Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 168 | Julio 1995


Central America

Central America's Family and Women: What Does Reality Say?

In the last 20 years Central America families have been transformed profoundly. They are ever more diverse and now have a new profile. Speaking in Central America of “the family” is a meaningless myth.

María Angélica Fauné

Increases in poverty, along with both social and political instability, define the current Central America scene. Seventy five percent of Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran families live in poverty and instability, as do half of all Panamanian families and a quarter of the families in Costa Rica. The majority of these families live in overcrowded conditions in the precarious and wretched settlements that make up so much of the new urban fabric of the region's capitals. Others live dispersed in the most depressed rural conditions many in areas that long served as the staging grounds of war or in settlements of indigenous peoples.

Today's attempts at economic reactivation and agricultural modernization and the application of economic stabilization and structural adjustment measures have not only been unable to brake both poverty and extreme poverty, but, given accompanying reductions in social spending, have spurred the region's governments to abandon their obligation to the family as outlined by most countries' Constitutions: "adequately protecting the family for the greater good of society."

Paths to Adjust to the Crisis

Faced with this crisis, Central American families and women are regrouping in a number of different ways:
* They are in an accelerated process of adjusting, restructuring and reformulating the traditional patterns of constituting and shaping the family as well as its functions as a unit of biological reproduction, production, accumulation, consumption and socialization, and as an entity of power.
* They are diversifying their maintenance and reproduction strategies. New components of these strategies are: 1) internal and international migration; 2) informal marketing of products prepared in the home that were previously used for barter or self consumption; 3) the sale of personal services.
In the face of the growing informalization of economies, women are obliged to appropriate new spaces both in the street and at home.

* They are modifying the pattern of structuring both urban and rural homes. The nuclear family residence unit is giving way to a broad residential unit of one or more nuclear families. The fixed household is transformed into a more mobile household, based on the spatial distribution and ongoing movement of the members who make it up. In accord with their age, gender and opportunities for employment and/or marketing, the family members should rotate the length of their residence in the household, moving between rural, urban, national and international spaces.

* Household functions are broadened from residential units to production units, but based on intensifying and redefining the use of space. Rooms, kitchen, yards and patios are occupied simultaneously as homes and as locales for producing and selling services, which exacerbates the problems of overcrowding, promiscuity, tension and violence.

* In each of the nuclear families that coexist under one roof, women urban, rural, black, indigenous appear to be taking on the role of administering and articulating the new strategies for maintaining the families as organizers and administrators of the mobile household, the spatial movements and the length of residence or migration of their members, especially the children.

* The pattern for generating family income with the massive and significant incorporation of two new agents: women and children. To bring in more income, they have implemented the strategy of "seeking." The women of both urban and rural families seek family income by self employment in informal activities, selling in the streets products they have prepared at home or reselling a wide range of merchandise made available by the large scale merchants, hiring on as piece workers in the textile assembly plants or the companies that process and package nontraditional exports: flowers, fruits, shrimp.

* Adolescents also seek income, preferably in domestic service and covert prostitution. Children contribute a fifth of family income, selling and reselling on the streets, offering delivery services, as well as activities related to prostitution and drug trafficking.

* Women also facilitate and administer the strategies for securing daily sustenance for their households, which expanded with the return of demobilized, repatriated or other returning members all unemployed. They try to guarantee a daily income for their household by holding down simultaneous jobs (teaching in the morning, doing washing and ironing for private homes in the afternoons). At the same time, they develop an entire network of support and solidarity to cover those moments of greatest crisis; the women bargain and haggle, ask for credit and loans, etc.
* They modify consumer guidelines to "stretch" their scant household budgets through reductions in meals both the quantity and quality of the food put on the table and also by not eating when there is not enough to go around. Meat, vegetables and coffee are eliminated from the diet and the consumption of sugar, oil, fuel, electricity and water is diminished.

* The head of household pattern is modified a third of households are headed by females due to the absence of men, many of whom abandon their households. And in certain zones, women are left heading households due to widowhood, war, political violence and being uprooted.

* The primary socialization patterns are modified by the absence of the biological father and the transfer of the mother figure to the group of women making up the solidarity and support networks.

