The European conquest of the New World altered the lives of indigenous women. European women did not arrive to the New World only for years after the initial invasions. Indian women were continuously exploited in the form of labor, catering, and sexual gratification. Elite Indian women were able to gain a somewhat privileged position through their liaisons with the European men. As more and more European women began to arrive in the New World, Indian women were confined to the bottom of the ethnic and class hierarchy.
A particular concern of the colonists was that their purity of blood be preserved, meaning that no black or Indian people could enter into the family lineage. This in return caused careful controlling of women s behavior. Under the regulation of patria potestad, women remained under the legal authority of their fathers until marriage, when authority was transferred to their husbands.
During the nineteenth century women s public life was limited. Women also still remained legally minors. There were some advances in education which helped some women to enter into professions. There were also alterations of civic codes which ultimately abolished the patria potestad laws in many countries. Latin American women entered the 20th century with better education and legal status but with still restricted roles. Women initiated campaigns for equal political and civil rights. But despite some gains they continued to be discriminated, shaped by machismo, and poor women faced the double duty of family and employment.
According to historical records almost 30 percent of households in the city of Sao Paulo in 1765, were headed by women that were single, married whose husbands were absent, or widows. By 1802, this rose to 44 percent, falling to 39 percent by 1836. This was due to the need of male labor migration in an economy based primarily on plantation agriculture. Taking the average age of female heads it is noticed that the female heads are an average of 7 years older than male heads. Many of the female heads are widows. Female heads earn less income than their male counter parts and on an average have less education than the males.
One of the most notable characteristics of today s poverty in Latin America is the growing number of women among the poor. Today about 20 percent of the poorest households in Latin America are headed by women, but in some cities the percentage rises to almost 38 percent. A review of 22 studies of women-headed households in Latin America reveals that there is a strong correlation between female head-ship and poverty, and that such households are increasing in number.
There are many reasons why we are seeing a rise in the number of households headed by women which are in poverty. Women have less access to land, credit and technologies, therefore women farmers have to work longer hours and they have fewer assets and lower incomes than men farmers. Female headed households are likely to be poorer than male-headed households because they have fewer working members of the family, they have lower average wage earnings, less access to jobs and productive resources. Most Latin American women have less education than men. These are some of the key reasons why we are seeing a increase in poor households headed by women.
There are more and more women working as wage laborers. Fruit companies in Chile rely exclusively on women for harvesting, processing, and packing fruit. In Columbia women cultivate and pack flowers. In general they are paid less than men. In Honduras for example women are paid 70 percent of the male wage for performing the same tasks in tobacco cultivation. It is clear that the women who do participate in the labor force and have the same education level as men are discriminated from men. Discrimination is clearly an important factor. It is not so much that female -headed households have lower incomes because of them having more children or fewer adults, but clearly the head of the household being a female, earns less.
Because there are many women who lack education and skills, women in formal sector employment tend to be clustered in jobs that offer little potential for training or advancement. In Brazil, Chile, and Peru over 50 percent of economically active women work in the service sector (1988). Most of the women who do have better paying jobs in the formal sector are self employed. Usually self-employment doesn t have much growth potential.
The problem with women in the workforce doesn t stop there. In households where there is a male head of the house, a women s income is still highly depended on. Female income is often a secondary or tertiary source of income. Many rural families rely upon the work of its female members for most of its food. Traditionally the money earned by men is used only for corn and firewood, forcing the wife to develop her own income in order to provide for other family necessities. With less and less land becoming available for cultivation and unable to produce enough corn for the year, the men are forced to find additional income in order to supplement what they can grow.
Female economic development has been hampered by the fact that women have found themselves utilizing traditional skills and market connections first established by their mothers and grandmothers. Rarely has a women ventured into learning a new kind of work. Complete reliance on traditional skills has limited the economic growth of women. Women seem to be moving away from the traditional family businesses. Within the last generation the women are going from traditional women s work to more modern employment.
The traditional model is one in which the daughters help their mothers with their family business and in the process learn enough to initiate the same type of business after they marry. The daughter usually starts helping her mother with her business around the age of nine or ten doing small but helpful jobs. By the time the daughter reaches puberty she is a competent and efficient worker. It is at this time that their daughters are a valuable asset. During the daughters teenage years the business is at its peak production. When the daughter marries at 19 or 20 the mother daughter arrangement ends as the new bride turns her attention to her new home, and then the mother must rely on the younger daughters to help with the family business. Then the older daughter becomes an asset to her new mother-in-law. The use of family members is very important for their business. Children replace workers that otherwise may need to be hired to run the business. Family members usually are more efficient and the families probably could not bare the financial expense of hired workers.
Women in the work force have problems, but they also have problems within their families as well. The female as we have seen is depended on for financial income. At the same time the female has extended responsibilities and concerns at home. Along with working outside the home the female is generally the care taker in raising the children and doing domestic chores around the home. In general the females control the families domestic budget but this seems to be dropping with the rising standard of living of the town.
Stable marriages are rare, women believe, due to the inevitable failings of men whom they consider to be hopelessly unreliable. Women of Latin America believe men do their best to live up to their insensitive macho behavior. Men believe they do not need to explain their intemperate behavior. Many Latin American men grow up to expect servitude and obedience from their wives. Women are socialized to fulfill their subordinate, long-suffering roles passively, accepting male responsibility, wickedness, and foolishness as their destiny. Thus, women enter into a marital union expecting the worse from their spouses. Expected to succumb to his domination, she is both defenseless and immobilized.
More and more Latin American women with time are acting to protect their own interests. More educated women are demanding more equality in marriage through the use of birth control. While they value the maternal role they are understanding the rising costs of having children and want more from the marital relationship than motherhood. They want their husbands to respect and trust them, and to forego extramarital affairs and other forms of abuse.
Today in Rio de Janeiro there are five police stations that exist solely to handle crimes against women. While Brazil has advanced from military dictatorship toward democracy violence against women remains endemic. The first national study of the problem, in 1992, reported an average of 337 assaults on women daily.
Feminists in Brazil in 1985 made a serious gain with the establishment of the women s police stations. Feminists moved for this because they believe male policemen don t take wife beating seriously. They see it as a domestic argument that has nothing to do with them and is certainly not a crime. On paper, Brazil s women have made great gains in recent years. The country s 1988 constitution bans discrimination against women, requires the state to combat violence against them and mandates 120 days of maternity leave. In reality there still remains traditional theories of women s behavior and much discrimination.
Ehlers ,Tracy Bachrach, Silent Looms ,Westview Press, 1990.
Paolisso, Michael and Sally W. Yudelman, Women, Poverty, and the environment in Latin America International Center For Research on Women, September (1991):1-16.