In Latin America
By Laura Carlsen
13 March, 2005
the continent, there is an offensive against the rights of women. The
litany of losses or less-than-hoped-for gains announced this International
Women's Day only proved what women across Latin America already knew.
Most law does not
recognize the term "sexual rights," and the religious right
has been working hard to eliminate the term "reproductive rights"
as well. A coordinated effort to rescind parts of the Cairo agreement--if
not in law at least in practice--has seriously affected the exercise
of hard-won rights.
In several countries
legislators have introduced changes in the penal code to punish "injury
to the as-yet unborn." These laws open a Pandora's Box of potential
interpretations that in many cases would conflict directly with the
existing rights of women.
Abortion is still
illegal in most places, except under very narrow circumstances. In places
such as Mexico City , where reforms have been passed to permit abortions
under a broader range of conditions, the lack of response within the
public health system still often leaves poor women without the option.
A recent survey
in Mexico shows that only half the sexually active adolescents protect
themselves from sexually transmitted disease. The Latin American Women's
Health Center announced that in all of Latin America only one of every
ten single, sexually active adolescents uses contraceptives. The number
of HIV-AIDS patients has been rising steadily, despite underreporting,
and the percentage of women among them is also on the rise.
Another result is
an increase in teen pregnancies--half a million last year in Mexico
. Besides posing a higher health risk to both mother and baby, in most
cases the social and economic structures necessary to support a child
are nonexistent or insufficient. And the impact on the human development
of the young mother can be devastating, turning dreams into drudgery.
Changes in the global
economy have also had negative effects on Latin American women. A tour
through the Mexican countryside is enough to note the profound impact
on women's lives. Male emigration has left women with the double work
of farm and family, while the number of female-headed households, both
rural and urban, has doubled in a single decade.
also transformed women's work, and often not for the better. Thousands
of women and their children labor in subhuman conditions in the fields
of export products. A recent study follows transnational tomatoes as
they are passed from women's hands to women's hands: from the indigenous
migrant women who pick them, to the mestiza women workers in the packing
plant, to immigrant women servers in fast-food restaurants. Each sector
hires predominantly women because they can pay them less and exploit
them more. Latin American and Caribbean women make only 68 cents to
a man's dollar.
Much of the world
has heard about the rape and murder of young women in Ciudad Juárez.
But few really know that a double crime is still being committed in
that Mexican border town. Bodies continue to appear half-buried in the
desert dust. Buried too, the truth of what happened to them. A succession
of governments--local, state, and federal--has decided that the death
of factory girls is a small price to pay for the foreign investment
in offshore assembly plants that holds up the local economy. More than
that, there is credible evidence of cover-ups. We may never know what
sinister misogynist forces are behind the murders, because misogyny
is also behind the law enforcement agencies assigned to the cases.
Similar crimes have
been reported in Guatemala, where crime statistics show a sharp rise
in murders--1,300 since 2001--and NGOs estimate that the real number
is up to three times the official report. Meanwhile, the special police
unit assigned to investigate the murder of women was cut from 22 to
claims the lives of 14 women a day in Mexico, but the law in 8 states
does not consider domestic violence a crime and 12 do not penalize rape
in marriage. It is often the custom to consider a rape case resolved
if the rapist offers to marry the victim. As if that form of lifelong
subjection weren't bad enough, according to the UN representative on
violence against women, a thousand dollars will buy you a little girl
on the southern border of Chiapas.
Under the second
Bush administration, women's rights organizations throughout the world
can expect to have an even more determined adversary. During the "Beijing
plus Ten" conference, the U.S. government delegation objected to
the use of the term "sexual rights," protested any reference
to the "right to abortion," and called for an amendment stating
that the agreement creates "no new international human rights."
The Bush government has already cut international health funding for
services that include abortions.
Too often, women's
organizations battle against a tide of reaction while even progressive
forces pay only lip service to their demands. Supporting women's rights
is not a matter of being politically correct or expressing solidarity.
It is an integral part of any definition of justice or development.
Sadly, the tendencies
mentioned above are growing, not abating. The attempts to roll back
progress on sexual and reproductive rights, the degradation of women's
work, and rising violence against women are characteristics of the twenty-first
century. Many of us had hoped by now to see a better future for our
daughters. But today, even to just reverse these trends will take all
our efforts--and theirs as well.
directs the Americas
Program of the International Relations Center (IRC). She can
be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org