SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)--Once a week, Marlen Salgado gets out her broom and sets out for the sidewalks of her social housing complex in the El Volcan ghetto, about 30 kilometers outside of Santiago.
Garbage bags hang haphazardly on trees and in heaps on the pavement, the stench mixing with that of feces from the scores of stray dogs. Salgado tries to clear the streets as best she can. Not a very gratifying way to make a living. But as a mother of three young children, Salgado says it lets her spend most of her time at home, while contributing financially.
"I make 20,000 pesos a month doing this," says Salgado, referring to the equivalent of about $30. "Add to that my husband's salary of 115,000 pesos and it was enough to get us out of the squatter community we were living in."
As a woman who works for pay, Salgado is still in the minority here.
She is also a point of debate over whether more work-force participation is necessarily a correct development goal.
Mariana Schkolnik, an economist with the social development division of the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Santiago, sees a lot of gray area surrounding women's work-force participation rates.
"We also have to ask ourselves as a society if it's realistic to have a 100-percent participation rate for women," she says. "Then who will care for a sick child? Pick him up from school? Who will care for aging adults? Who will prepare that delicious home-cooked meal? You'd need a whole makeover in the culture and the system of production."
10-Year-Old Employment Goals
International development experts have long argued that female employment in the labor force is essential for escaping poverty. And 10 years ago in Beijing, the bulk of the world's leaders agreed on the need to promote women's economic rights and independence. In a U.N. declaration known as the Beijing Platform, they committed their governments to improving women's access to employment and appropriate working conditions and control over economic resources.
In 1995, at the time of the Beijing meeting, Chile's female work-force participation stood at 25 percent. Today it's about 36 percent.
Some of that expansion has occurred in traditionally male-dominated financial sector, where female employment has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, climbing from 32 percent to 51 percent, according to a recent study from the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
But while Chilean women's employment has risen significantly, it still lags far behind the regional average of 49 percent for Latin America overall.
In the past 10 years Chile has endeavored to promote female participation through a permanent awareness campaign and passing laws to provide equal opportunities, says Myriam Verdugo, deputy director of the government's National Service for Women.
"But what's really needed is a cultural change, whereby both men and women start to see children and family as a shared responsibility," says Verdugo. "We are a macho society with deeply rooted concepts of male power . . . and cultural change is very slow."
Topping the List of Beijing Goals
Teresa Valdez is a researcher in Santiago with an independent think tank, La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, that recently concluded an analysis of Latin America's progress toward the Beijing Action Plan. She says despite the low participation, Chile tops the list for spurring women's progress toward the Beijing goals overall.
"Chilean women are the most educated in the region and those who do work have tended to have better jobs, with more protection," she says. "In Bolivia, on the other hand, it's mainly poor, indigenous women who work and they toil in poor conditions, in the informal sector, without contracts, so it's not the optimal kind of participation."
Valdez says Chile has instituted universal maternity leave and, just a few weeks ago, the Chilean Congress passed a law against sexual harassment in the workplace.
What's more, the economy is healthy and the national poverty rate has dropped substantially, down to 20 percent from 30 percent in 1995.
The government here estimates that at least 100,000 more families would be living in poverty if women weren't working for pay.
Poverty Protections Debated
Valdez says Chile has advanced more than most countries in the region when it comes to developing laws and policies to include women in the work force and providing protection for the poor.
But such programs have their downside, says Schkolnik, the economist with the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
"If a poor household brings in 68,000 pesos working, while the social security provided by the state is 100,000 pesos, why would you work?" she says. "On the one hand, that's positive because it improves our social development indicators, but on the other hand, it's a disincentive for poor women to work."
Carla Lopez, an uneducated 25-year-old mother from El Volcan, says that's exactly why she doesn't work outside the home: "If I did, I would spend more on child care than what I would earn."
Chilean women continue to earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts for the same work. The wage gap widens as wages rise, reaching 50 percent for the top jobs, where female representation is scarce. Only 5 percent of Chilean executives are women.
Housewives with University Degrees
While Valdez says the wage gap at the top of the work force is getting smaller, Schkolnik says that many Chilean housewives have university degrees and this indicates that women are still either reluctant or discouraged from attempting to enter high-salary jobs.
"That's a human capital that's being underutilized," she says. "Because of the importance they place on the family and the feeling of responsibility for being at home with their children and also a distrust of having someone else care for them."
The lack of affordable child care is another major barrier to women's entry to the work force. According to an opinion poll last year conducted by Adimark, a market researcher, that has remained one of the main concerns for many women considering entering the work force.
To that end, the government passed a law requiring companies with more than 20 female employees to provide free day care for children below the age of 5. But because most Chilean businesses are small or medium-sized, that law applies to only 20 percent of the firms.
In the informal sector, the government's National Service for Women has developed child care programs to assist seasonal agricultural workers. In March, the government will begin a new pilot program for year-long child care for a wider range of workers in Santiago. The state will split costs evenly with employers.
Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist who returned to her mother's homeland a year ago to tell its untold, or under-told, stories.
For more information:
The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women--
FWCW Platform for Action Women and the Economy:
International Labour Organization
Global Employment Trends for Women 2004
La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales
The Latinamerican Faculty of Social Sciences