* The emerging family types tend to be units of conflict: a pattern of intra family relations emerges based on inequality and violence between both gender and generations.

The Patterns That Persist

In spite of all these changes, some old family patterns are maintained:
* Particularly rural and indigenous women, but also many urban women, still maintain the pattern of pairing off at an early age (10 17 years).

* Reproduction and sexuality are still the basis on which both feminine and masculine identity are constructed. This explains why, despite the significant decline in overall fertility rates, urban, low income rural and indigenous women still have a high number of children during their childbearing years (an average of five to eight).

* The traditional pattern regarding the division of reproductive labor is maintained: women continue to be solely responsible for domestic tasks and childrearing.

* Cyclical conjugal instability, with successive unions and ruptures, is still a structural feature.

* Monogamy is still not a legitimate model for male behavior. Abandonment and "infidelity" understood as a man's "natural right" to establish relations with more than one woman parallel to the union appear as causes of ruptures, not only in long term, non matrimonial relations known as uniones de hecho, de facto unions, as is generally assumed, but also in legally constituted marriages.

* Families are still non democratic entities, consolidated within a context of male domination and female subordination. The model of hierarchical and patriarchal authority, which is the only historical reference point for building the family, and on which the different regulations regarding the rights and duties of parents and children are based, continues to be the model and a lot of pressure currently exists to maintain this model.

The main problems and inequalities affecting women in the family are:
* The problems of associating sexuality with reproduction the basis on which masculine and feminine identity are built and of early pairing off. Both reinforce women's subordination and increasing reproductive health problems: continuous and high risk pregnancies.

* The "triple day," exacerbated by the persistence of the traditional pattern of the division of reproductive labor, in a context in which women increasingly take on the role of economically supporting their households.

* The unequal conditions in the exercise of heading the household, with the creation of single parent, extended families with a disproportionate number of dependent minors.

* The fact that states and other entities that oversee resource allocation do not recognize women's economic role in the family. Even though many women are household heads, structurally unequal opportunities for women in employment, credit and productive resources are both maintained and reinforced.

* Women's employment and working conditions, which cause serious occupational health problems related to exposure to agrochemicals and long, wearing stints in the assembly plants or out on the streets.

* The fact that de facto unions do not have the same legal status as marriage, with discriminatory norms against women in these unions and against children born to such relationships. This problem is made more acute by the lack of real legal protection for Central American families and legal loopholes related to the legal status of women in the family.

* The presentation of "abandonment" and paternal irresponsibility as characteristics that are "part of Central American men's nature."
* The most serious problem is still sexual and physical violence against women within their families and their mistreatment in daily life as the masculine model of relations between men and women.

"The Family" is a Myth

Central America is far from being a homogenous society and, in fact, is increasingly heterogenous and unequal. It is moving towards a "pluralism" at the basic level of social structures: the family. It is not the family that generates heterogeneity. It is a heterogenous, divided, conflictive and disruptive society that makes the family heterogenous.

Central American families appear within an unequal reality. Needs are perceived and attended to with different priorities in each social strata. Values and beliefs, however univocal, universal and permanent the laws and institutions especially the church are also greatly influenced and affected by everyday concrete and historical life, and are also, at the very least, hierarchized in distinct order by strata.
On that basis, the rules and patterns of constituting the couple, fertility, household structures, division of labor, and functions and obligations also vary in accord with the ethnic group and social strata to which they belong, including that vital cycle within which family development is found.

But society is also changing and, in a region as young as Central America, where there is even more change, the family has been changing, adapting and readapting itself to the changes underway in the society of which they are part.

This reality questions the approach that states and governments in the region use for family policy, which is based on the ideological supposition that the family is a homogenous, univocal and immutable unit, and in that homogeneity is its triple function: biopsychological, economic and socializing. That supposition loses validity to the degree that there is no reference in social reality.

It is vitally important and relevant to demonstrate the lack of validity underlying this supposition, since, in the name of states, norms are established that attempt to be universal and supposedly applicable to the families of the different "worlds" and diverse social strata making up the region. Operating with this logic not only implies non recognition of the specific problems and behavior patterns seen in different types of families, but also risks implementing ineffective policies that end up excluding many families that do not fit into this supposition from benefits or access to resources. This further sets back the urgent need to improve the living conditions of the vast majority of people.

