*Nelly P. Stromquist

Significant social and cultural changes have been occurring throughout the world in the last decade. Women's increased control over childbearing has produced what has been called a "Copernical revolution in sexual life" (Bonaparte 1979, 20). As a result, many women have entered the labor force, regardless of their marital status. Although this entry has been accompanied by low salaries, women have also gained increased access to economic independence, reduced their isolation in the home, and have become aware of power inequalities and social asymmetries in society. Women have also demonstrated a low job turn-over rate. In addition, women have reduced their number of offspring, and, at the same time, there has been a notable increase in the number of women as single heads of family.

Latin America and the other developing regions of the world reflect the globalization of the planet; a process by which events and situations lose their local character and are instead manipulated by forces and plans emanating from and sought by industrialized countries. The rapid growth of the information and communication technologies, as well as modifications in the organization and management of firms are increasingly shaping the economy and society. In the 21st century society that is emerging, individuals with limited or no education risk becoming constantly challenged by an alien and unforgiving world.

Significant transformations are also occurring in women's understandings of how society should be. The contributions of feminist theories to analysis of the effects of social identifiers such as gender in the relations of everyday life and to the analysis of the consequences of gender distinctions is remarkable. The invisibility of women in certain spheres is being corrected; the androcentric definitions of important concepts such as democracy, citizenship, and sexuality are been challenged and substituted with new meanings; the "naturalness" of everyday life is being studied to identify its oppressive and sustaining mechanisms. Illustrative of the new perceptions are the areas for action being identified by feminist groups in Latin America. Salient among these priorities are reproductive and health rights for women, defense against domestic violence, and better salaries. In addition to these broad citizen rights, women have also identified specific legal conditions they wish to change. Important among these demands is the decriminalization of abortion, a sign that women are no longer willing to accept the double sexual standard (Grupo de Iniciativa Chile 1994).

It appears that many of these fundamental changes in perception are coming from outside the educational system. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for women, through their daily practices and multiple challenges, have gained a clarity understanding that, in some very critical areas, surpasses the knowledge produced in academia. The active women's and feminist movements in Latin America, however, continue to perceive formal education as a secondary priority--something to be attended to after resolving the crucial problems of women's control over their sexuality, domestic violence, and salaries. This position is reflected in the place to which references to education have been made in consensus documents produced by NGOs for women, notably in the various national reports prepared for the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995.

Women still have an ambiguous relationship with the state. On the one hand, women demand and expect its support, as reflected in the demands expressed in the documents that were discussed by governments in Beijing. On the other hand, they conduct their work outside the government, considering this the most effective way to proceed. They recognize the role of the government and institutions such as the educational system in the transmission of ideologies that give legitimacy to both capitalism and patriarchy, yet they do not target schools for pervasive and persistent campaigns for change, nor do they perceive the full implications of the mass character of formal education. Some recent position papers from Latin American NGOs, for example, identify sexuality, family violence, paid labor, and citizenship as the "key points" in the women's movement. Education is not among them.

Women demand more schools and greater access to formal education, particularly in science and technology, for women. They also present proposals to eliminate sexual stereotypes from the textbooks, but the gradual and pervasive role of the educational system in conveying social practices, beliefs, and values that reproduce patriarchal ideologies is not seriously contested. It is not contested because mobilizations or related steps to question the system as a whole have been quite modest. While acknowledging that education must be changed, feminists of all social classes continue to send their children to school without further interrogation of the nature of the experience and knowledge gained there. Because feminist demands for social change tend to concentrate on the resolution of immediate problems such as violence and reproductive rights, education--whose results become visible mostly in the long term--becomes treated as a less crucial issue.

The Concepts of Equality and Equity

For most people, formal education is a social good, a source of hope in the quest for individual improvement and social change in general. This hope derives in part from the fact that it allows for nonviolent change. Operating on the principle of distributive justice--making basic education available for those who need it and higher education for those who deserve it--education generates less conflict than do reforms based on redistributive justice where a reallocation of resources is needed, such as in agrarian and urban reforms.

