18 de Julio de 2018
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Colección: Trends for a common future
Autor: Bernardo Kliksberg
Título: The Social Situation of Latin America and Its Impact on the Family and Education

III. Some impacts of the Social Situation on the Latin American Family

The deterioration of basic social and economic parameters in the daily lives of widespread population sectors in the region is quietly leading to a process of restructuring of many families, resulting in a profile of disrupted, considerably weakened and unstable family units.

It is quite difficult for this type of family to comply with the potential functions of family unity as described in the previous section. Thus, the last resort society has at hand to face social crisis, does not have the ability, given its frailty, to play its potential role.

Some of the main expressions of the processes underway, with regard to families, are briefly illustrated as follows:

A. Women alone as heads of households

A growing number of family units are single parent homes, mostly, the mother. There is a marked correlation with poverty. A large percentage of women who are heads of households belong to low income population gropus. An IDB-ECLAC-UNDP study (1995) describes the situation as follows:

In almost all countries of Latin America, the percentage of households headed by women exceeds 20%, which strongly contributes to the phenomenon known as ‘feminization of poverty’. ECLAC’s studies evidence the greater relative poverty—often abject poverty—of homes headed by women.

B. Effects of incomplete families on the children

A family in which the male parent is absent creates considerble consequences for children. In addition to the significant emotional implications of their presence, parents provide their children with essential assets for their lives. A pioneer research in this field by Katzman (1997) depicts the resulting situation. He remarks on the role of the father:

The presence of the father is essential to provide or reinforce specific assets in children: i) as an identity shaping model, especially for the boys; ii) as an agent of containment, to foster discipline related habits, and convey life experience; iii) as material provider, given the fact that the lack of this contribution reduces home income considerably, especially because women earn 20% to 50% less than men, and iv) as social capital, inasmuch that the absence of a father entails the loss of a line of contact to male networks both in the world of work as well as politics, and furthermore, in severing the link with relatives on the father’s side, potential family relations are greatly reduced.

The absence of the father will entail the lack of all these assets.

Consequences can be very concrete. The educational performance and the development of emotional intelligence will suffer in the light of an impoverished social and economic environment in the home; it will affect general health and create conditions likely to induce feelings of inferiority, isolation, resentment, agressiveness, and it implies deprivation of an essential source of moral guidance. Looking into the situation of the young inmates at the National Juvenile Institute in Uruguay, Katzman found that only one in three was part of a normal family at the time the events leading to their detention took place. This figure, as he points out, is very similar to the one obtained from the study of juvenile detention centers in the United States. Of the children detained in Uruguay, 63.8% lived with their mother, 30.8% with a stepfather or stepmother, and 5.4% without their parents.

The marked relative disadvantages of children raised in this kind of home become more acute, as expressed by the researcher, under the conditions prevailing in modern labor markets, with their requirements for better training, which, in turn, implies the need for increasingly extended educational processes. An integrated family providing emotional and practical support for this prolonged effort is a strategic element to this end. Children and youngsters from disrupted families are deprived of this key social capital.

C. Reluctance to build and preserve families

A growing proportion of young men from low income groups are reluctant to build stable homes. This leads to increased rates of irregular and unstable families (common law families). This trend seems to be strongly influenced by the rise in poverty, unemployment and informal occupation in the region. In many of these instances, the young men do not believe it is possible to find a stable job enabling them to fulfill the role of provider of family income as is expected of them. Furthermore, a significant percentage of the working population earns very low wages, not enough to cover the likely basic expenses of a family, even if women contribute to that income. As surveys show, there is marked fear due to the labor market’s instability. All this is compounded further by objective difficulties such as serious limitations regarding access to housing. Given these circumstances, a young man can hardly picture himself in the role of husband and father in a stable family. His perception is that it will be practically impossible to face the responsibility entailed by such a condition.

A similar conflict seems to be one of the triggering elements leading young men to abandon their homes in poor urban areas. Katzman (1992) suggests that their seemingly “irresponsible” actions are influenced by the feeling of losing legitimacy in their role as husbands and fathers, as they are not able to perform their duty in providing a major share of the necessary income to their home. Their self-esteem suffers both toward the outer world, given the difficulties in finding a stable workplace, as well as within the family circle, because they cannot fulfill their role as expected. This is further complicated by the rising level of expectations in children of low income homes with regard to consumer habits, influenced by mass media advertising. Thus, the young husband feels under a great deal of pressure, helpless in facing these demands, and disqualified. According to social psychology, in the face of highly oppressive situations such as these, people tend to react either by extreme confrontation (“fight”) or by “flight” behaviors.

