Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 169 | Agosto 1995


Central America

New, Wider Households in Women's Hands

In recent years Central American families have changed profoundly, and their homes have also been transformed. The cause? Defending themselves from the political violence of the 80s and surviving the economic crisis of the 90s.

María Angélica Fauné

Despite all the changes Central American families have lived through in recent years, the region is slow to change the fertility patterns among the poorest sectors with the lowest education levels the immense majority of the region's emerging families. The fertility rate of Central American women, particularly rural women, is still high, with an average of four children in Costa Rica, eight in Honduras, seven in Nicaragua and Guatemala and six in Panama and El Salvador. The rate is even higher among indigenous women: in the case of Guatemala, 6.9 children compared to 5.8 among ladino women.

Among the factors that most affect a decrease in the fertility rate is women's educational level. Throughout the region, women with medium level education or higher show a lower fertility rate, averaging two to three children. Those with no schooling or who only completed primary grades have between five and eight children. Even though fertility rates will probably be lower in the 21st century, a substantial part of the lives of women forming part of families living in poverty, especially rural and indigenous women, will turn on bearing and rearing a large number of children for many years.

Very Young Mothers

Thirty percent of Central America's children are born to mothers under 19 years of age, and these births are concentrated in women from 15 17 years of age. In the rural zones and among indigenous women, maternity occurs at even younger ages from 10 to 17.

Early maternity rates have risen in all Central American countries, including Panama and Costa Rica. A National Survey on Reproductive Health carried out in Costa Rica in 1993 showed that the only group whose fertility has increased since 1986 was of women aged between 15 and 19 and with three years or less of primary school. In 1986, their specific fertility rate was registered at 170; by 1993 it had climbed to 220, indicating that early fertility is characteristic among young women living in extreme poverty. According to the Bulletin of Vital Statistics, the fertility rate in Panama for women under 15 years increased from 2.5 to 3.1 during the 1980s, with childbearing beginning as early as 10 years of age. In El Salvador, the estimated rate in 1988 was 138 births per 1,000 women from 15 to 19 years of age, the highest in all of Latin America.

Case studies done in Costa Rica in 1991 with Nicaraguan and Salvadoran refugee women, both urban and rural, observed that adolescents not only reproduced the fertility pattern their mothers had followed, but also began childbearing two or three years earlier than their mothers. Costa Rican National Fertility Surveys showed that premature sexual relations with no protection have contributed to the increased adolescent pregnancies, establishing that only 15% of Costa Rican adolescents used contraceptives at the time of their first sexual relation.

The high risks associated with adolescent pregnancy place it among the five leading causes of death for Central American women. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, 8% of women between 15 and 44 years of age died due to causes related to pregnancy and childbirth in the mid 1980s. In Honduras, the number was 16%.

Sexuality Associated with Reproduction

Fertility rates have always been very high among the rural and indigenous population, given the prevalence of a cultural pattern that associates sexuality with reproduction. Characteristics of recent urban migration along with low educational levels, overcrowding and sexual violence explain the expansion of this traditional pattern among the population of marginal neighborhoods in the large cities.

In line with this pattern, there is no conception of a union without children. More than anything, procreation represents the social legitimation of both masculine and feminine identity. The proof of virility to all society is that a man has the means to make a woman pregnant. Women also experience their fertility as the legitimation of their feminine identity in society's eyes. Pregnancy is proof that they have "pledged themselves to a man."
Since the necessary and sufficient proof of masculinity and femininity is, in the strictest sense, the pregnancy almost more than the children, this explains not only the high fertility level that persists in a broad sector of women, but also the significance or meaning of the children and of paternity itself. In this pattern, then, children are not planned, but are the natural and inevitable result of the union between a man and a women, who must prove their own identities through the act of procreation.

The Name of a Father

In Central America, the filiation pattern has been and continues to be patrilineal: children carry their father's last name. This is one persisting pattern that has not lost social legitimacy. Nevertheless, male practices point to a contradictory tendency. Although society's patrilineal character is not up for discussion, there is often no will on the part of fathers to recognize this filiation.