The educational systems today seek, officially at least, not only to grant mass education with useful knowledge, but also to make that education foster and even create social justice. This last objective brings us to a discussion of the concepts of equality and equity. The term equality is used in education to refer to a situation in which students are equally treated: they receive the same quality of teaching and enjoy physical settings, textbooks, teaching materials, etc., of the same nature and quality. Equity is reserved to refer to the need of acting justly. There is an ethical dimension in equity that surfaces when we think that equal access or opportunity is insufficient to promote social justice and therefore it becomes necessary to do more. Social justice is defined not as a situation in which everybody is the same--which is obviously impossible--but as a situation where occupational choices, life chances, income, and opportunities in general are not predetermined but depend on individual abilities and interests.

Joseph Farrell and Henry Levin are two educators from the United States who have worked extensively on the concept of equality. They contend that when speaking of educational equality we distinguish four forms (not necessarily levels): (a) equality of access or opportunity to participate in the school or the university; (b) equality of attainment, or equality in getting approximately the same number of years of education as the rest of the population; (c) equality in achievement (meaning not equality in learning but equality in the quality and types of knowledge to which the students are exposed); and (d) equality in the social benefits derived from schooling.

Equity, in contrast, seeks to work for equality of results. Its logic operates as follows: since less privileged groups cannot compete on equal terms because they have disadvantages stemming from their environment and socialization, they need additional or special intervention in order to be helped. In other words, an equal distribution of resources might not be sufficient. For instance, bringing low-income students who are not prepared for higher education into a university may guarantee their failure. To enable these youths to gain real access to a university education, it may be necessary to help them with remedial courses or scholarships that will enable them to become full-time students. Moreover, it may be necessary to intervene at earlier levels, such as in primary and secondary grades, to enable marginalized youths to succeed in college. Another example at the micro-level concerns gender equity. It is well known that boys speak in class more than girls. Under the principle of equality, we should give equal time to the girls, but we also know that boys tend not to listen when girls talk. So, if we give boys and girls equal time we may have not gained much; additional classroom interventions are warranted in this case. The concept of equity cannot ensure equal results but it can strengthen the possibility that equal results are reached. The purpose of equity is to minimize disadvantages over which individuals have no control. Equity emerges in specific situations and is therefore a relational concept.

After approximately 150 years of existence, the educational systems of Latin America reflect high levels of participation and gender parity in access to the public school. The gross enrollment rates for women far exceed those for Africa and South East Asia at all three levels of education (primary, secondary, and university). Indeed, women's access to the university in Latin America is not only higher than in other developing regions, but in several instances meets or exceeds the enrollment statistics of several European countries. However, behind the large rates of participation of women lie substantial differences within and between countries.

Adult illiteracy is being gradually reduced, both in relative and absolute terms. King and Hill assert that low literacy rates are the result of past underinvestment in the education of women (1993, 2). The continued existence of illiteracy, however, cannot be seen entirely as a remnant of the past: there are still new generations of illiterates. The difference this time is that many of them are still illiterate in spite of having spent a few years in primary school--a reflection of the poor quality of schooling, particularly in rural areas. The gap between male and female illiteracy is small, about three percent for the region; however, it masks serious disparities between rural and urban areas, between indigenous and mestizo/white populations in the case of Andean countries, Guatemala and Mexico, and between blacks and non-blacks in Brazil.

Against this background, it is important to note that the current debate about formal education in Latin America speaks of shifting the emphasis on access to questions of quality. This assumes that the problem of access has been resolved, which as just noted is not true for several Latin American countries or within regions or among populations of the same country. In these days of increased reliance on free trade and market mechanisms, quality of education is mentioned in the context of economic competitiveness between countries. As such, this quality concentrates on basic, measurable, cognitive skills; many noncognitive results, such as changes in attitude toward other social groups and one's sense of identity, are not considered. How women will fare in the new educational shifts and trends is not clear, although it appears, so far, that they will not be identified by governments as a priority.