Families Must Be Talked About

A series of stereotyped beliefs exist in Central America regarding the character and nature of the family. The legal framework itself has legimitized and established a whole body of norms and regulations regarding the family, under the assumption that there exists "a single type" of Nicaraguan, Costa Rican or Panamanian family. In accord with the stereotype currently in use, the "ideal family" is nuclear, monogamous, two parent, patriarchal, stable, married, white, middle class, with an average of three children and a neolocal residence, in which the man's key responsibility is to earn wages outside the house while women are supposed to be good mothers, wives and housewives and take charge of raising the children, at least in the early years.

What is not always taken into account is that stereotypes, like all beliefs, have been socially constructed and their simplicity hides the complexity of social realities, oftentimes disfiguring, magnifying or generalizing some of their elements. To a large degree, this has happened in Central America with the family. The myth of the stereotyped "average or typical" family is not only referred to in the Constitutions of the different countries of the region, but is now considered "naturalized" or sacred. However, this myth does not hold up to the slightest encounter with the concrete reality of the countries on the isthmus.

Reality indisputably indicates that no single "typical" family exists, certainly not one composed of father, mother and children who live under one roof and function with a unified economy. There are different types of families, with their particular structural characteristics and functions, all in accord with their socioeconomic state, ethnic group, residence patterns, composition according to family ties, etc. All of them differ substantially from the ideal type.

A study carried out recently in Costa Rica the most stable and least impoverished of the Central American countries shows that only some 50% of families fit the nuclear, two parent stereotype. The rest are different from that model and in many cases, do not even have the key characteristics at any point along the continuum of family development.

A study on the Salvadoran family carried out by FUSADES concluded that there is no one single type of family in El Salvador, but rather multiple forms of family structure and organization that differ substantially from the culturally assumed profile of the "ideal" family.

Recognition of diversity as a structural characteristic makes us question the use of family as a singular term. We must speak of families in the plural and introduce this reform into official language with the aim of making visible the diversity and implications of the fact that states and governments still operate in family matters based on one determined stereotype. The predominance and validity of these stereotyped beliefs about the family in Central American society have had negative repercussions for women, as they function perfectly to maintain patriarchal order.
Through these stereotypes, Central American women's position of subordination and inequality with respect to men continues to deepen and magnify, precisely because these stereotyped models are not in touch with reality and hide women's real participation of in the different arenas of family life. From this point of view, it is absolutely key that the position of women within the family change. The stereotypical roles that have been assigned to women must be demystified, and the structural obstacle they represent to women's obtaining equality within the family must be unmasked.

Family Arrangements: New Types of Families

Different studies carried out in the Central American region reveal a tendency towards increased family diversity over the last two decades, a result of the impact of the political and economic crisis.

Using different methodological approaches, Varela and Martín Baró concluded that the armed conflict in El Salvador constituted the most relevant fact, not only in altering the forms of family organization, but also in widening the spectrum of forms of family organization and constitution. Research done in Costa Rica indicated that "the presence of distinct types of families increased as the families' socioeconomic levels decreased."
The analysis based on national studies in different countries in the isthmus allows us to say that, not only has diversity increased over recent years, but "new kinds" of families are emerging. Women and men from rural and urban families, from indigenous and black populations the ones most affected by the crisis have begun, in practice, to form "complex family types,"which are hard to define since they are based on varied and multiple combination of family arrangements.
Although some characteristics of the nuclear and extended families are still present, new elements and arrangements are incorporated today to make up an infinite range of combinations.

According to their structure and composition, the principal characteristics of the so called family arrangements are the following:
* they are generally based on de facto unions that tend not to be formalized: 1) the union may be broken, with the woman becoming the head of household, or various unions may be established during one's fertile years, with a number of children from different pairings; 2) the union may be maintained, with the woman accepting that the man maintain other relationships and children outside of that union.

* In a single household, one generally finds a complex and interrelated set of large nuclear families, which may be mono parental (single women with children, adolescent mothers with children), bi parent, monogamous, synchronic, polygnic or polyandric diachronic, linked or not, as the case may be, by blood ties.

