Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 170 | Septiembre 1995


Central America

Families: Violence and Survival

How can Central America advance towards peace and democracy if families barely manage to survive, if so much violence exists in homes, if such violence is seen as something “natural” and if in the end it remains unpunished?

María Angélica Fauné

Families make up "economic units": when they form, have children and work to support themselves, family members enter into a relation of reproduction, production and consumption, functions that are part of a broader local and national economy.

The economic nature of families has been one of the aspects that has undergone the most change in the profile of Central American families in recent years. The crisis of the regional economic system has been so great that it has had domino effects on that basic economic unit of society known as the family.

The Logic of "Making Do"

In a context marked by recession, with no signs of effective recovery on the horizon, families have had to adapt, radically readjusting how they function as a unit of production, consumption and accumulation. It has become necessary to abandon the logic of production/accumulation and move to a logic that guarantees daily survival at any price. This new logic has brought on structural changes in how family incomes are earned, in domestic consumption patterns and in a more flexible division of labor, especially in the productive sphere. Women are still, however, assigned the traditional reproductive labor.

The complex and dynamic combination of activities developed in families, which includes all members who offer their resources and abilities to carry out daily survival tasks, imposes an impeccable economic logic. It is the logic of "making do." Private and public formal employers in Central America are massively laying off great numbers of workers; agrarian reform has been frozen; food production subsidies have been eliminated and the immense majority of peasants and small scale manufacturers are excluded from the credit and financial system. More and more sectors are finding it impossible to squeeze a family income from that "market."
The only possible logic now is not to seek but "invent" some income source from all possible spaces within the family's grasp. Making do in the gaps in the formal and informal sector and, above all, making do with their own experience of transforming what they know how to do into merchandise that can be bartered or sold. This logic has no borders; it is imposed by the pressure of having to guarantee a daily diet, even if at the cost of decapitalizing the only resource available: family labor.

The Majority Create Their own Jobs

Developing strategies to guarantee family income is nothing new, nor is the region's structural poverty. What is new is the growing pressure of a context that not only lacks alternatives, but has the added weight of the state's progressive withdrawal from providing basic services as well as the social cost of war and pacification. This compelling pressure forces almost three quarters of poor urban and rural Central American families to make do with self employment in the informal sector especially urban as the only possibility of an income that offers daily maintenance to at least some of their members.

The best self employment location for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed, demobilized, or repatriated are metropolitan streets. There they try their luck selling and reselling anything that can pass for merchandise. Other good places are the marginal zones, where one finds hundreds of tiny repair shops (shoes, radios, etc), stores, food stalls and the like, started with severance pay from layoffs. Others join the contingent that moves around offering every type of personal service, including loading and unloading. According to studies, the majority of workers in Central America's informal sector are found in these three areas.

In 1990 it was estimated that over 1.5 million Central Americans, approximately 45% of the region's urban economically active population (EAP) was working in the urban informal sector. The vast majority in this group "created" their own jobs.

Various Sources of Family Income

Up to a few years ago, urban and rural homes were characterized by fixed and stable family incomes. This meant that family members resided permanently in their homes, including rural homes, despite the large role of seasonal migration as an income source. Family economic strategies were based on income sources defined in space and time. Peasant families, for example, had established incomes for the agricultural dry season as well as for the period in which the source shifted to neighboring countries, where they migrated to work in the harvests. In today's context, the income sources are less and less stable and of an increasingly diversified nature, geographical location and duration.

A family's monetary income still depends on support from its members, but now those members must combine diverse sources, mixing different branches of production and types of occupation. Permanent or temporary salaried employment is combined with informal self employment, rural employment with urban employment, activities within and outside of the country, etc.

International Migration and Remittances

A significant portion of Central American families affected by the crisis have opted for migration from rural to urban areas and massive international migration. No one today questions that the income from this migration known as family remittances is an essential component of the economy of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. El Salvador, with over a million emigrants living in the United States, is the clearest expression of this reality that has radically transformed the incomes and functioning of Salvadoran families. According to 1992 estimates by the UN's Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, family remittance income from Guatemalan immigrants in the United States reached $325 million by 1989, an amount that surpassed the value of any of the country's export crops the year of the study.

