From the Feminization of Poverty to Women’s Political Leadership
The profound crisis in Argentina has revealed a trend that marks a step forward in women’s historical struggle. And there are signs that what has happened there is beginning to happen all over Latin America.
Isabel is an Argentine woman from the province of Salta. She used to get up very early in the morning, wake up the kids and go to the factory. Later, when she came home, she’d sit down at her Singer machine and sew, sew, sew. “Weekends were my great joy,” she said. “I’d ask the kids, ‘What do you want to eat? Mom’s cooking today!’”
Isabel loved to ask them what they were going to be when they grew up; although it stirred up dreams and expectations, she believed her question was a realistic one. Now, when she talks about this, there’s a bitter taste in her mouth. Her oldest child finished high school, the second almost made it, but for the other four there was no way. None of them are working now and two have already made her a grandmother: her sewing skills were not enough to provide white wedding dresses. Pressing her thin lips together into a pale line, Isabel explained that the youngest one wanted to study computer sciences. “But they don’t teach computer sciences around here, there are no computers and I don’t have enough money for the bus so he can go somewhere else.”
Isabel thought that something would turn up when they closed the factory, that she’d just have to endure things. But she began to worry when one by one her clients stopped ordering clothes from her. Although she considered herself a modern woman, she found herself making bread to save money. One day there was no food in the house, and she cried inconsolably but in secret. She had just lost her pride, her great satisfaction in life: “I raised my children alone and they never went without.” Two months later, she joined the roadblock in her neighborhood and began to write, carefully and frugally, with a black marker, on the brim of the canvas hat she wears now, a sign of her membership in the Polo Obrero (Workers’ Pole), one of the labor organizations that have come together in the National Picket Front umbrella.
Women heads of household: Isabel is one of 2.7 million women who are heads of households in Argentina. According to the official definitions, this means that they bring the most income into the home, whether or not it has a man in it. But to Isabel, this figure is neither surprising nor meaningful: “In poor neighborhoods, women are always heads of household, because many men leave, they get bored and you’re left with the kids, to struggle on as best you can.”
What does it mean to be the head?
Corroborating such impressions, statistics reveal that the number of households headed by women has been increasing in step with the crisis. In 1960 the figure was 15.3%. In 1991, 22.4%. With the 1995 “Tequila crisis,” it jumped to 26%. Today it’s 28.8%. These bitter indicators belie the notion that women’s progress as the main source of support for their families is linked to social and cultural progress, and suggest instead that this Pyrrhic leadership is associated with increased misery and the massive expulsion of men and women from the labor market. They also belie the common belief that women are more versatile when it comes to finding the job most in vogue in today’s Argentina: “whatever there is.”
The notion that all homes are organized around a head shows that the conception of the family as a hierarchic institution remains impermeable to cultural and social changes. And according to the specialists, cash is the determining factor here. The head of the household is the person who brings in the most money.
Nevertheless, the weight of cultural factors mitigates the power of money within the family. Perhaps the situation is more blatant now, and few feel it as a personal sin, an intimate failure, not to have a job. But as recently as the 1990 census, many families hid from the census taker the fact that it was the women in the household who earned the most. In a family made up of an elderly couple, a divorced daughter and the grandchildren, one would hardly dare rob the man of the title of head of household just because he had fallen into the misfortune of being retired. In the family, earning the most doesn’t always imply being the one who makes the decisions.
According to the statistics, households headed by women are an urban phenomenon: in the city of Buenos Aires, women represent a million of the 3.6 million heads of household, or 34.4%. Similar figures can be found in other big cities such as Córdoba, La Plata and Santa Fe. The rate of separation and divorce surely has an impact on this indicator, as does the fact that women’s average life expectancy (77) is greater than men’s (70).
Poverty has a woman’s faceThe feminist anarchist Emma Goldman once said, “Woman is the worker’s worker,” alluding to the double exploitation of women in comparison with the men in their same social class. Goldman was referring to the demands of motherhood and domestic work, women’s visible contributions to the economy that have been made invisible, although without them the cost of reproducing the labor force would be much higher.
In recent decades, the idea of the double workday of housework and paid work has been associated with another concept: the feminization of poverty. Most of the world’s poor are women. This is true in rich and poor countries alike. Even in families living above the poverty line, income is not equitably distributed between men and women, or between boys and girls. A series of studies has shown that marriage impoverishes women and enriches men in economic terms. Households maintained only by women are the most vulnerable.