D. Illegitimate births

The increase in the number of illegitimate children is a clear symptom of family unit erosion. The reluctance to commit to a family further enhances this growth rate. Katzman’s studies on Uruguay show the following trend:


As shown, in only 18 years, the number of illegitimate children in Montevideo rose by 65%. The rate of illegitimate births is high at all levels, but it is even more frequent in younger mothers.

E. Precocious mothers

The number of teenage mothers has increased significantly in the region. Graph 5 shows the high number of young women having children before they are 20 years old.

In most cases, motherhood during adolesencce is not conducive to integrated families. The mother usually remains alone with her children. Likewise, these pregnancies are yet another cause of the marked increase in illegitimate childrenMotherhood at this age is, in itself, a source of extremely weak families.

According to available figures, it is closely linked to poverty. In urban centers, among the poorest 25% of the population, 32% of births are of teenage mothers. In rural areas, the figure is 40%. In the following 25% incomewise, the rate is 20% in urban centers and 32% in rural areas. Overall, 80% of teenage urban motherhood cases of the region are concentrated among the population’s poorest 50%, while there are only some 9% of the cases in the wealthiest 25%. In rural areas the figures show 70% of cases in the poorest 50%, and 12% in the 25% wealthiest groups.


Even within poor sectors, higher poverty levels correlate with higher teenage motherhood rates, as illustrated by the following chart:


The marked correlation between poverty and teenage motherhood infers that the situation of increased poverty currently developing in the region, will further generate this kind of motherhood, and by the same token, very weak families.

A central variable in this process, according to figures, lies in educational shortcomings. In the region’s urban centers, the percentage of teenage mothers among young urban women with less than six years of education is 40%, greater than national averages of 32%. In the group with 6 to 9 years of schooling, the percentage of teenage motherhood decreases to 30%. Among young women with 10 to 12 years of schooling, it decreases further to 15%, and among those with 13 or more years of schooling, it is less than 10%. The following chart illustrates the situation in the various countries:


The situation underlying teenage pregnancy in low income sectors creates a “regressive, perverse circle”. Poverty and inequity strongly impact these sectors with regard to education, as will be discussed in the following section. Given the limited schooling (let us recall that average overall schooling in Latin America is only 5.2 years, and considerably lower in poor sectors), teenage pregnancy is more likely to occur under these circumstances. In turn, because of teenage motherhood, these young women abandon their studies. Figures show that poor teenage mothers have 25 to 30% less educational capital than poor mothers not having had teenage pregnancy (as illustrated on Chart 6). With a lower educational level and children, the possibilities of teenage mothers to find jobs and generate income are even more limited, thus further exacerbating their poverty status.

F. Domestic violence

The phenomenon of domestic violence is exremely widespread in the region. As estimated by Buvinic, Morrison and Schifter (1999), 30 to 50% of Latin American wome—nfigures vary from country to country—are subject to psychological violence in their homes, and some 10 to 35% to physical violence. The scope of the problem can be seen on Chart 7, presenting combined results of various studies.

In addition to its essentially inhuman nature and its many repercussions on women, domestic violence severely damages family structure. It is an indication of very serious problems in said structure and children are affected in many ways. A study conducted by IDB in Nicaragua (1997) illustrates that children of homes with intra-family violence are three times more likely to require medical care and are more frequently admitted into hospitals. Some 63% repeat school grades and, their average dropout age of school is 9, whereas the average of schooling for children from non violent homes is 12 years.


Furthermore, domestic violence also becomes a reference model which will in all likelihood be reproduced by the children, and lead them to constitute families with serious deficiencies as well. Various studies, including the

Even though this is a very complex phenomenon influenced by many variables, poverty clearly appears as a key risk factor. As reported by Buvinic (1997), in Chile, for instance, physical violence cases are five times more frequent in low income groups, and serious physical violence is seven times higher in that group; the same kind of correlation holds true in other countries as well.

