Like the other jobs open to working class women in Latin

America, factory jobs in export processing are routine, dead-end jobs with

virtually no possibilities for skill transfer or upward mobility.


In assessing the impact of socioeconomic change on women in Latin America, it

is important to differentiate between women's objective and subjective conditions.

In many objective respects, women seem to be worse off than a decade or so ago.

Women have lost access to land as a result of the expulsion of the peasantry, and

those who are left in the rural area are often forced to cope alone for themselves

and their children on a small, subsistence plot, while their menfolk work in the

city. The percentage of domestics has not declined, as is expected with economic

development, largely because the number of jobs in the formal labor market for

women has not been able to keep up with the heavy rate of rural-urban migration.

As a result of migration, deepening poverty and unemployment, the percentage of

female-headed households in Latin America has increased substantially,


particularly in the urban area. Despite a substantial increase in female

employment, many of these women are working in the informal sector which has grown

rapidly due to the economic crisis, white-collar jobs have gone mostly to educated

middle and upper class women. There is an increasing number of female industrial

workers as a result of the move toward export processing in several Latin American

and Caribbean countries, but these jobs also are poorly paid and highly unstable.

Though the socioeconomic levels of most Latin American women may have

deteriorated in the past decade, their awareness of these problems and their

willingness and ability to confront them appears to have increased substantially.

This is largely a result of the women's movement and of the expanded research on

women in Latin America carried out during the past few years. The development of

women's centers in Latin America, conferences, training and action programs, and

publications have greatly increased the visibility of women's issues and have

begun to bridge the gap between elite and working class women, which is larger in

Latin America than in the U.S. Feminist organizations have begun to form their

own political power base and to penetrate mainstream institutions like the

universities and some political parties. However, there is a felt need for

greater coordination between these organizations to achieve common goals,

particularly in terms of the impact of research findings on global state policies

and laws (Schmink and Barroso 1984).

The authoritarian political regimes and recessive economic policies

promulgated by stabilization policies of the International Monetary Fund, have

worsened the plight of women in many Latin American countries through the decline

in state investment in social services and increasing unemployment, lower real

wages and inflation. To combat this crisis, women have banned together to obtain

services such as schools, drinking water, housing, and medical care (Schmink 1982:

18). One of the best known women's movements is the cost-of-living movement in

Sao Paulo, where neighborhood women organized collectively to protest the high


cost of living and formed consumer cooperatives on their own behalf.

In many ways, women's collective action, particularly among the poor, holds

the key to improving the status of women in Latin America. It is clear that women

cannot expect the state, political parties, unions or international agencies to

act on their behalf unless women constitute a political force and pressure them

with specific demands. Women must be conscious of their own needs and abilities

and not have these defined for them by outside agencies. Even in socialist

countries like Cuba or Nicaragua, where official women's organizations such as the

Federation of Cuban Women enjoy full government support, they are still largely an

instrument of government policy.

Women are beginning to challenge the status quo in Latin America. They are

organizing collectively, articulating their demands, and designing their own

action programs. They are rejecting their subordinate status while maintaining

great pride in their roles as wives and mothers. Their primary identification as

wives and mothers is one reason women can be mobilized in defense of family and

neighborhood interests such as urban services, the cost of living, or even state

repression. A dramatic example of female popular protest in defense of family

interests are the Argentine mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who for years protested

los desaparecidos, the disappearance of their loved ones. Women may start with

immediate, local issues but as they grow more confident in their capacity to

articulate and pursue their demands, they may well represent a real threat to the

existing system of class and gender inequality in Latin America.


1. For example, some of the more significant collections of studies on women in
Latin America include: a)Aguiar, Neuma; 1980. A Mulher na Forca de Trabalho na
America Latina. Petropolis; Editora Vozes; b)American Indigena; 1978;
c)Asociacion Peru-Mujer. Jeanine Anderson de Velasco, ed.; 1983. Congress de
Investigation Acerca de la Mujer en la Region Andina. Lima: Editorial Colmena;
d)Covarrubias, Paz and Rolando Franco, eds.; 1970. Chile, Mujer y Sociedad.
Santiago: Alfabeta Impresores Ltda; e)Elu de Lenero, Maria del Carmen, eds.;
1975. La Mujer en America Latina. Mexico: Sep-Setenta, Vols. 1,2; f)Estudios
Andinos; 1976. La Mujer en los Andes. Vol. V, No. 1; g)Fundacao Carlos Chagas;
1979. Mulher Brasileira. Bibliografia Anotada. Sao Paulo: Editora Brasiliense,
Vols. 1,2; h)Knaster, Meri. Women in Spanish America: An Annotated Bibliography
from Pre-Conquest to Contemporary Times; 1977. Boston: G.K. Hall; i)Leon de
Leal, Magadalena, C.D. Deere, et al; 1980. Mujer y Capitalismo Agrario. Bogota:
Asociacion Colombiana de Estudios de Poblacion (ACEP); j)Leon, Magadalena, ed.;
1982. Debate Sobre la Mujer en America Latina y el Caribe. Bogota: Asociacion
Colombiana de Estudios de Poblacion (ACEP). Vol. I, La Realidad Colombiana; Vol
II, Las Trabajadoras del Agro; Vol. III, Sociedad, Subordinacion y Feminismo;
k)Latin American Perspectives; 1979. Women in Latin America. California:
Riverside; 1)Nash, June and Helen Safa; 1976. Sex and Class in Latin America.
New York: Praeger; m)Nueva Antropologia; 1977; n)Signs: Journal of Women in
Society and Culture; 1979. Special Issue on Women in Latin American. Vol. 5, No.
1; o)UNICEF; 1981. Participacion Economica y Social de la Mujer Peruana. Lima:
Biblioprenta, S.A.

2. For example, some of the more well-known research institutions on women in
Latin America include: a)Asociacion Colombiana de Estudios de Poblacion (ACEP),
Colombia; b)Asociacion Mexicana de Estudios de Mujer y Sociedad (AMEMS), Mexico;
c)Centro de Investigaciones para Accion'Femenina (CIPAF), Dominican Republic;
d)Centro Flora Tristan, Peru; e)Centro de Estudios de la Mujer, Argentina;
f)Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC), Cuba; g)Fundacao Carlos Chagas, Brazil;
h)Circulo de la Mujer, Chile; i)Grupo de Estudios sobre la Condicion de la Mujer
en el Uruguay, Uruguay; j)Peru-Mujer, Peru.


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Beneria, Lourdes, 1982. "Accounting for Women's Work." In Women
and Development: The Sexual Division of Labor in Rural
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Blay, Eva Alterman, 1978. Trabalho Domesticado: A Mulher Na
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Bolles, A. Lynn, 1983. "Kitchens Hit by Priorities: Employed
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Estudio de la Poblacion.

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Massiah, Jocelin, 1983. "Women as Heads of Households in the
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