In this context, recent official or influential writings on education and equity which ignore specific groups, namely rural populations, ethnic and racial minorities, and women are cause for concern. Effectiveness is constantly invoked in these works but as a tool to render the country more competitive abroad, it is reduced to preparing the labor force in the basic skills. There is no room for other desirable non-cognitive goals. Two such documents worth reviewing are the study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) entitled Changing Production Patterns with Social Equity (1992), and the position paper entitled An Agenda for Educational Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean (1994), prepared by the Inter-American Dialogue, an NGO based in Washington, D.C. with access to high-level decision makers.

While frequently referring to the concept of equity, the ECLAC document is vague as to the groups to whom this concept should be applied. Just who is supposed to benefit from the increased equity? It does not mention factors such as social class and race. Women do get mentioned, receiving the equivalent of one full page. This section deals primarily with issues of access at all levels, although it also makes reference to the continuing concentration of women in a few disciplines and the existence of sex discrimination in the labor market. The ECLAC document identifies a particular type of inequity affecting women's education. It notes that for women:

Wage discrimination [in the labor force] is the equivalent of around four years of formal education, although the gap tends to diminish as the educational level rises. In this context, women's higher educational levels allow them to raise their potential wage level and lessen discrimination. (ECLAC 1992, 57)

This fundamental observation, however, is not tied to any subsequent policy in either education (e.g., altering socialization processes) or the economy (e.g., monitoring current international agreements regarding equal pay for work of equal value).

At times the low salaries of women may be due to their concentrations in traditionally feminine fields of study which lead to positions that are poorly remunerated: nurses and librarians. Conversely, despite the extensive participation of women in universities, their presence in fields such as engineering, agriculture, and physics remains limited. How these choices are made is the product of a cumulative and diffuse set of experiences women undergo. These experiences teach them about the principles of femininity and masculinity and create mental boundaries women find hard to cross. Objective boundaries also exist. A recent study of several Latin American countries by Psacharopoulos and Tzannatos (1992) found that 20 percent of the differences in wages between men and women could be due to differences in education or training, another 20 percent to differential occupational patterns, and the remainder were caused by unidentified factors, including sex discrimination.

The Inter-American Dialogue document, An Agenda for Educational Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean, defends values such as democratic governance and social equity. The analysis presented in this document identifies the following as key problems in the region: the lack of economic resources, the low quality of schooling and its inequity, the limited links between educational systems and the labor market, the lack of accountability on the part of the educational bureaucracy, and a lack of attention to the conditions of teachers (3-4). It is interesting to observe that under "equity," the document considers only problems concerning socio-economic levels--an approximation to social class. The perceived problematic situation in this regard is that students from low-income families are those who most suffer the problems of attrition and repetition at the primary school level, and that, on the other hand, students from middle and high-income families are those who most benefit from free access to the university. In this discourse, as well as in the references made to the need to have an education capable of responding to the challenges of an increasingly global, modern, and competitive economy, there is no acknowledgment of the problems associated with gender conceptions either in or out of school in Latin America. In addition, the possible tensions (at least in the short term) between equity and competitivity are not discussed.

The point that I raise here is not that one type of inequality is worse than others--all are abominable. However, it should be clear that it would be difficult to attain a democratic culture and generalized social equality if the condition of the general individual was differentially compensated by society and located in a specific social class, and thus also differentially rewarded.

The Condition of the Education of Women and Men

Among the developing countries, the Latin American region presents conditions that suggest, statistically, that there is a slight advantage of women over men. There is parity in terms of gross enrollment rates between boys and girls at the primary level, and only slight differences between them at secondary and tertiary levels. It is often noted that large proportions of women are enrolled at the university level and that in 6 of 20 Latin American countries, women show a higher university enrollment than men. Moreover, it has also been observed that more boys than girls drop out of the educational system.