Given the demonstrated efficacy of international migration as a way to assure a regular and significant income source, the sense of solidarity that would exist in emerging families with at least one member outside the country has been ideologized. A more in depth reading reveals that, in many cases, migration, especially abroad, is a way for individuals to escape the family crisis. Individual interest and a sense of opportunity are more important reasons for migration than the needs of the family. Thus, international migration does not necessarily culminate in sending family remittances. It can also be an opening to crime or drug trafficking, especially when the migrants are young.

Women Take the Initiative

Women, taking the initiative to deal with the crisis, have taken on the role of weaving together survival strategies. Despite existing problems of under estimation and under registration, official statistics show an increase in women entering the labor market to contribute to family incomes. Women currently represent almost a quarter of the region's employed population. Even according to official statistics, between a quarter and a third of Central American working age women are working.

Both the massive military recruitment of the active male population and the demand for temporary female labor to do piecework in the maquilas and the new agroindustrial complexes have contributed to this. In Nicaragua, a study done in the mid 1980s an intense period of military conflict confirmed that the percentage of women who had joined the work force between 1980 and 1985 as temporary workers to replace mobilized men increased the seasonal female work force from 25% to 41% in coffee and from 30% to 56% in cotton.

In Guatemala, the case of textile piecework for the international market is also revealing. According to a survey by the Clothing and Textile Commission, 79% of maquila workers are women. Almost a third of these were housewives before and had never worked outside the home.

But, without any doubt, self employment in the informal urban sector is what most elevates the female EAP. Some authors have begun to speak of the feminization of urban informal sectors. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, three of every five women in the urban EAP work in the informal sector.

Urban Women: Income Sources

Studies on urban poverty in different countries of the region show that women's role with regard to family income has changed. Women now take responsibility for completing the family income to deal with the disproportionate increase in the basic market basket cost, or even for providing total income because of the mate's unemployment due to layoffs, factory closings, demobilization, war injuries, or because the women are single heads of household with children.

This situation has led women to seek income wherever and however they can, as they themselves express. Given that the percentage of female illiteracy in the region, excluding Costa Rica and Panama, goes as high as 40% (Guatemala), most women seek work in what they consider their strong areas: activities related to domestic labor.

The majority of those in the urban informal sector over 60% in the case of Panama end up concentrated in commerce and services. A more detailed analysis of women's activities in these two fields, in both the informal and formal sector, confirms that the majority of their jobs correspond strictly to a prolongation of domestic tasks.

The primary employment source in the service field is domestic service in new and diverse forms: full time employees, live in, live out, by the day, hour, or determined tasks (ironing, washing, cleaning houses, offices or establishments). As independent workers they wash or iron or take care of children by the hour. Or they are hired as "disguised domestics": cashiers, waitresses or cooks in restaurants and cafes.

In the commercial sector, women take to the streets to sell food and drinks prepared in their homes from corn, wheat, cheese, plantains and other fruits, such as juices, tamales, tortillas, quesillos, pupusas, pastries, breads, cheeses, candies, coconut oil, etc. They carry the products on their head, covering various kilometers on foot every day. A minority manages to set up a precarious post at some strategic public place or outside a factory. Another sector outfits a small corner of the home to sell a few products. They also sell cosmetics, clothing, cigarettes and other contraband materials that larger merchants sell in bulk.

In manufacturing, the piecework clothing industry is the main source of formal sector income, especially for young and/or indigenous women, who are given in the most intensive, least technically complex jobs: working the machines and packing. Another sector of women, especially those who have not worked out how to care for their small children, find their incomes in the "informal piecework sector"; they work in the home maquila networks or work for themselves, also at home, making or mending clothing, weaving or producing artisanry. Over 57% of Central American women are self employed, except in Panama, where 67% are salaried workers, and Costa Rica to a lesser degree (47%).

Rural Women's Income Sources

Rural women have always participated in the activities that constitute the main sources of family income, joining harvesting and processing tasks on the coffee plantations and in the cotton and tobacco operations, planting, harvesting, transporting and storing basic grains, caring for the garden and preparing food for workers. Over half of the female agricultural EAP in Central America does these tasks.

The rigid gender division of agricultural labor by nature considered a masculine activity has given way in the region, ever since an important sector of rural women broke into the agricultural job market when large contingents of men went off to war and the violence caused a rise in the number of women heads of household.