Statistics demonstrate that the proportion of "illegitimate children" is very high and quite generalized, especially in rural and marginalized urban areas. The percentage of illegitimate children in El Salvador is one of the highest in the continent: it surpasses by one third the general Latin American level, which is 41.8%, with the aggravating factor of an annual tendency to increase 1.5%. According to Ministry of Planning estimates, the proportion of illegitimate children in El Salvador had soared to 68% by 1980.

Although the figure of "illegitimate children" imposed by the Civil Codes has been abolished by the new Constitutions in most Central American countries, it is still used in official records, as well as in ongoing masculine practice.

The pattern of patrilineal filiation has another consequence: it determines the line of inheritance. In rural Central American families, the historical pattern of willing or pre willing land and capital (cattle) to male children persists, while women, if they inherit anything at all, are given the house. Thus, the only way women can have access to the means of production is through marriage or union with a man.

Multi family Households

Families have undergone many changes in Central America and so have households. Today, the household is no longer presented as the expression of a nuclear family, supposedly the "ideal" family type. The household today is a "broad residential unit of one or more nuclear families" that may or may not be complete.

Corrections introduced into the 1990 census in Panama, differentiating household from family, corroborate this. In the San Miguelito district the country's most densely populated area it was found that a majority of households housed more than one nuclear family, and included the most diverse types of families: biparent, monoparent, with all or some of the children residing there.

The household restructuring being adopted today by the emerging Central American families, which make the household a "space for coexistence and union, with different types of families united by kinship and other ties," have largely responded to the need to manage resources with the utmost efficiency. It has also been a defense mechanism against the political and military violence of the 1980s and the social violence that emerged with such force in the 1990s. The generalization of this residence pattern among poor families has largely reversed the trend toward nuclearization of Central American families experienced with the urbanization and import substitution processes in the 1970s. In fact, nuclearity tends to lose importance as an indicator of modern life in the current regional context.

Central America appears to be moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the continent, according to Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) information issued in 1993: "In the region the nuclear family tends to predominate and it is foreseeable that this tendency will increase as the countries develop." Poverty along with violence more than cultural backwardness, as has been generally presumed are what impede families from constituting and consolidating themselves as nuclear families.

During these years, the families forming nuclear households are the indigenous families that migrate to the city, thus reversing their historic pattern. Studies of survival strategies used by the indigenous population residing in Guatemala City show that the subsistence logic developed by indigenous groups in the cities leads them to form nuclear families, with an average of 7.5 members per household. Upon arrival in the city, ethnic discrimination makes it impossible for them to reproduce the complex and broad solidarity links they had in their communities of origin, thus links are strictly limited to kinship ties.

"Widened," Not Extended Households

The historical pattern of structuring households among rural and indigenous families of the Central America region has been characterized by the fact that it is built around a patrilocal residence. Another pattern is the household plot, which functions as a space where extended family members can settle in and establish ongoing exchanges of productive resources land, farm implements, inputs, water and labor. In this space, family ties extend to the community.

The pattern of "widened" households, so commonly seen today, essentially seems to be an updated version of the traditional pattern in the rural areas. What makes them different however, is the fact that the new widened households are based on solidarity, an intensification of efforts by their members and contributions coming from networks that transcend family limitations. They are a novelty in these neoliberal times.

This new formula of widened households permits the emerging families to cushion the impact of the crisis and assume the costs of structural adjustment that have been imposed upon them as well as to deal with the economic, social and psychological costs of the war and the building of peace. Research carried out by AVANCSO in grassroots urban communities of Guatemala at the beginning of the 1990s proved that "the networks of economic and affective solidarity are based on the nuclear family, supported by broader family and community networks."