Everyday realities such as unemployment, underemployment, informality, already mentioned in the prior section, as well as other economic hardships create a great deal of tension in family relations, and an environment in which violence can easily take place, with the toll it takes on family integrity.

G. Inability by the family to provide a normal childhood

Poverty and inequity make it very difficult for many families to provide for their children the quality of childhood that they would wish for and deserve. Under the pressure of deprivations, a number of situations arise which are extremely hard on the children; they create various kinds of conflicts in the family unit and prevent it from fulfilling many of its roles.

One of the main expressions of this problem is child labor from early age on. Most of the time, basically due to economic problems, the child is either sent to work or finds jobs by himself in order to make some contribution to the deprived home and manage his own subsistence. As pointed out repeatedly by ILO, the working child finds himself in a very difficult condition, which also contradicts enforced international agreements on child protection, as well as the basic goals of any given society. Added to long working days, serious risks of job-related accidents, no social protection, meager pay, child labor often entails lags in schooling, or dropping out altogether of the educational system. Thus, the child will be further handicapped for future insertion into the labor market.

National available data confirm the same trend. According to a study by Mexico’s Employment and Social Welfare Commission of Congress (1999), at least five million children work in the country and half of them have dropped out of school. Some 70% work 5 to 14 hours daily. As shown by Barker and Fontes (1996) in a study prepared for the World Bank, in Brazil, 50% of youngsters aged 15 to 17 were working by 1990, as well as 17,2% of the children ages 10 to 14. In Peru, 54% of urban children and youngsters ages 6 to 14 were working. In Colombia, in 1992, 380,000 children and youngsters ages 12 to 17 were working in urban areas, and 708,000 in rural areas. Researchers add a special, hidden category, girls working as maids. In Colombia, in 1990, 9% of girls aged 15 to 19 were working in that capacity, living outside their homes, with their employers. In Haiti, according to ILO (1999), 25% of children aged 10 to 14 are in the labor force. According to UNICEF data (1995), in Venezuela, 1,076,000 youngsters were working in the informal economy sector, and 300,000 in the formal economy. In Argentina, 214,000 children aged 10 to 14 work. According to ILO estimates (1999), a total 17 million children are working in Latin America.

There is a very close link between poverty and child labor. It is estimated that in Brazil, 54% of working children under 17 years old come from homes with a per capita income below minimal wage.

H. The children of the street

In the region, there is a growing population of children who live on the streets of many large cities. They can be seen in Rio, Sao Paulo, Bogota, Mexico, Tegucigalpa, and many other cities, surviving in the middle of extremely harsh conditions. They try to provide for their daily subsistence, and are exposed to all sorts of dangers. Extermination groups are set on fighting them, and it has been estimated that no less than 3 children of the street are murdered everyday in the cities of Brazil, among other countries. No precise figures have been established so far, but there appears to be an upward trend. On the initiative of its President, the IDB has launched over 30 national projects as an attempt to improve their situation. Pope John Paul II, who has been permanently denouncing this inhuman situation, described them during a recent visit to Mexico as “abandoned, exploited, sick children”. The Director of one of the most active and successful NGOs in this field, Casa Alianza, with headquarters in Costa Rica, Bruce Harris has stated: “It is a social phenomenon that has not been dealt with, and it has turned into a problem, because society generally responds with repression, instead of investing so that these children have the same opportunities that many of us had”.

The presence of the children of the street and their rising numbers is no doubt related to many factors, but clearly at its core lies the marked breakdown of the basic containment structure, that is, the family. Erosion and disruption of families, the setting up of frail families and the extreme tensions generated in family relations, general impoverishment are all silently eroding the ability of families to keep these children within. It is a borderline situation, illustrating the seriousness of the silent weakening of many family units in the region.

All the mentioned regressive developments: women as heads of single parent homes, reluctance of young men to set up families, illegitimate births, precocious mothers, domestic violence, inability of families to provide normal childhood, children of the street need to be approached as different elements linked to the described situation of family weakening. In the framework of public policies as well as by society at large, these problems require priority treatment, and urgent solutions have to be devised.

As mentioned above, the family unit is one of the two basic environments for the development of the population in any given country, the other one being education. The following section will explore some of the effects generated by poverty, and especially by inequity, on the education systems in the region.