WOMEN IN LATIN AMERICA:
THE IMPACT OF SOCIOECONOMIC CHANGE
Helen I. Safa
Center for Latin American Studies
University of Florida
Submitted for LATIN AMERICA: PERSPECTIVES ON A REGION, Jack W.
Hopkins, editor; Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc.
(Do not cite or reproduce in any form without the permission
of the author)
WOMEN IN LATIN AMERICA:
THE IMPACT OF SOCIOECONOMIC CHANGE
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.
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.
WOMEN'S ROLE IN PRODUCTION AND REPRODUCTION
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
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.
THE IMPACT OF DEVELOPMENT ON WOMEN IN THE LABOR FORCE
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
FEMALE EMPLOYMENT AND FAMILY STRUCTURE
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.
WOMEN AND THE INTERNATIONAL DIVISION OF LABOR
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
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
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:
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.
Arizpe, Lourdes, 1982. "Women and Development in Latin America and
the Caribbean.: Lessons from the Seventies and Hopes for the
Future." In Another Development with Women, Development Dialogue
1-2, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala Sweden, pp. 74-84.
Beneria, Lourdes, 1982. "Accounting for Women's Work." In Women
and Development: The Sexual Division of Labor in Rural
Societies. L. Beneria, ed. pp. 11 9-148. New York: Praeger.
Blay, Eva Alterman, 1978. Trabalho Domesticado: A Mulher Na
Industria Paulista. Sao Paulo: Editora Atica.
Bolles, A. Lynn, 1983. "Kitchens Hit by Priorities: Employed
Working-Class Jamaican Women Confront the IMF." In Women, Men
and the International Division of Labor. June Nash and Maria
Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, eds. Albany: State University of New
York Press. pp. 138-160.
Bunster, Ximena, 1983. "Market Sellers in Lima, Peru: Talking
about Work." In Women and Poverty in the Third World.
M. Buvinic, M.A. Lycette and W.P. McGreevey, eds. pp. 92-103.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
Buvinic Mayra, 1983. "Women's Issues in Third World Poverty: A
Policy Analysis." In Women and Poverty in the Third World.
op. cit. pp. 14-34.
Chaplin, David, 1967. The Peruvian Industrial Labor Force.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Deere, Carmen Diana, 1977. "Changing Social Relations of
Production and Peruvian Peasant Women's Work." Latin
American Perspectives, nos. 12-13, pp. 48-69.
Economic Commission on Latin America (E.C.L.A.), 1975.
"Participation of Women in Development in Latin America,"
United Nations, World Conference of the International
Women's Year, E. Conf. 66/BP/8/ Add. 1.
Elizaga, Juan C., 1974. "The Participation of Women in the
Labour Force of Latin America: Fertility and other
Factors," International Labour Review, CIX, pp. 519-538.
Fernandez-Kelly, Maria Patricia, 1983. For We are Sold, I
and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico's Frontier.
Albany: State University of New York Press.
Gendell, Murray and Guillermo Rossel, 1968. "The Trends and
Patterns of the Economic Activity of Women in Latin America
during the 1960's," Estadistica, XXVI, pp. 561-576.
Gonzalez Salazar, Gloria, 1976. "Participation of Women in the
Mexican Labor Force." In Sex and Class in Latin America,
June Nash and Helen Safa, eds. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Higgs, Beth, 1983. Field notes, University of Florida, Dept.
Humphrey, John, 1983. "The Growth of Female Employment in
Brazilian Manufacturing Industry in the 1970's." Mimeo.
University of Liverpool, England.
International Center for Research on Women (I.C.R.W.) 1978.
Women Headed Households: The Ignored Factor in Development
Planning. Report submitted to AID/WID by M. Buvinic, N.
Youssef with B. Von Elm. Washington, D.C.
Leon de Leal, Magdalena and C.D. Deere et al, 1980, Mujer y
Capitalismo Agrario. Bogota: Asociacion Colombiana para el
Estudio de la Poblacion.
Leon, Magdalena, 1982, ed. Debate sobre la Mujer en America
Latina y el Caribe. Vol. I, II, and III. Bogota:
Asociacion Colombiana para el Estudio de la Poblacion.
Leon, Magdalena, 1984. "El Servicio Domestico: Trabajo de
la Mayoria de las Mujeres en America Latina." El C.I.I.D.
Informa, Vol. 13, no. 2.
Massiah, Jocelin, 1983. "Women as Heads of Households in the
Caribbean: Family Structure and Feminine Status." Paris:
Merrick, Thomas W. and Marianne Schmink, 1983. "Households
Headed by Women and Urban Poverty in Brazil." In Women and
Poverty in the Third World. M. Buvinic, M. Lycette, and W.P.
McGreevey, eds. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Miranda, Glaura Vasques de, 1977. "Women's Labor Force Partici-
pation in a Developing Society: the Case of Brazil." Signs:
Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 3, no. 1 pp.
Navarro, Marysa, 1982. "First Feminist Meeting of Latin America
and the Caribbean." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and
Society, Vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 154.57.
New York Times, July 29, 1984. "On the Streets of Brazil:
Peddling Up, Sales Down." Alan Riding. p. 9.
Prates, Suzana, 1981. Women's Labour and Family Survival
Strategies under the 'Stabilization Models' in Latin
America." Vienna: Centre for Social Development and
Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations.
Rey de Marulanda, Nohra, 1982. "La Unidad Produccion-
Reproduccion en las Mujeres del Sector Urbano en
Colombia." In La Realidad Colombiana. Debate sobre
la Muier en America Latina, Vol. I, Magdalena Leal, ed.
Safa, Helen Icken, 1974. The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico: A
Study in Development and Inequality. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston; 1976. "Class Consciousness among
Working Class Women in Latin America: Puerto Rico." In
Sex and Class in Latin America, June Nash and H. Safa, eds.
New York: Praeger; 1977. "The Changing Class Composition
of the Female Labor Force in Latin America." Latin
American Perspectives 9, no. 4, pp. 126-36; 1981. "Runaway
Shops and Female Employment: The Search for Cheap Labor."
Signs: Journal of Women in Society and Culture, Vol. 7,
no. 2, pp. 418-433; 1983a. "Women, Production, and Repro-
duction in Industrial Capitalism: A Comparison of Brazilian
and U.S. Factory Workers." In Women, Men and the
International Division of Labor, June Nash and M.P.
Fernandez Kelly, eds. Albany: State University of New York
Press. pp. 95-116; 1983b. "The CBI and Women Workers."
Barbados: Women and Development Unit, Extra-Mural Dept.,
University of the West Indies.
Schmink, Marianne, 1982. Women in the Urban Economy in Latin
America. Working Paper no. 1, New York: Population
Schmink, Marianne and Carmen Barroso. Women's Programs for the
Andean Region and the Southern Cone: Assessment and
Recommendations. Report submitted to the Ford Foundation.
Smith, Margo, 1973. "Domestic Service as a Channel for Upward
Mobility for the Lower-Class Woman: The Lima Case." In
Female and Male in Latin America, Ann Pescatello, ed.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Tokman, Victor E. "Wages and Employment in International
Recessions: Recent Latin American Experience." Working
Paper #11, The Helen Kellogg Institute for International
Studies, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, USA; 46556.
Wainerman, Catalina H. and Zulma Recchini de Lattes, 1981.
El Trabajo Femenino en el Banquillo de los Acusados. The
Population Council and Editorial Terra Nova, S.A. Mexico, D.F.