New Networks, New Kinds of Solidarity

The characteristic that best defines the novelty of this pattern of structuring households is the widening out of blood relations to include those of solidarity. Studies of the populations affected by political violence in different countries of the region reveal that the displacement processes that affected thousands of families, as well as the impact of economic adjustment measures particularly those that provoked massive unemployment are some of the factors that pressured for an expansion of ties based on kinship to ties based on solidarity.

The novelty of these solidarity ties is that they are constructed on a broader spatial base than that assumed by the traditional community. The new spatial base could be a rural community or an urban neighborhood, and could also cross the geographic borders of the department, province or country.

The solidarity links originate in and are built upon the basis of recent loyalties among friends and neighbors facing similar situations. And these situations go beyond the strict space of the extended family or community as such. Situations of risk war, massacres, forced displacements, natural disasters, droughts, tidal waves, hurricanes broaden the space of relations from a small rural community to a larger zone.

The similar economic situations that have been experienced in this period massive layoffs in the public sector, factory closures, non payment of compensation to demobilized groups, non fulfillment of agreements to turn over land or houses allow the space of relations to cross the neighborhood or community limit and include different sectors. Ethnic discrimination, religious or political persecution, massacres of indigenous communities considered insurgent bases and evasion of military service also link equal parties in a larger space that includes the entire territory in which the targetted population is found, such as happened in La Mosquitia.

These experiences that large segments of the Central American population have had to undergo have given way to a situation in which many of the emerging families established new links and loyalties in a pattern that, with impeccable logic, combines political and economic alliances to assure survival.

Mobile Households

In their efforts to find a strategy that assures survival in the current socioeconomic and political context, the emerging families have also been forming a type of household diametrically opposed to the fixed household that has prevailed to date. A "fixed household" means that all members are assigned an area in which they reside permanently. Based on this, fixed households are classified as urban or rural, national or foreign. The supposition is that the members are permanent, not temporary, residents.

Today, however, migration has become one of the central components of basic survival strategies, among both rural and urban families. In 1990, 39% of all Guatemalan women resided in cities, up from 26% only four decades earlier. Such a reality brings us to a new concept of space and time of residence of the members making up these emerging households.

The result has been the configuration of a kind of mobile household, which functions based on multiple combinations of its members' spatial movements and periods of residence. According to age, sex, job opportunities, marketing and connections, the different members of the family are constantly moving among dissimilar spaces, ranging from rural to urban, from local to national and international, and in variable time periods: daily, weekly, biweekly, months or years.

This is the hypothetical structure of a rural mobile household:
- The mother may reside in the rural household, as may the father to take care of the small farm plot, though he may go off for days to do wage work in medium size farms or migrate seasonally to other rural areas.

- Some of the daughters especially adolescent mothers may migrate to the city in search of work, often becoming employed as maids where they reside part time in the urban household and return every two weeks to their rural household for a period of two to three days.

- Other daughters may rise in the early morning hours to go to the nearest city to work in the new agroindustrial enterprises or in the maquilas, returning home each night.

- Young men may reside in the rural household, but migrate for varying time periods months or whole seasons to other rural zones in the country or neighboring countries for coffee and sugar cane harvests, or to California for the grape harvest, or to nearby towns or cities for seasonal work in construction, always returning to the rural household.
And this is the hypothetical structure of an urban mobile household:
- Some members may reside permanently in the same household, but irregularly and chaotically, depending on the waiting time needed to get a job, which may be in the city or rural zones on banana plantations, forestry companies or other enterprises.

- Other members may leave home temporarily, to study, for example, returning home every two weeks or a month, or migrate for extended periods of time (six months to a year) to the United States.

- Others may be relatives or acquaintances from a rural background who come temporarily to the urban household, as a stepping stone to permanent residence in the city or migration to the United States.

The classifications of rural or urban household lose significance in these kinds of households. All have elements that are both rural and urban, both national and international, depending on the amount of time different members spend in the household. Although natural growth factors related to increasing numbers of children influence this mobility, it can be observed that it is primarily the urgent need to find a survival strategy and assure family reproduction that makes the household a unit of family residence.

