In the 70s, the philosopher John Rawls published his Theory of Justice. He used a very powerful metaphor for this discussion: that of the “veil of ignorance.” He argued that if covered by a veil of ignorance about our individual characteristics, our socioeconomic status, our talents, and skills, we would be able to agree on a set of rules about our coexistence in society, only in those circumstances, we would be able to develop a scheme that treats everyone with justice.
After witnessing months of social instability in our region, in which thousands of people have raised their voices through public protests, demonstrations, and social media campaigns, Rawls and his theory come to mind. The call is loud and clear: to end inequality, whether in the form of income, opportunities, access to quality services, treatment and dignity. A substantial component of inequality, which particularly resonates on International Women’s Day, is the persistence of the barriers that prevent girls and women in the region from achieving their full potential. Ensuring women’s participation in the political, social and labor spheres must be a priority in the public policy agenda and responsibility of the men and women of the region.
Let’s talk about healthcare.
Even though access to healthcare has improved substantially in Latin America and the Caribbean, huge gaps remain in certain subgroups of the population. For example, worldwide maternal mortality has been significantly reduced. However, maternal mortality rates among indigenous women remain two to three times higher than those of the rest of the population. Institutional birth allows for managing emergencies that may occur during labor to reduce maternal mortality. However, in Mesoamerica, there are still large gaps in access to institutional delivery between indigenous and non-indigenous women. For example, 42% vs. 15% in Guatemala or 74% vs. 29% in Mexico. Indigenous women are not always satisfied with the care they receive in healthcare facilities. Being accompanied by a community health agent or being tended to in their native language are some of the things that users indicate as critical in receiving quality healthcare. Public policy still has much to do to improve access, use and satisfaction of healthcare services to indigenous women and other vulnerable groups in the region.
What about education?
It is necessary to recognize the great progress made in the region by achieving almost universal access to primary education. However, gaps still persist in specific groups of the populations: indigenous peoples, African descendants and people with disabilities. Being female and indigenous deepens this gap. In Bolivia, for example, the percentage of indigenous women in rural areas who have completed primary school is half that of non-indigenous men. It’s been established that the mother’s education achievement impacts the cognitive development of children between the ages of 2 and 5, specifically their language and communication skills. It is imperative to increase efforts to make education accessible to the diversity of the population of our countries.
The disparity in labor markets
To be a woman and an Afro-descendant in Panama constitutes a double disadvantage. Even when Afro-descendant women have more years of schooling than men (Afro-descendants or not) and the rest of the women in the country, they still face the highest unemployment rates. And those who get a job, receive the lowest income. The situation is not very different among Afro-descendant women in Costa Rica. In the Caribbean, where Afro-descendant women have a 55% labor participation, they occupy only 10% of leadership positions.
Achieving an environment where men and women can fully participate and develop their full potential on equal terms also presents challenges in domestic life. According to the World Health Organization, 4 out of 10 homicides of women in Latin America are caused by an intimate partner. In other words, the integrity and life of a significant number of women in our region are at risk at home. Violence affects 1 in 3 women in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is present in all socioeconomic levels. Its effects not only damage women’s physical and mental health but also their productivity and well-being and that of other members of the household and the community. It is a widespread problem that requires an urgent response and has fueled protests from tens of thousands of people in all countries of our region this year.
Now let’s go back to Rawls’s theory of justice and his vision of the veil of ignorance. The gender gaps that persist in Latin America and the Caribbean today, such as access to resources and opportunities, are inherited at birth. If you are born a woman, you will have fewer opportunities to participate in the social and economic spheres, and fewer opportunities to develop your full potential. If, in addition, you are born indigenous, Afro-descendant or with a disability, the barriers will be greater. Achieving gender equality requires an approach that addresses each stage of the life cycle and incorporates the needs of all girls and women equally. The conversation about inequality is the first step to build a more equitable, diverse and inclusive region. I invite you to continue this important conversation and to redouble our efforts to improve lives.