Progress for women in Latin America and the Caribbean over the last few decades has been impressive. Many women now take center stage in the arts, business, music, politics, science and the sports world. Laws equally protect women, and the increase in their labor force participation has been rapid, rising 17 percentage points in the 25 years between 1990-2015 to more than 60%.
Nonetheless, women are still 30% less likely than men to hold jobs, and more likely to be poor and enter old age without a decent pension. All of this harms the exercise of human rights and economic efficiency and calls for urgent change.
The problem of teenage pregnancy
As we illustrate in a recent review one of the central problems is that women in Latin America and the Caribbean become mothers and get married at young ages, limiting their choices later in life. The region has one the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world. By ages 20-24, one in four women has had a child, having done so before they turned 18.
This manifests in stark gender disparities as early maternity leads to school dropout, a limited participation in the labor market, and the disproportionate assumption of family and house work. In the early years of adulthood, for example, young men tend to be still living with their parents and working in their first serious jobs. But a large percentage of young women, though they may want to be working or studying, are at home taking care of families.
By ages 25-64, these patterns are fully in place. Women are spending 22 more hours a week on household duties than men and 25 more hours per month working overall. Since it is hard to spend that much time taking care of a house and still hold down a full-time job, only six in ten work for pay. Even among those that are employed, remuneration for women tends to be worse. Some 27% work in part-time jobs, compared to 13% for men, and more than half in the informal sector, where incomes and benefits are inferior.
Ultimately, over their lifespans, women not only make less money, they have fewer employment benefits than men. The region’s welfare system, based on labor market participation, leaves women vulnerable at every phase of life, especially in old age. And these low earnings and benefits give women less bargaining power in the household, a factor that is likely to play into the region’s high rates of domestic violence.
This is an untenable situation that reflects biological, cultural and economic phenomena. But it is not irreversible.
Programs to reduce gender inequality
Studies reveal that even very early interventions can make a difference. High quality early childhood education programs, for example, have been shown to reduce both criminal behavior among boys and teenage pregnancy rates among girls. In the 1960s intensive active learning — accompanied by weekly visits by teachers to students’ homes — was transformative for a disadvantaged group of preschoolers in the United States. Kids, aged three to five, who attended The Perry School Project were followed to age 27. They had half as many arrests, an 11 percentage reduction in the likelihood of being parents, and significantly higher earnings.
The Opening Opportunities (Abriendo Oportunidades) program in Guatemala for impoverished indigenous Mayans aged 8-17, involved similarly intensive interactions with role models, including mentors, professional training and work experience. The initiative reduced teenage pregnancy by 12 percentage points. It also ensured that virtually all participants remained unmarried during the program and helped nearly half of them get paying jobs by the end of it.
Programs might also try to address stereotypes that make girls shy away from professions that involve math and science.
During adulthood, many of the programs that have proved most helpful are financial in nature. Pre-primary education, for example, while essential for kids development, can serve as a form of subsidized childcare that releases mothers to work at gainful employment. Subsidies also can be given to firms that hire economically vulnerable women, as the Bonus for Women’s Work (Bono al Trabajo de la Mujer) program has done in Chile, slightly increasing vulnerable women’s employment rate. Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs can help mothers to start businesses, enter the labor market, and find a firmer economic footing.
The need for multiple policies and a shift in cultural norms
At every stage of the lifecycle, programs exist to enable women to achieve formal recognition for their work and improve their wellbeing. Ultimately, however, none of these programs in and of themselves are going to overcome gender inequality or its impacts on opportunity and poverty. Nor will they prevent many women from reaching old age, dependent on limited non-contributory pensions — when they are available — to achieve some measure of financial stability.
The solutions must combine policy approaches. And they must involve changes in attitudes and cultural norms that hold that men should be free of household work and women should take care of the family.