How Long Do Conjugal Unions Last?

The lasting character of the conjugal union constitutes one of the fundamental characteristics of the "ideal" family and is the key foundation upon which family stability rests. In Central America, national statistical records do not have detailed estimates regarding the length of the first union; they are basically limited to recording the number of annual divorces or separations. A divorce rate can be calculated based on this information, but not the relationship between coming together as a couple and separating, which would give a truer sense of behavior and stability within the couple.

The possibilities of access to a reliable record of the dissolution of unions are also very limited because break ups, especially of de facto unions, are not always declared or legalized. In Panama, where divorce is legal, couples do not always register, partly to avoid being recorded in the public register of deeds. An idea of the depth of the problem of under reporting is illustrated by the case of El Salvador: it is the country with the highest rate of female headed households (31%), with 95% of those women unaccompanied by any declared couple. But, surprisingly, only 5% of the women declare themselves separated.

The panorama found in other types of research shows that Central America is far from the "ideal" type of family. The different forms of union are shown to be increasingly less permanent and stable and, contrary to what has long been supposed, entering into marriage is no guarantee of family stability. Families based on legal marriages are not absolutely stable nor are de facto unions intrinsically unstable.

National statistics show a growing trend towards conjugal stability. The statistics in Panama and Costa Rica are particularly eloquent, considering the weight that legal unions have in those two countries compared to other countries in the isthmus. According to the last Panamanian Census, the divorce rate has increased substantially. During the first half of the 1980s it went from 59.8% to 73.8%, and in 1989 it was estimated that 82.1% of every 10,000 couples divorced. The husband's abandonment of his duties as husband and father appears as one of the principal causes.

In Costa Rica, the relationship between marriage and divorce is also slanted towards divorce, even though it is the country with the lowest divorce rate. In 1975, there were 2.2 divorces for every 100 marriages, a figure that had jumped to 15.3 by 1991.

Unions Are Broken Cyclically

The instability of unions is also a fairly generalized phenomenon in broad sectors of the region's urban and rural zones. Specific research done in Nicaragua and El Salvador revealed that the instability of unions is a structural characteristic, which spurred a series of thorough going case studies. The research showed that the instability found in unions has a cyclical as well as structural character. The trajectory responds to the logic of union breakup union breakup, repeated over and over during the lives of both men and women. Other studies carried out in Honduras and El Salvador illustrated the same phenomenon.

The important differences in male and female behavior, especially regarding the rupture of a union, must be taken into account, however. According to testimony compiled, women establish successive, short term unions, preceded by successive ruptures due to male abandonment.

This cycle makes women see the rupture as an obvious fact, whereas the union is always very uncertain for them. This is so much the case that women can express it socially by using a term they have coined: "he left me," which makes clear that the men decide on the break. Given the guidelines regulating reproductive behavior in these sectors, each union means new pregnancies for a woman. And each rupture means children from different biological fathers who will grow up together with no male presence.

This pattern of structural and cyclical instability has not been really recognized or registered by national or sectoral statistics. Due to its degree of generalization and because of its implications, it is very important to begin to recognize it when defining social policies.

The results of the last National Reproductive Health Survey in Costa Rica (1994) underscore the structural character that conjugal instability is assuming. In measuring the duration of the first union, it was found that 12% of couples are no longer living together by their fifth anniversary. Among those women who have been married for at least 30 years, 45% are no longer living with their first husband, a statistic that stood at 38% in 1976. Regarding the phenomenon of multiple unions, it has been observed that 10% of women under 30 have been involved in successive unions, increasing to 14% in older women.

Male Infidelity

From the perspective of Central American women, the fundamental cause of the short duration and the instability of unions is male infidelity, considered a structural characteristic of men's sexual and affective conduct.