* Sometimes on a cyclical basis, the biological parents are absent and the phenomenon exists of transferred motherhood.

* Blood/family ties are extended and, based on that, different types of alliances and agreements are established, ranging from taking over childrearing to assuring survival strategies.

* The sense of belonging to families is more fragile.

Emerging Families: A Profile

Recognizing these emerging families is imperative for a number of institutions, so they are aware of the specific forms of family organization adopted by the immense majority of the region's families. According relevance to this phenomenon does not imply magnifying the socioeconomic variable in explaining family diversity, nor does it negate the influence or persistence of other sociocultural patterns that in some cases correspond to the family forms inherited from the past or to new sexual or reproductive behaviors based on access to education and health care.

By identifying these emerging family types and underscoring their significant social weight, all that is being done is to add these types to the already diverse scene. In Central America, classical nuclear families still exist and are predominant in the better off urban sectors and successful agribusiness families. In addition, we have the extended families common to the most backward sectors linked to the latifundia system, the extended patrilocal families of rural indigenous communities, the extended matrilocal families of the Garífuna population, based on polygamy, etc.

The concrete practices of the immense majority of men and women who have populated the regional stage over these last decades have legitimized a whole series of rules and patterns related to the make up of the family and its organization and functioning as a unit of residence, production/accumulation, consumption and socialization patterns that largely correspond to structural readjustments and changes with respect to the patterns established in the ideal family. Other patterns take on a new dimension in the new context. Given how generalized they have become, we can speak of an emerging profile of Central American families.

Civil and Religious Marriages

In Central America, the Christian religion has had a decisive influence throughout history in "naturalizing" and making sacred a series of rites aimed at regulating and controlling those moments considered key in the lives of people and society as a whole: birth, puberty, marriage and death. Christianity has attributed a universal character to these rites.

This has all taken place with regard to constituting the family and legitimizing civil and religious marriage as the universal means by which to begin a family, "according to human nature and accepted by God." The state has fully assumed this conception and belief, to the point that Constitutions still endow marriage with the character of "legal foundation of the family."
In the legal context, marriage has been assigned essential importance by defining this mechanism as "a solemn contract, by which a man and a woman are united, indissolubly, for life, with the aim of living together, procreating and mutually supporting each other." Marriage is defined in these terms in civil law and only in some Constitutions including the 1987 Nicaraguan Constitution has the concept of marriage been modified to be understood as a voluntary union. In addition, the celebration of marriage has been surrounded with special formalities and its effects have been regulated in detail, without the parties to a marriage being able to modify them in ways not specifically covered by law.

Marriage thus appears as the institution by which society ratifies the union of a couple and the beginning of a new family. Nonetheless, Central American reality shows that this association between marriage and the family tends to open up, given the significant presence of pre marital relations, children born out of wedlock until only recently stigmatized as "illegitimate" children and the de facto union.

Importance of the de facto union

Contrary to what the ideal model assumes, Central American men and women have historically legitimized a diversity of modalities around which to form couples and families. National statistics themselves reveal that de facto unions are even more important than marriage in the different countries on the isthmus. Between 23% and 28% of Central America's female population between 15 and 49 list their civil status as union de hecho, a number slightly higher than the number of married women.

This causes serious under registration problems. In Guatemala, women, especially from the rural areas, are accustomed to calling themselves married whether they are legally married or not. In El Salvador, 1980 data regarding civil status handled by the Attorney General's office showed a percentage of legal unions practically equal to that of unions. In the case of Panama, marriage rates have increased, but largely due to the legalization of "free" unions during marriage campaigns carried out by Catholic missionaries and, since 1969, to collective marriage ceremonies.

The tendency towards a greater generalization of the modality of unions in all sectors of the population clearly indicates that what legitimizes the practice of men and women is the diversity of means of pairing off. And, among those means, the so called free or de facto union has taken on increasing importance relative to marriage. In Nicaragua, statistics show an overall increase in free unions from 21% to 27% in the first half of the 1980s. In Costa Rica, the increase since 1981 was from 10% to 21%.

