Women`s Economic Empowerment in Latin America

Women’s Economic Empowerment in Latin America. A (proposed) Research Agenda
Valeria Esquivel, Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, Argentina
[email protected]
Latin America is a heterogeneous region. If something, the global economic crisis has
highlighted this aspect yet again. Depending on their external specialization, their
dependence on exports, on remittances, and on foreign capital, economies’ performance
has differed enormously. The “policy space” economies enjoyed to put anti-crisis policies
in place partly explain such performance. This policy space is not a “given”, but is closely
related to the pre-crisis growth pattern, as well as the “political space” and “political
orientation” different administrations have to economic policy.
Most Latin American countries were able to absorb and mitigate the external shocks quite
successfully, as the region as whole re-started growth in 2010 (until the first half of 2011),
and such recovery translated into improvements in social indicators, in particular in
unemployment levels and in absolute poverty. Also, in a region that stands out for its high
levels of income inequality, the fact that Gini Coefficients did not deteriorate during the
crisis is also indicative that pre-crisis gains did not fade away for most of the countries.
As in previous crises in the region, the rise in unemployment was greater among men, who
concentrate in the most dynamic economic sectors, and are therefore more prone to be
affected by the downturn. And as men withdrew from the labour market while women
remained in it, the gap in LFP closed a bit.
But women and men are not homogeneous groups in a region marked by multiple
inequalities, in particular inequalities in the access of resources and job
opportunities. Therefore, averages, even if informative of the differences between the
current crisis and others the region has experienced, say very little about the true nature of
the labour markets, and of how different women and men are able to face the crisis, or
benefit from GDP recovery. For example, women’s averages in labor force participation
and unemployment incidence are the result of different dynamics, depending on household
income. In the last decade, labor force participation decreased and unemployment
increased for women in the lower income strata, while the opposite trend was evident
among women in the uppermost income strata (ECLAC, 2011c). Differences were even
greater among mothers since 2005 and during the crisis years (ECLAC, 2011b: 30), which
meant that labor force participation and unemployment gaps have risen among them.
Moreover, while mothers in the uppermost quintile of the income distribution present
roughly the same unemployment figures irrespective of the age of their children, those who
are among the poorest and have children below school age suffer even higher
unemployment than their fellow disadvantaged mothers, a fact that underscores the links
between disadvantageous labor market insertions and the pressures of providing care.
We know Latin America is among the most unequal regions in the world, yet we
tend to think inequality as a dimension different from that of the functioning of
labour markets, a “side effect” of the functioning of markets.
This has led to two fundamental gaps in research and theory:
First, the disconnection between the understanding of macroeconomic regimes,
economies’ structure and their patterns of growth, and the functioning of different sections
of the labour market, on the one hand, and the ways in which inequality shapes the
allocation of labor more generally, labour markets and the structure of the economy. Those
who do macro generally focus on averages and stylized facts, and inequality along with
broad distributive issues, remain usually out of the picture.
And secondly, although unpaid care work (UCW) has been taken onboard in feminist
debates, it certainly has not been taken on board in talks about growth patterns and
macroeconomic policy, even if data are presented in a “macro” or aggregate way.
Moreover, UCW has been placed by us feminist within “the social” as if the social was
divorced from “the economic”. That means in particular, that the “care economy” is rapidly
associated with “women’s issues” and divorced from macroeconomic debates, and that
our worries have focused maybe too much on social policy (our debates over CCTs
illustrates this point), but such focus has not challenged market functioning. Worse, it
carries the implicitly acceptance of social policy as an afterthought, as the “ambulance”
that picks the casualties of macroeconomic performance, missing interlinks between the
social and the economic.
Therefore, the theoretical and political challenge is to put forward an integrated approach
yet nuanced and complex approach, in which we understand the interplay of
inequalities (class, gender, urban/rural, of UCW needs and burdens) with more
structural growth features.