From this point of view, conjugal instability rooted in male transgression of the monogamous pattern of conjugal relations is generally associated with paternal irresponsibility. Both factors infidelity and irresponsibility are at the root of family instability, which dramatically challenges the very generalized androcentric notion that attributes increased family instability to women's massive incorporation into the work force.

At the same time, it can be observed that the violence and economic crisis of this most recent period have been increasing and adding new and greater pressures to daily life as well as to relations between couples. These pressures largely come from the difficulty men demonstrate in readapting to new circumstances that imply from their patriarchal point of view the loss of status and power assigned and acquired, particularly in the case of men who actively participated, either politically or militarily, in one of the region's wars.

Studies done by FIDEG in Nicaragua (1994) regarding the impact of the crisis on Nicaraguan families demonstrate a greater degree of conflict at the level of the couple due to increased male alcoholism. It is justified as a safety valve in the face of the impossibility of finding employment and readjusting to civilian life as well as the growing jealousies regarding the work women do, with longer absences from home. Research done in El Salvador offers an idea of the impact of the conflict and the economic crisis in the stability of unions; it shows a substantial increase in the categories signifying a rupture of the matrimonial link or even family disintegration.

Broken Union = Abandoned Children

The general practice of effectively rupturing the conjugal link through physical abandonment is turning into a male pattern. It is basically accompanied by other behavior such as paternal irresponsibility and the expropriation of goods and resources that make up family patrimony conduct that also transgresses the reciprocal rights established by law.

From men's perspective, the rupture of the link gives them license to abandon their responsibilities to their children and recover, through expropriation, the goods making up the family's patrimony. This behavior is legitimized and justified in the deep rooted and socially naturalized belief that men are the heads of family and, thus, owners of their goods and resources, with the right to decide their use.

To a large degree, this behavior has been historically backed by the dispositions contained in the various Civil Codes throughout the region. In a review of existing legislation regarding the economic structure of marriage and the de facto union, it can be seen as having a discriminatory impact on women, since the prevailing norm is for goods and property to be registered in the man's name. Proof of this is that only 10% of Central American women are registered as property owners in the various countries.

All of this has helped reinforce the male behavior pattern, and when the matrimony or de facto union is dissolved, the women ends up stripped of the goods the couple acquired during their union. This is based on the premise that women do not contribute to creating family patrimony, since their work is awarded no economic value. All ruptures follow the same script and thus are described time and again in the testimonies of women from that immense group of urban marginal and rural families: the man leaves the woman, strips her of her house and land, abandons the children to their mother and extends no child support.

Many Hidden Ruptures

Different studies advance the hypothesis of another way unions are broken: it is hidden by the end goal of formally maintaining the appearance of a united family, although in fact there is a separation. This can be called the "hidden break" or "apparent stability."
This type of strategy is not registered in any statistics, but different testimonies and stories from women compiled throughout the region allow us to infer that, in terms of magnitude, it may be equal to or greater than the indicators representing divorce and separation. It has extremely serious psychological connotations and implications for women, since they are the ones who, in practice, must put up with this public/private split.

Generally, this kind of break is linked to men's establishment of sporadic or permanent relationships with other women, and even of forming parallel families. The separation is never concretized due partly to social convention: to avoid setting a bad example for the children, fear of the social stigma single or separated women must face, the avoidance of religious censure and a woman's fear of change and solitude. It is also often a question of economic convenience, for example, revolving around housing. In these cases, the man may continue to function as head of the household, even assuming his public role as such.

For statistical purposes, this kind of family, which is increasingly common, is classified as stable. The couple does not appear in the category of unions dissolved by divorce or separation, which contributes to making the structural root causes of the region's growing family instability invisible.

Who Heads the Household?

In accordance with the "ideal" family type, family organization should follow a patriarchal and hierarchical model, organized around a head male who exercises authority over all family members living in the same household. The category "head of household" used by national records and statistics offices meticulously reproduces the vertical and patriarchal elements inherent to this concept.