The Historical Tradition

Although the prevailing modality for pairing in emerging families is the free union, there are other ways to constitute a family. It must be taken into account that the free union is not a new phenomenon among the most impoverished social actors. Historically, it is a rule that has become generally legitimized among the rural population. It must also be taken into account that, until the 1970s, Central America was an overwhelmingly rural region, with a predominantly agricultural economy.

The nature of the agrarian structure explains this. The nomadic way of life and the migratory itinerant culture generated by the seasonal nature of traditional agroexport crops had a large impact on the family. Current statistics regarding the rural areas still show the predominance of free unions over marriages. The 1990 Panama Census found that, in the rural population and in the 35 49 year age group, 62% of the unions were "free" and only 38% were legal marriages.

Recent waves of migration to the cities by large contingents of the urban population would explain the generalized adoption of the free union as a modality of pairing off in the new urban settlements, thus relegitimizing the historical pattern of union in rural, agrarian Central America. The term ajuntarse, used in popular Nicaraguan language, expresses it very clearly, if one writes the term separating the prefix a and the suffix se. The word a juntar se (to come together) very precisely connotes the temporal and circumstantial nature of these types of unions. Different estimations show that Central American women generally establish an average of two or three different unions over the course of their lives, and sometimes even four.

While the rate of legal marriage drops in the rural population and increases in the urban, free unions are expanding in a focalized manner, especially among young, uprooted groups in situations of poverty. This can be attributed both to the impact of the crisis and to changes in the population's sexual conduct.

In Nicaragua, free unions dominate in displaced rural families. Sixty percent of the families linked to the counterrevolution who initially relocated in the first so called development poles declared their civil status to be free unions. A similar tendency was observed In El Salvador as the conflict in the country became more acute. The study on the displaced population shows important variations in pairing patterns, indicating a drop in civil and religious marriages compared to free unions, indicated under the category of "accompanied."

"Illegitimate" Children

An approximate idea of how far free unions and marriages are from being the only modalities of forming a new family is evidenced by the high number of children born out of either wedlock or free unions.

We can observe a tendency towards increased premarital relations among adolescents, along with an increase in births out of either wedlock or union. This modality of starting a family is invisible in the majority of sociodemographic studies available, as it is generally included as part of an extended family. Due to its transgressive nature, it is included under the category of single mother or illegitimate children.

An approximate idea of the importance that this form of constituting a family can have is seen in the most recent statistics coming out of Costa Rica. According to the General Office of Statistics and Census, 37% of all children born in 1990 were born to single mothers in other words, women who were neither married nor living in free unions. Of those women, 15% were under age 19. All this was recorded in a country where national statistics reflect a predominance of marriage, and free unions are not legally recognized.

A Truly "Free" Union?

Mutual consent is among the elements associated with marriage and the free union in the ideal family type. From a legal perspective, marriage is a contract, an agreement of freely manifested wills. Nevertheless, the Central American reality shows that a significant number of today's families are not based on voluntary agreement between the couple.

Still prevalent is abduction or handing over of young girls or women as forms of establishing conjugal unions, particularly in the rural zones of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama, and also particularly among indigenous populations. In the majority of indigenous communities, the purchase and sale of women prevails as a form of marriage. In these cases, the parents of the woman make the marriage decisions based on prior agreements between the man and the family from the same or different communities independent of the woman's consent.

Given these facts, the terms free or consensual union are inadequate to describe the term de facto union, precisely because the first two terms make invisible the fact that, in many cases, the union is not free or consensual, that there is a total absence of mutual consent. This directly affects women because it reinforces their subordinate position even before the couple and the constitution of the family is formalized.

Early Pairing

Central America is a very young region, as is the female population. Forty five percent of the female population is under age 15, and nearly 65% of the population is under 25, with the exception of Costa Rica and Panama, where, due to sharp reductions in both the birth and mortality rates, only 37% of the population is under 15. Statistics reveal that women form couples at very young ages. Twenty five percent of women between ages 15 and 19 are already paired off, as are 50% of those between ages 20 and 24, with the traditional pattern being that rates are higher in the countryside. Forty seven percent of women over age 15 in El Salvador and 63% of those in Guatemala declared themselves married or in a union.

