Gender equality: the picture in Latin America

14 Mar

On 6 March 2014, as part of UCL’s Lunch Hour Lecture series, Professor Maxine Molyneux, from UCL’s Institute of the Americas, presented her research on the impact of global policy on women in Latin America, to mark International Women’s Day.

Molyneux has been involved for many years in the issue of policy involvement in the area of women’s rights. Her interest is in effective policy interventions: what policy environments produce positive impacts on women’s lives in developing countries?

The MDGs

The Millennium Development Goals are eight international development goals that were established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000. The third MDG is ‘To promote gender equality and empower women’ and Molyneux’s research focuses on the Latin American region, monitoring the progress that has been made, the obstacles that women still face in achieving greater equality and justice, sexual and reproductive rights and measures to tackle violence against women in the Andean region and in Mexico.

The MDGs represent the first time there has been a full global consensus of this kind. However, there is scepticism around whether themeasures put in place are reaching those most in need. Molyneux posed the question: do the gender equality frameworks established in response to MDG3 reach the very poorest in those areas and do they make a difference? Governments can be reluctant to use resources and can be selective about which measures they adopt. But, on a global scale, significant advances have been made as a result of the MDGs. For example, there has been a fast reduction in poverty globally. Child death rates have also fallen by at least 30% and deaths form malaria have fallen by 25%.

So significant gains can be attributed to the MDGs. But the figures must be put into context. Poverty reduction in India and China may be due to economic growth, but in Latin America, active efforts to reduce poverty that have contributed to the drop. And when it comes to gender equality, this was behind target for 2010. However, progress has been made since then, thanks to renewed efforts.

Latin America

Latin America is a very diverse region, with a middle-sized income. However, its 20 countries vary in terms of size, population and size of territory. There are also huge variations within countries and regions, in terms of wealth. In 2002, the richest 10% had 40% of the total income, while the poorest 20% received only 4.7%. The disparity is echoed in global terms: still, the top 5% richest have 80% of the global wealth.

According to figures from the 2012 GI Ranking, the top performers when it comes to gender equality are Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, who were ranked around 40. The worst performers were Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, ranked at around 110–120; to put this into context, the UK is ranked around 26.

In fact, on a global scale, Latin America ranks around the upper middle in gender inequality, above Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but below Europe and the US and, in the global south, Latin America is the region that has made the most progress in terms of women’s rights. This is partly due to economic reasons; there is more money to spend on policies favouring women, but Molyneux cautioned that GDP alone is not an indicator, for example, in Gulf countries in the Middle East, wealth is high, but life for women is not so good.

Political factors

There are political reasons for progress in gender equality in this region. The Latin American policy environment favours human rights agendas. There is widespread democracy across the region, and a proliferation of left-of-centre political parties in government, headed by leaders such as Chavez and Morales, whose left-wing policies are aligned with social and women’s rights movements. The politicization of these movements also means that women were able to gain positions of power and use their influence to empower women. Figures such as Michelle Bachelet (the former head of UN Women, who has just been elected President of Chile for the second time), who is active on a global scale, have been pivotal in foregrounding the implementation of the MDGs in Latin America.

The seeds of change in the region were sown long ago. From the mid 1980s, Latin America has benfitted from favourable political conditions and democratic, sympathetic governments who adopted international women’s rights frameworks, creating a context in which those frameworks could begin to be part of the political agenda.


The third MDG promotes gender equality and the empowering of women. These are basic but important goals, Molyneux said. Targets set for Latin America were: to eradicate the gender gap in education, improving the ratio of girls to boys and raising literacy levels among women; waged employment of women in the non-rural economy; and a greater share of women in positions in parliament.

The outcomes of these targets are that, in Latin America, girls now outperform boys in school; there has been a reversal in the gender gap in terms of education. However, this does not carry through to rural, poorer areas, where women and girls are disadvantaged through poverty, and often drop out of school to marry, or they get pregnant.

There is a similar ambiguous picture in terms of employment; although women have been entering the workplace since the mid 1980s, and women now make up an average of 52% of the workforce, there has been an overall decline in waged work. So people are being paid less, meaning more women have to work to support their families. Often, these jobs are in the informal sector where women work in precarious, low-paid jobs in predominantly the service sector, in which they have no social rights. Currently there are 12 million domestic workers, 90% of whom women, and most of these women are from racial and ethnic minorities.

The pay gap between men and women is also wide, and women are often not in jobs commensurate with their education level. The care economy is also borne by women; it still falls to women to care and work within the home.

In politics, the average proportion of women in parliaments is 25% (2013), (better than the UK!). Opinion polls in Latin America reveal that, although the people often want a man as their leader, they place more trust in women in parliament. In fact, since 2000, six women have served as presidents in Latin America.

Maternal mortality is still a problem, and rates of maternal mortality are especially high in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Reproductive and sexual rights are also still an issue, with around four million risky terminations being carried out, and a lack of knowledge and use of contraceptives, which has a big impact on overall.


Looking to the future, will the post-2015 agenda do better? Global consultations have taken place and the top priorities are to eradicate extreme poverty; there is a need to go beyond earlier MDGs to reach the poorest but the targets are still vague.

In the new framework there will be more focus on violence against women. Violence in general is a huge problem in Latin America, where 30% of homicides take place. There is also a need to tackle the phenomenon of femicide, which has swept through countries such as Mexico and Guatemala. There are also calls to end child marriage, to ensure equal rights for women to own property, sign a contract, register a business and to open a bank account.

Summing up, Molyneux said that, ultimately, progress for women is contingent on much bigger issues that affect everyone and go beyond specific targets, concerning what development model governments will pursue. The MDGs hint at the bigger issues but the question is, will the post-2015 framework be enough? Recent protests in Chile and Brazil show that the question is in the minds of the people.


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