Women face a doubly disadvantageous situation. They have lost the security provided by traditional marriage in the era of full employment, when men were the providers, but at the same time they have the highest unemployment rate (in Argentina it is 20.1% of economically active women), receive the worst wages and do the most precarious work, as domestic servants or in the deteriorated health, education or public administration sectors.
Roughly one million women are employed in domestic service in Argentina. Girls from the poorest families are forced to begin work at a very young age, have the most children, earn the least and remain in the labor market the longest. The poorest of the poor households are those with young children and a woman head of household. On average, female heads of household earn 28% less than male heads of household. And the fact that the female heads are often the only adult in the family obliges them to assume both the often sole role of provider and the tasks of caring for and raising the children and other household obligations.
Numerous studies have shown that women with well-paid jobs are more likely to devote a larger share of their income to their children’s well-being through education, nutrition and health care, than in homes headed by men. A study done in Guatemala revealed that to reach a similar level of child nutrition, families typically have to spend 15 times as much when the income comes from the father than when it comes from the mother.
Taking advantage of the fact that women invest in health and education for their children and are “better payers,” institutions ranging from the World Bank to the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh have implemented micro-credit plans for them. Too often, however, these only serve to sink them deeper into poverty. The experience of rural Bolivian women who were “benefited” into bankruptcy by these policies silenced those who had been defending them from an institutional feminist and pro-progress standpoint with the sad argument that a crumb is better than nothing.
Why these failures? Because the feminization of poverty has gone hand in hand with the privatization and destruction of social services and the reduction in public spending. Few economists in Argentina have bothered to quantify the contribution made by women who compensate as best they can for the deficit in the health, education and housing systems and, in the midst of this social catastrophe, have taken charge of feeding the population through neighborhood soup kitchens and snack bars all over the country.
The AIDS epidemic has also been feminizedGiven the economic stagnation, it might be said at first glance that poverty affects the health of men and women alike. This is not the case, however. Since women are the poorest among the poor, their health is also the most affected. This situation is compounded by the influence of the cultural context, which has saddled women with the role of caring for the family, even though its hierarchy places them last among its concerns. Women take their family to the hospital but rarely see a doctor themselves. Another of their “natural” responsibilities is to care for the sick: should there be any doubt about this, one only needs to cast a glance at history or around any hospital room, where sick women are either alone or cared for by other women, while men are cared for by their mothers, wives, girlfriends or daughters.
A June 2002 UN report, The Impact of Poverty on Women’s Health: A review of the latest news on HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean, emphasizes that “the social inequalities between men and women have contributed in a very alarming way to the feminization of the AIDS epidemic... Women, and especially girls, often lack the power to negotiate decisions related to their sexual lives: they cannot say no to the man and thus cannot negotiate with him to have safer sex. The feminization of the epidemic, which occurred simultaneously with the feminization of poverty, shows the direct relationship that exists between poverty and HIV/AIDS.
“This epidemic has had the sharpest impact on the poorest people in the world, who are mostly women and children. Poverty means that they are more exposed to abuse and high risk behavior, such as sex. Innumerable girls and young women support themselves and their families by selling or trading sex. Along with poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, machismo is one of the leading causes of the feminization of the AIDS epidemic in the region. Machismo promotes and perpetuates the disparities of power, and thus increases the vulnerability of young women to HIV.”
The victims are protagonistsThis spectrum of misery and inequality might help explain why women have taken a leading role in the Argentine rebellion. Women are now the majority in the two most important political phenomena of the day: in the empty pot marches and grassroots assemblies and in the roadblock picketers. They have come onto the political stage with a determination and force that would make their grandmothers proud, those implacable anarchists of the early 20th century who produced eight issues of La Voz de la Mujer, a journal that analyzed the junctions between gender and class oppression with remarkable clarity.
Argentina’s picketers, women who are battered by poverty but are proud and have unshakable convictions, took the Salta Conference by storm. They told thousands of women that they would share the workshops with them, to talk not about sharing their suffering but sharing their fight to the death against those responsible for their suffering. Some might think that this fight for survival has relegated to second place any reflection on the issues raised by radical feminism, but this is not the case. The women picketers put in their place the Church women who came to speak against abortion, against contraception, to say that only heterosexual relationships are tolerable in the eyes of God and society and that the home is the sanctuary of femininity. And putting them in their place meant exactly that: not standing on the ceremony of the “good little woman.”
Although it might sound heretical to some, questioning and fighting the sanctuaries of capitalism might be the way to destroy all the sanctuaries of oppression, including the one that, as Emma Goldman put it, has made women into the worker’s worker.