Studies carried out in Nicaragua and El Salvador demonstrate that not only does the pattern of early pairing off dominate in the emerging families, but it tends to happen at even earlier years (14 17 years), especially in the rural zones and always with older men (19 years or older). In the case of indigenous women, pairing off begins as early as age 10. Studies about the Teribe indigenous population of Panama confirm that women couple off as early as 15 years old with men 20 or older.

"Naturally" Unfaithful Men

In accordance with the existing legal framework, the Central American family should be formed upon the base of reciprocal debts of fidelity or loyalty between the couple. That is established by the dispositions of the different Civil Codes relating to the "personal rights and obligations between the couple." In Central America, this pattern of monogamous relationships appears socially sanctified and naturalized. Planners and those responsible for social policies consider it a symbol and indicator of the degree to which development has been delayed. But, in the concrete practice of Central American families, conjugal life is developed at quite a distance from this ideal type and from what is established by the legal norms.

In the popular language of the region, the same legal term of fidelity or loyalty is used to refer to the monogamous pattern that should prevail in conjugal life.

These concepts have such affective weight and importance in the cultural code and code of values that one might think they were absolutely legitimized, beyond religious principles or what the laws or ideal family type establish.

Nonetheless, field research carried out in the region shows that in concrete and daily practice, men simply do not legitimize this pattern of monogamous relationships. Women from the most diverse sectors denounce constant infidelities by men, and point to this as a key cause of family destabilization. Nicaraguan women go even beyond this in their denunciations of such masculine behavior, calling it "women's misfortune" and stressing that "sooner or later, the man will cheat; it happens to all women, because that's how men are."
In decoding women's discourse, infidelity appears defined as the natural right of men to have sexual relations with more than one woman simultaneously or with a woman who is not part of the couple. This reveals that, in women's collective consciousness, this male social behavior that violates the monogamous pattern appears as natural and, since it is a substantial part of Central American masculine nature, women accept it as something immutable rather than as a transgression of the socially accepted norms established in the existing laws.

The following expressions indicate this all too clearly:
"They're all equal, the rich hide it, the poor do too; and they leave children all over the place."
"Machismo is because men have these needs, it's just always been that way."
"They have to prove that they're men, so that's why they have a lot of women. They've always deceived women, they're all the same, you know that, and you just have to live with it."
The masculine transgression of the monogamous pattern is not only invisible, but is also considered natural. In this sense, the Church has played a key role in promoting women's spirit of resignation. For their part, governments, have ended up being clearly discriminatory against women, even though they have drawn up a whole body of regulations establishing sanctions and criminalizing adultery and concubinage.

This is not only because they use different terms according to sex to refer to the same behavior, but also because they establish different sanctions according to the sex of the person who commits the crime. Current criminal and civil legislation in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua does this, typifying adultery as "that committed by a married woman who lies with a man who is not her spouse and who lies with her knowing that she is married". But in the case of the married man, this same crime is characterized as concubinage, "insofar as there is a concubine within the conjugal household."
Despite this constellation of regulations, governments lack national statistics indicating the prevalence of this pattern, considered fundamental to the analysis of the maintenance of family and social stability.

With the goal of reaching at least an approximate idea of the problem, an indirect indicator has been used: the number of children born out of wedlock or the number of "illegitimate children" who are recorded, always keeping in mind that the majority are not recorded as such.

According to analyses carried out by the vital statistics bureau in Costa Rica, the country with the highest marriage rate, some 39% of all children born in that country in 1990 were born out of wedlock. It can be concluded from this that the non recognized illegitimate children were the product of relations in which the biological father transgressed the pattern of monogamous relations, which would justify non recognition, the only means by which the man can keep his transgression invisible from society and his legal couple.

In Central America, the only parties that do not formally demand compliance with the pattern of monogamous relations as the fundamental base of the family, and instead publicly accept polygamous relations, are some indigenous groups the Bribi and the Garífuna. But, even among these groups, the polygamous pattern does not have a reciprocal character: it is an exclusive right of men. Women are obliged to maintain fidelity to the man with whom they are united and who they must share with other women.

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