Many important statistics are frequently presented only by sex and not by urban/rural residence or socioeconomic level. The most recent statistics (UNESCO 1993) show that women are held back less frequently than men in 12 out of 13 countries at the primary level and in 2 out of 7 countries at the secondary level. This information does not imply that girls are more intelligent or more motivated than boys; it may simply reflect the fact that, since education is seen as an investment by parents, poor parents may wish to invest more in the education of boys, so that when their sons fail, parents insist on enabling them to complete their education (by re-enrolling them) whereas they do not feel so inclined when faced with their daughters' educational failure.

The slight over-representation of women at the secondary level in some countries has been attributed to the boys' earlier incorporation into the labor market and to the girls' being too young to get married (Rosemberg 1992). It has also been noted that in Latin America, which has better water and domestic fuel supplies than many African and Asian countries, women's domestic work is less demanding and therefore more compatible with school duties.

Several responses are in order regarding women's greater enrollments in secondary and higher education. First, the differences observed at the secondary level are very slight, about two percentage points on average, and range from one to five percent. The country with the largest female enrollment is Nicaragua, a country still suffering from the consequences of a prolonged civil war. Second, at the university level the differences are also slight, with an average of two points, ranging from one to four points. The problem of concentrations of women in a narrow set of fields at the tertiary level persists. Women are entering new fields such as electronics, computer science, and information science, yet engineering of practically all kinds continues to have a very low enrollment of women. In some economically advanced Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, the problem in vocational and technical education does not occur in terms of access, permanence, or educational performance, but in sexual segregation in school careers (science and technology are often selected by men; women tend to select studies in humanities and letters and in teaching).

While it is clear that students are influenced by peers, family, the media, and their society at large, it is also evident that the school contributes to this socialization pattern by presenting textbooks and other educational materials that portray women as passive, domestically-oriented, and not too intelligent. In addition, gender stereotypes by teachers--a product of their own socialization--have not yet been modified through regular teacher training programs.

The low salaries women earn compared to men of equal education, and the wage discrimination that, according to ECLAC, demands four additional years of education for a woman to compete with a man, are also problems that can be addressed (even if not totally resolved) in the educational system. A similar argument could be made for the low participation of women in major political institutions. The tendency to consider women's conditions in education in Latin America as non-problematic belies the existence of gross disparities in the treatment of women in society, disparities that education must address at all levels of schooling.

King and Hill (1993) have noted that a small gender gap at the national level is associated with increased social benefits from education, such as decreased infant and maternal mortality, greater female and male life expectancy. They also point to a close association between a reduced gender gap and the increase in gross national product (GNP) per capita, but the line of causality between these two variables is less certain. In any case, the small gender gap in education in Latin America should position it in a special way for both social and economic advances.

Some Steps Forward

In reviewing the condition of women in Latin America, three areas of improvement can be noted:

NGOs and Women-run NGOs as Enabling Structures

In the last decade many important events have occurred. First and foremost among them is the growth and maturation of women-run NGOs. Some of them have designed programs that are starting to benefit the formal education system. Speaking from Argentina, Bonder says the following about these NGOs: "Although these initiatives have reached a limited number of women, they have become rallying points and source of inspiration for other adult education programs within the formal education system" (1994, 9). However, although the NGOs serve a small number of students, their channels of dissemination can be much wider. An example of this is CIPAF (Centro de Investigaciones para la Acción Feminina) in the Dominican Republic, which recently started to produce models on non-sexist education for use by primary school teachers. These models are being attached to CIPAF's newspaper, and will thus reach an audience of approximately 10,000 people.

A few years ago, the CEAAL (Council for Adult Education in Latin America) created the Network of Popular Education among Women. This network claimed in 1990 to coordinate the activities of some 360 groups and institutions dealing with gender issues through popular education. The Network of Popular Education for Women recently initiated a campaign for "human and non-sexist education," the results of which are still unknown.

Popular feminism has also become stronger. Women from marginal and low-income sectors of society have mobilized around such issues as health, food, housing, and transportation. While these demands were originally limited to the survival needs of their families, the mobilization process has given these women an awareness of their subordinate status, and they have since become feminists in their own ways.