A review of the definitions of head of household most used in national records, including the one given in the United Nation's Multilingual Dictionary, show that all contemplate at least one of the following elements in determining who is the head of a given household: 1) the person recognized as such by the rest of the household; 2) the person who contributes the most income to the household; 3) the person who makes decisions; 4) the one who exercises authority over the members of the family or household; and 5) one who resides in the household.

One of the patterns of structuring and organization that has unquestionably undergone significant changes in Central America is the head of household. The figure of a man as the "key provider and person responsible for maintaining the household" has been the backbone of male identity and of the cultural pattern that has historically recorded the rights and responsibilities of spouses and has been regulated by the Civil Codes, Constitutions and even current Family Codes. But regional statistics show a growth trend of households headed by women. In Costa Rica, the increase was on the order of 150% between 1973 and 1992. The highest proportions of female headed households are recorded in El Salvador (27%) and Nicaragua (24%).

New estimates done in the 1990s increase those statistics even more. In Guatemala, it is calculated that the total number of female headed households is 46.6%, which is equivalent to 751,000 households in absolute terms. In Nicaragua, the 1993 National Survey on Life showed that 28% of a total of 600,000 households were headed by women. We can thus point to an increasing feminization of who heads up households. The phenomenon tends to be more urban than rural, and the prevailing civil status is of single, separated and abandoned women heading urban households, while widows or abandoned women are the typical female heads of rural households. In all countries throughout the region, the number of female headed households is greater in the urban areas: 37% in Nicaragua, 31% in El Salvador, 27% in Honduras and 24% in Costa Rica. The proportion is even greater in some metropolitan areas in the San Miguelito district of Panama City, the number of female headed households jumps to 40% of the total.

The category "head of household" has a clearly patriarchal connotation, expressed in the roots of this very reality. The status of head of household is socially assigned, and awarded to men based on their gender condition, independent of whether or not they actually meet the commitments implied by their position.

On the other hand, women only acquire the status of head of household in the absence of a husband or partner. They are heads of households only in cases where a situation of greater strength blocks a man from fulfilling those functions. Thus, the recognition of women as heads of households is not necessarily linked to what the traditional functions and obligations of the head of household are in reality. It is a conditional leadership, revolving around the absence of the male figure.

This patriarchal characteristic not only presents problems for the recognition of women as heads of household, but also means that women themselves do not recognize the way they are filling this role. Since being a female head of household is conditioned to the physical absence of the male figure, it has an entirely "circumstantial" nature. It is enough for a male, adult figure to reside at home (eldest son, son in law, father, father in law, brother in law) for women not to be recognized as heads of household, even by themselves. Even if the woman is, in fact, functioning as the head of household economically sustaining the family any available male figure must be identified as the head of the household.

Heads of Household, For a While

The weight of the male pattern of relations means that women are heads of household on a cyclical basis in a wide range of urban and rural families. This is linked to each break or rupture by a man, but it is then lost when the woman forms a new union with another man.

If cyclical ruptures and abandonment are structural characteristics in a wide range of families, the phenomenon of women heading a household has this same characteristic. This means that an incalculable proportion of Central American women will take on this role a number of times during the course of their lives. In daily practice, women thus constitute a sort of invisible reserve army, always ready and willing to take over the role of head of household when the man leaves for whatever reason, and also always ready to return to their status as housewife when another man enters the household.

The social and moral mandate weighing on women, derived from women's "sacred" function as mothers, is at the root of the effective functioning of this reserve army and the structural character that female heads of household have. Women have no licence to simply refuse to comply with their childrearing tasks, and, in addition, must always be ready to take on the work left by men who temporarily or permanently abandon the household.

Women: Fathers and Mothers

From women's perspective, paternal irresponsibility and abandonment are the key factors that force them to become heads of household. They term it acting as both "father and mother," indicating that being head of household means taking on obligations that correspond to men, while also doing all the traditional women's work. The macroeconomic and political phenomena that have so marked Central America in recent years have helped intensify the trend towards feminizing the head of household role. Unchecked migration from rural areas to the cities, family disintegration due to internal or external emigration and male incapacity or irresponsibility in terms of complying with their role as father and husband have very significantly influenced the rising number of urban households headed by women.

