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LATIN AMERICA: Gender Equality in Education not Matched in Labour Market

Gustavo González *

SANTIAGO, Sep 16 2005 (IPS) - One of the few Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have already met or are well on their way to fulfilling refers to gender equality at all levels of education.

However, that achievement is not reflected by better job opportunities for women or equal pay for men and women.

There are more girls than boys enrolled in primary and secondary school in nearly all of the countries in the region, and there are also more women than men in higher education in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay.

The fourth goal set by the MDGs – which were adopted at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000 – is to “Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and at all levels of education no later than 2015.”

The 38th meeting of the presiding officers of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, held Sep. 7-8 in the Argentine resort city of Mar del Plata, focused on progress towards the MDG gender equity targets.

Marta Maurás, secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), noted in the meeting’s central report that women’s wages are 30 to 40 percent lower on average than those of men.

She also pointed to the paradox that the income gap is greater among workers with more than 13 years of education than among those with the least education.

In the study on the region’s compliance with the MDGs, ECLAC described “overlapping inequalities” in the areas of education and gender, where gender inequalities are compounded by other forms of social, racial and ethnic discrimination, and increased opportunities for women are counteracted by poverty or the urban-rural gap.

For example, in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and Panama, the illiteracy rate among indigenous women is higher than the rate among men, the report noted.

ECLAC also underscored the persistence of stereotypes in the spheres of education and labour that legitimise male and female “roles”.

Sociologist Olga Martín with Venezuela’s National Women’s Institute, a government institution, told IPS that “we have not yet seen transformations in the educational system that would put an end to gender discrimination, such as changing the social roles assigned to women and men in order to build families based on more democratic foundations.”

She was referring to the fact that many women have a double workday, working outside the home while being almost exclusively responsible for the housework and childcare at the same time.

“The statistical curve indicates that in education, women have won the space to which they have a right,” said Octavio Vélez, a researcher in education at the Las Salles University in Mexico.

“But there are still unresolved problems, like teen pregnancy or poverty, with thousands of cases of young women who drop out of school for these reasons,” he commented to IPS.

Lucila Zambrano, who teaches at a secondary school in the impoverished southwestern district of Caracas, told IPS that “Nearly every year, in almost every class of 30 to 35 students, half of whom are girls, a girl drops out because of pregnancy – not because she is forced to by the school, but due to a decision taken by herself or her family.”

“Girls also drop out because they are kept at home to do the housework, and in other cases because they run away from home, their neighbourhood or the city, fleeing domestic violence or sexual abuse, often at the hands of their stepfathers,” said Zambrano.

But despite these sometimes adverse conditions, “girls and women still stand on an equal footing, and are often more dedicated and efficient students,” said Vélez.

Paola Martínez, a public high school student in Mexico, described to IPS the difficulties she faces in continuing to study while her mother toils as a domestic worker. “My mother works and I help her out, but she has to work so hard and I feel sorry for her.

“I’m going to continue my studies as long as I can. I would like to become a teacher after I finish high school. It’s lucky that in school they give us textbooks and other materials for free,” she said, adding that her mother urges her to go as far as she can.

Girls who drop out of school to help raise younger siblings or to get a job “find it easier than men to get over their embarrassment and return to school. But after that, they have to overcome the pressure of their boyfriends or husbands, in order to continue studying,” Argentine activist Laura Velasco told IPS.

Velasco is national coordinator of popular education in Barrios de Pie, an organisation of the unemployed in Argentina that runs 1,300 adult education centres in 20 provinces. Each centre provides schooling to an average of seven adults, 85 percent of whom are women.

Velasco said the mothers often attend class with their children and must “improvise arrangements for child care or tutoring for their school-age kids” while they study.

“A regrettable gap in the education and gender MDGs is the question of preschool coverage, which in Chile and in Latin America as a whole remains low, thus making it difficult for young mothers to study at the university or take adult education classes,” Chilean economy student María José López, a single mother of a three-year-old girl, commented to IPS.

In its summary of progress towards the MDGs in Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC states that with the exception of Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and the small Caribbean island of Anguilla, girls outnumber boys in enrolment in secondary schools.

It also points out that Mexico is the only country in the region where the proportion of women in tertiary education is not equal to or greater than that of men.

In addition, the U.N. regional agency observes that girls from poor urban areas in Ecuador and Guatemala attend primary school less regularly than do boys, while enrolment among girls is lower in rural parts of Panama and Guatemala.

Regionwide, only 55 percent of poor adolescent girls between the ages of 13 and 19 and 58 percent of poor adolescent boys attend secondary school.

Lara Blanco, a U.N. Development Programme expert, told IPS that 45 percent of children enrolled in primary school in Costa Rica do not complete secondary school. But she also explained that girls find it easier to combine domestic work with their studies than boys, who drop out in greater numbers to join the workforce.

This reverse gender gap is also seen in Brazil, where women account for 56.9 percent of university students and 62.9 percent of university graduates. They also represent a majority in post-graduate study programmes.

The situation should be evened out by fighting the root causes of the imbalance, like child labour, and by providing grants that enable students to stay in school, because boys probably leave school sooner than girls in order to find a job, Luis Fernando Rezende, a researcher at the Planning Ministry’s Institute of Applied Economic Research, remarked to IPS.

* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente (Argentina), Mario Osava (Brazil), Manuel Bermúdez (Costa Rica), Diego Cevallos (Mexico) and Humberto Márquez (Venezuela).

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