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LATIN AMERICA: Gender Stereotypes Still Firmly Entrenched, Despite Progress

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 20 2008 (IPS) - Constructing gender equality in Latin American societies remains an apparently arduous task. The issue is still confined to the ivory towers of academia, far away from the media, and is seldom included in the debates that really capture people’s attention.

Although several countries in the region have laws establishing similar rights and obligations for women and men, discrimination flourishes in the domestic sphere and is embedded in age-old ideas and traditions that regard the subordination of women as normal and natural.

“The challenge in this struggle for a culture of equality lies in the field of subjective attitudes,” Isabel Moya, the head of the Cuban state Editorial de la Mujer (Women’s Publishing House), told IPS. “Changes that depend on social awareness and customs do not happen automatically just because legislation has approved,” she said.

In the last 50 years, Cuban women have gained remarkable ground in public life, so that now they hold more than 43 percent of the seats in parliament, and make up 66 percent of the technical and professional work force. But within most families a patriarchal model remains firmly entrenched, which burdens women with a double or triple work day.

“In spite of their growing participation, in their private life at home women are still responsible for raising the children, household chores and caring for elderly parents – both their own and their partner’s,” said Moya, one of Cuba’s most tenacious defenders of women’s rights in the academic world and in the press.

According to Ximena Cabral, an Argentine journalist and professor at the National University of Córdoba, it is essential to “bring inequity and the stereotyping of feminine and masculine roles out into the open,” as these are expressed on a daily basis in explicit or symbolic acts of violence against women.

Cabral, 31, also said that the women’s movement, which is very strong in her country, must make organisational progress “in order to work through these gender issues, and exercise influence on public policies.”

In the view of Uruguayan lawyer Graciela Navarro, society as a whole must be made aware of the prevailing inequality, especially women, so that once they are convinced of their equal rights as citizens “they may mobilise and take action to achieve a truly equitable position in society.”

Argentine teacher Gabriela Romero said it is essential to train professors and teachers to include a gender perspective at all educational levels in order to avoid “the construction and perpetuation of stereotypes” that become ingrained from early childhood in the school environment.

Romero introduces a gender perspective when teaching young people and teenagers about responsible sexuality, going beyond the mechanics of how to prevent pregnancy. “I talk to them about situations from daily life, in working relationships and in the family,” she said.

“We think the role of the media is to support educational efforts,” said Carina Ambrogi. “They keep on reproducing the traditional preconceptions about the family, women and masculinity,” said the young journalist, who tries to include a gender perspective in her reporting on rural areas in Córdoba, in central Argentina.

“The media have an enormous responsibility in this issue, because they socialise value judgments, paradigms of success, and images of what masculine and feminine traits ought to be,” said Moya, who acknowledged there is growing interest in the Cuban press to discuss the problem of gender inequality.

Moya was one of the organisers of the Fifth International Diploma Course on Gender and Communication, hosted by the state “José Martí” International Journalism Institute from Feb. 4 to 14 and attended by 32 people from Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain, most of whom were women involved in journalism.

The speakers included well-known figures from the social sciences in Cuba, such as psychologists Patricia Arés and Consuelo Martín, from the University of Havana, and the head of the National Sex Education Centre (CENESEX), Mariela Castro.

The debate must go beyond purely academic discussion, according to Navarro, who co- founded the non-governmental organisation Infancia, Adolescencia Ciudadana (IACi) (roughly, Children and Adolescents as Citizens). “We must take the debate to society at large, using the mass media which reach every home, because the media tend to reinforce patriarchal concepts that run counter to equality,” she said.

“At present we are caught up in a largely academic debate on terminology and methods,” said Julio César González Pagés, the Cuban coordinator of the Ibero-American Masculinity Network, another speaker.

González said many gender workshops merely repeat the same old things, preaching to the choir, instead of “choosing to use the multiplying potential of ideas” to reach different audiences and raise awareness in different social sectors.

“It’s inconsistent to produce academic work which takes gender perspective into account, but then in our daily lives to realise that we are perpetuating, or are subject to, many stereotypes,” said Cabral.

“The challenge is to try to ‘monitor’ one’s own practice at all times,” said the journalist, who focuses on providing coverage for the women’s movement in the Argentine city of Córdoba.

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