"Women help to reduce poverty and raise family incomes, but they pay too high a price for it, because in every country their working days are longer than men's," said Sonia Montaño, head of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean's (ECLAC) Division for Gender Affairs.
Montaño spoke to IPS about issues that will be addressed at the 11th Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, to be held Jul. 13-16 in Brasilia.
The previous inter-governmental conference convened by ECLAC was held in Quito in 2007. Between 800 and 1,000 women, government officials as well as civil society representatives are expected to come to Brasilia, the Bolivian sociologist said.
Q: What is the aim of the conference?
A: To review progress in the region in terms of gender equality. At the meeting, governments will report on the outcomes of commitments they made, particularly in the Quito Consensus, a political agreement adopted three years ago.
At Brasilia an overall assessment of the situation of women will not be carried out; instead the focus will be on advances in women's economic empowerment.
Q: What will this focused review show?
A: The governments in fact chose this issue because its assessment has not been very positive. Other areas have shown more progress, like education and combating violence.
The trend over the last 15 years has been towards greater participation by women in the labour market, which is an important advance. Women go out to work for two reasons: financial need, and because they have the education to do so. Women are better educated now, and that is also positive.
The problem is that in every country, fewer women carry out paid work than men. Although there are various reasons for this, the core of the problem is that countries in the region have still not solved the problem of care.
In other words, women of all age groups, especially young women of reproductive age, have not got the state to provide services, or men to cooperate, and are losing extended family networks, to share the burden of caring for children, the sick and the elderly.
The mothers of young women tend to be working outside the home as well, and this creates a vacuum in available care. Family ties have become more fragile, there are greater numbers of elderly people, and the state has not invested enough in caring services.
This means that women are less mobile; they look for jobs close to home and accept more precarious and flexible work, because women are the only ones who have to find a balance between their work and family responsibilities.
The second difficulty is that women still tend to train in areas similar to what they have always done: caring. They are teachers, nurses, domestic employees. These jobs are lower paid, and so discrimination is perpetuated.
Women help reduce poverty and raise family incomes, but they do so at a high cost to themselves, because their total working hours, both paid and unpaid, are longer than men's in every country.
Q: Will ECLAC be presenting a study on the subject?
A: Yes. The study we are preparing is titled "¿Qué Estado para qué igualdad?" (roughly, What kind of state do we need, for what kind of equality?), and the question it poses is: what labour policies have been implemented in the last decade?
But what we find is that actually, rather than any employment policies as such, there have been investment policies instead.
Countries in general have striven to attract foreign investment, opening up employment niches in manufacturing industries for export, like "temporeras" (women seasonal workers) in Chile and "maquilas" (plants assembling goods for export) in Central America, but undermining the rights of male and female workers.
In maquilas, women work longer than the legal eight hours a day, without contracts, in disgraceful conditions, on a piece-work basis, under pressure, and in many cases their human rights are trampled on, as when pregnant women are illegally laid off.
Q: 2010 is the 15th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, and the 10th anniversary of the setting of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs - by United Nations states, to drastically reduce hunger, poverty, disease and illiteracy, empower women and protect the environment by 2015). How well is the region fulfilling the commitments it assumed at these two meetings?
A: What we have seen in March in New York, at (the 54th session of) the Commission on the Status of Women, is that compared with other regions, Latin America has done well, for a number of reasons.
Over the last seven or eight years there has been a sizeable reduction in poverty, as well as democracy and economic growth. In this context, which has been more favourable than in the 1980s and 1990s, the region achieved its educational goals and made progress in women's participation in employment.
But it has lagged behind on some extremely serious issues, like maternal mortality, which I would say is one of the wounds our region suffers. Countries that had good indices before the Beijing conference, such as Uruguay, Chile and Cuba, continue to do well. But those with a poor record, although they have improved somewhat, still have maternal mortality rates that cannot be excused.
It is inconceivable that, in a world where people can go to the moon, women should die in childbirth.
Much progress has also been made in terms of laws against gender violence and in women's access to credit, but less so in political participation. The regional average (of women lawmakers in parliaments) is still 17 percent, and at the current pace it would take another 50 years to reach the target of 40 percent. The present rate of progress is simply inadequate.