Sociopolitical violence, causing widowhood and displacement, turned a large number of rural women into heads of household. The case of Guatemala is, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic examples. According to figures from the National Institute of Statistics, the proportion of widows went from 8% in 1981 to 9.6% in 1987. Of all women who declared themselves heads of household in the rural areas, half had taken on that responsibility due to political violence. In El Salvador, according to the National Government Report to CIREFCA (1992), 80% of displaced families had women as heads of households due to widowhood or abandonment by the man.

More Responsibilities, More Poverty

Between 85% and 97% of Central American female heads of household say they have no partner, while male heads of household tend to have partners.

Diverse studies carried out in Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica support the trend towards a prevalence of female heads in extended families and male heads in nuclear families. To this is added the fact that the majority of women heads of household carry out that function not only with no spouse or partner, but also with children or other family members who depend on them. In Nicaragua, the rate is 85%. However, male heads of household generally do not have other children who are dependent on them.

According to Nicaragua's Standard of Living Survey (1993), not only are there a greater number of children in households headed by females, but also a greater presence of other family members: mothers/grandmothers, fathers/elderly relatives and invalids. Children represent 61% of the total membership of these families, while in male headed households, they make up 45%. Grandchildren are 12% against 9%. Parents, siblings and in laws are 5% as opposed to only 2% in male headed households.

Women: Disadvantaged in Everything?

Statistics also reveal the existence of very different conditions for female heads of household in relation to male heads of household in terms of economic participation and possibilities for obtaining income that would allow them to maintain their household. The last census taken in Honduras (1988) records an economic participation rate for female heads of household of barely 33.6% as opposed to 96.2% in the case of male heads of household. Female participation is higher in urban households (44%) than in rural households (21.6%).

Basically the only employment possibility for these female heads of household is in the informal urban sector. In the case of Guatemala City, 34% of the women involved in the informal sector are heads of household. In El Salvador, 81% of the female heads of household out of the total number of poor households survive by their involvement in the informal sector, of which 33% are found in the San Salvador metropolitan area.

As is true with the rest of the economically active female population, women in the informal sector have only had access to low productivity occupations, especially in the "self employed" sector street vendors, maids, etc. The only exceptions are Panama and Costa Rica, where the possibilities of finding salaried work are greater. The precariousness of their jobs and unstable income contributes to the impoverishment of these households.

Rural female heads of household are today encountering serious difficulties in gaining access to land and credit. The evaluation of the Salvadoran Land Reform shows that, of all female heads of household, only 45% were benefited by the agrarian reform, though 86% of men received land and/or credit. This inequitable situation is repeated in the case of displaced women who are also heads of household. Of the 80% of displaced families that have a woman as head of household, the majority have neither land nor resources with which to produce, and their needs were not taken into account in the 1992 peace accords.

Throughout the region, a positive relation between rates of women's economic participation and levels of education are the same. But in the most impoverished sectors, female heads of household have a much lower educational level than men, which means a greater obstacle in gaining access to better employment and income. Data from Honduras shows that 87% of heads of urban households declared economically inactive had either no education or only partial primary schooling, a statistic that soared to 98.7% in the case of female heads of rural households. In households characterized as extremely poor in Nicaragua, the differences in illiteracy levels among male and female heads of households were significant: 14% of women heads of household were illiterate compared to only 11% for male heads of household.

In a context in which stereotypes of patriarchal culture persist, adverse and unequal conditions also persist. About a third of all Central American households headed by women operate under these conditions today. Nevertheless, economic planners still define public policy and assign resources based on the assumption that men are always the head of household. In addition, they often assume, from a clearly androcentric perspective, that households headed by women are poor and vulnerable simply because they are headed by women.

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