By now, Latin America has held six regional congresses of feminists and women. The NGO community is well organized and politically active, as evidenced by the large participation of women's NGOs that took place at the regional meeting (Mar del Plata, September 1993) to prepare the agenda for the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women. The women-run NGOs, through nonformal education methods, have raised the awareness of gender issues in society. Their work has been devoted mostly to low-income women and thus it has brought a very interesting approach to the combination of class and gender in Latin America. The issues addressed by women's NGOs have brought to the forefront a number of taboos that had kept certain problems "private." Notable among these are domestic violence against women, rape and the need for women to have control over their own bodies. Other issues have led to the organization of women for both productive and reproductive rights, the acquisition of legal literacy, and to work on the concept of empowerment as an approach to social change. It is through the work of women-run NGOs that emancipatory education is being developed.

The Growth of Women's and Feminist Studies in Universities

A second important development deals with research on gender issues, including education. By most accounts, research in this area is flourishing as an increasing number of professors and students choose to work on this topic. Furthermore, their research is relying on qualitative methods, thus helping to provide a detailed, fine-grained picture of processes by which gender boundaries are maintained as well as crossed. Unfortunately, much of this research is not published in journals, given the limited professional publication outlets in Latin America.

There has also been rapid growth of women's studies and gender studies programs in universities. Countries with such programs include Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela. These programs engage in seminars, conferences, and research, and offer academic degrees, including M.A.'s in gender studies (Bonder 1994). A characteristic frequently found among feminists in academia, however, is that they develop limited links with feminist groups outside academia. This isolation, or at best distance, would not seem to be very productive for reaching mutually desired goals. It is to be hoped, however, that as graduates of these women's studies and feminist programs join various institutions, including those in education, they will be able to influence the type of knowledge that is provided through schooling.

Effective Governmental Machineries for Gender Issues

Many countries, though not all, have created offices or units to address educational issues pertaining to gender. One of these countries is Argentina, where a very successful program of "Equal Opportunities for Girls" was established in 1991.

. . . And Some Steps Backward

On the other side of the coin are the following setbacks:

Democracy as Formal and Institutional Politics

The Latin American region is said to be undergoing a steady return to democracy. This process, fueled by internal as well external agencies, advocates what most feminists would call a traditional understanding of democracy and citizenship. For instance, the efforts by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in support of democracy seek greater participation in elections and deeper understanding of democratic institutions by both men and women. These objectives are desirable. Women have attempted to widen the conceptualization of democracy to include manifestations in micro-settings, in which authoritarianism is reduced if not eliminated, to consider forms of political activism reflected in demands and mobilization for family and community needs, and to acknowledge constraints that limit women's equal participation in the public sphere. These goals are not reflected in the discourse of the democratization objectives of USAID.

The Continued Economic Crisis

At present, 14 of the 20 Latin American nations have entered economic adjustment programs with the World Bank, which presupposes their acceptance of budgetary reduction policies (among other requirements) imposed by the International Monetary Fund (Reimers and Tiburcio 1993). These adjustment programs often result in the curtailment of national budgets, and areas of social service such as education and health commonly suffer. Most Latin American countries are in the process of recovery; nonetheless, salaries today are by and large the equivalent of those earned in 1980. Countries can have very limited resources and still give priority to education, but when competition for resources emerges among governmental sectors, education seldom prevails.

Two important mechanisms to increase educational budgets pertain to the reallocation of funds from defense to social services (increasingly advocated by national leaders and influential NGOs, see Inter-American Dialogue, 1994) and more effective tax collection. The extent to which these mechanisms will be used remains to be seen.

The Persistence of a Laissez-Faire Model of Development

The prevailing model of development being advocated is based on "opening national economies to international competition, foreign investment, technological innovations, and macroeconomic equilibria" (Puryear and Brunner 1994, 2). In part because these measures tend to favor urban over rural areas, the latter, in many countries, are being left behind in terms of good quality educational services. Observing this disparity, ECLAC notes that "geographical differences seem to have become even more decisive than social differences" (ECLAC 1992, 57). In my view, this comment glosses over the fact that most rural regions are poor and often inhabited by indigenous populations or black minorities, so that these geographical inequalities indeed reflect class and race differences (for an argument along the same lines, see Rosemberg and Piza, this volume). Latin American educational systems have failed to respond to the need for more and better education felt by marginal groups such as the indigenous populations in Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Mexico, or to the needs of racial groups such as those in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Honduras, and Uruguay.

The demand for better education for women cannot ignore that the educational system offers low-quality education for boys and girls of low-income levels. Gender equity cannot be achieved without social class and ethnic equity, but where we differ from other advocates of equity in education is that all differences have to be addressed simultaneously. If they are not addressed simultaneously, there is no guarantee that the other differences will be addressed.

As the region with the greatest income disparities in the world, Latin America presents large social class differences which continue to increase. A phenomenon affecting education these days is the increased differences between public and private education in terms of quality and prestige, and thus access to better jobs and opportunities. Not only is this "fragmentation" occurring in the division between public and private schools, but there are indications that it is taking place also among public schools, with better neighborhoods having the better schools. Latin America currently has the highest percentage of primary school students enrolled in private schools (Reimers 1994, citing UNESCO's World Report 1991). The impact of the segmentation of schools upon gender has not been studied. However, research done at the university level indicates that women from less-prestigious universities earn less than men from similar universities; i.e., the social status of the schools affects women more than men (Mendiola 1992).

Another indication of the strong role that social class has on its interaction with gender can be seen in an ECLAC study. This report observes that in higher education, regardless of the size of the base of the educational system and the country's level of development, enrollment rates in Latin America are more homogeneous than in other regions, thus confirming the "polarized character of the expansion in Latin America" (ECLAC 1992, 58) and, it should be added, confirming also its class character. ECLAC also notes a polarization in society in which the number of illiterates is almost as high as those with universities degrees. The fact that similar percentages of the population across countries in Latin America enroll in university suggests the maintenance of an elite; the fact that women have a good representation as university students and given that most marriages occur among people of the same social class or standing suggests that the male elites welcome educated women as wives. In this way, women from upper or middle social classes benefit from their class affiliation. In contrast, the educational polarization affects poor women in a very negative way. As illiterates, these women will most likely end up working as domestics or will join the unstable, informal sector of the economy.

While education offers the promise of individual and social change, it has dynamics that tend to reproduce the status quo. Many more values and norms are accepted in the schools than are challenged by them. The school does not question the influence of social class by holding strongly to meritocratic principles. However, as Braslavsky has noted (1985), these principles tend to operate within schools, not between schools or elsewhere within society, because at higher institutional levels there is clear discrimination along social class lines. Discrimination occurs also along gender lines, but within higher social classes some of its manifestations are attenuated.


Formal schooling in Latin America is becoming more democratic and is also moving toward gender parity at all levels. In addition to the increased participation of women, there is a growing distinction among social classes, a distinction that is reflected in the growing number of private schools but that is also present among private schools. For those seeking gender equity in education, it is increasingly evident that the quality of the education system must improve for all, women and men.

The schools in Latin America have not been able to counter social messages that orient women toward a limited number of fields and occupations. However, schools are no longer seen as a neutral, secular path to citizenship. Work on the ideological aspects of schooling, reflected in the textbooks, curriculum content, and teacher practices is considered increasingly important in feminist analysis.

A crucial source of innovative work in gender issues and a valuable channel for the provision of emancipatory education is the work coming from women-run NGOs. While their work has been targeted mostly at adult women, their contributions are beginning to permeate the formal education system. It is to be hoped that, as time goes by, the links between women in academia and activists in feminist and women-run NGOs will become more developed. In the possibilities of their joint action lies hope for the transformation of education in Latin America.


*Nelly P. Stromquist is professor of international development education in the School of Education, University of Southern California. She specializes in gender issues, including education for empowerment, adult literacy, and government policies and practices in girls' and women's education. She has published widely and currently serves as the chief editor of The Encyclopedia of Third World Women (Garland Publishing, forthcoming).


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