An important number of rural women joined the salaried work force in the posts men left vacant in the traditional sectors: cotton, coffee, bananas. By the mid 1980s, with agricultural modernization and the new agroindustrial complexes, another sector of women joined the contingents who pack and process nontraditional products such as fruits, flowers and cardamom, especially in Costa Rica and Guatemala. There they received wages as temporary and piecework workers.

But the immense majority of rural women, especially those affected by massive geographical displacements, have had to create their own source of work and income. Harder yet, they have had to do it in the context of credit reductions in general and womens' historically limited access to productive resources (land, inputs, credits). In these conditions, and with an rising proportion of female heads of household due to conflicts, women found alternatives in the creation of labor and time intensive activities, including:
* Backyard gardens, with intensified and diversified crops such as soy, root crops, and medicinal and seasonal plants, as well as small barnyard animals, to sell in local markets.

* Processing products derived from fruits, milk, corn, coconut, etc. to sell in nearby communities, in exchange for oil, sugar and soap or to pay for the rental or purchase of inputs and animals for work.

* Migration of adolescent daughters for domestic service or washing and ironing in nearby towns or regional centers.

* Artisanry in areas with artisan traditions. Rural indigenous women in particular are involved in home piecework: brooms, straw mats, clay pots, embroidered blouses and other types of artisanry.

* Productive projects such as reforestation, promoted by NGOs and cooperation agencies whose work is often based on the "food for work" formula.

* Hooking up with packing companies involved in planting and futures buying of nontraditional export crops: cassava, chilies, pepper, yams, etc.

In these ways, rural women have tried to generate family income and contribute labor capital to cope with the critical lack of liquidity in peasant economies. According to results from the study of "Women Food Producers in Central America," done by the IICA together with the Interamerican Development Bank in 1992, rural women bring in close to 50% of family income, without counting those cases where women are sole supporters. But this broad activity by rural women is still not registered in official statistics, which indicate that men are the workers in Central American agriculture, with women representing only 8% of the agricultural EAP. (ILO, 1990).

Child Labor

The critical nature of the social and economic crisis has led numerous families to deal with impoverishment and hunger by putting children and adolescents to work. According to official statistics, 1.3 million children under 18 years of age work in Central America to augment family incomes; this number represents 28% of all children under 18. Almost half (600,000) are under 15, and one of four are girls.

The child labor level in 1990 was 17.4%, which means that the number of child workers more than doubled during the 1980s. In Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, child labor takes on the greatest dimensions, with participation levels ranging between 17% and 24%. The proportion is less in Costa Rica and Panama.

According to a PARLECEN, PREALC/ILO and UNICEF study in 1993, 6 of every 10 members of the work force under 17 years of age engage in agricultural activities in small family units or modern agricultural establishments. In second place are those working in services and industry (15% of the child labor population is in each). Commerce is in third place (10%). While boys primarily work in agriculture and industry, girls are employed more in domestic service. Practically half of the child EAP in the informal traditional sector works in unpaid family labor, except in Costa Rica, where wage workers predominate.

* In agriculture, boys and girls do milking, agrochemical applications, cutting, weeding and packing.

* In industry, young and adolescent girls work in maquilas in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Boys work as helpers in informal construction or mechanics shops. In Costa Rica they work in seafood processing.

* "Street children" are notable for their work in commerce and services; they sell products, clean and watch cars, load and unload in supermarkets, deal in the drug market and steal.

By initiating their work life at a young age without adequate preparation or training, most of the young and adolescent girls end up in the informal sector, especially in activities related to domestic service, waitressing, and open or disguised forms of prostitution. The domestic service market has acquired regional breadth; its center is Costa Rica and its primary suppliers are Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Child labor supports between 10% and 28% of family income in the case of families living below the poverty line. Child workers bring in a fifth of the total income of indigent homes and 15% of those not affected by indigence. Without child labor, about half of poor but non indigent families would become indigent and an equal proportion of families not affected by poverty would be poor. The arduous task of diminishing and slowing down their family's poverty falls on the backs of this 14.2% of the total EAP of the Central American isthmus.

The Home and the Street: New Spaces

The traditional place of work has modified drastically in these years. The new family income earners women, boys and girls who are self employed in the informal sector have no choice but to transform the home and the street (main streets, corners, streetlights, access zones of markets and supermarkets) into their "work centers." While boys and girls take to the streets to work, rural and urban women rearrange the home, using it as both residence and production unit, including common areas in the case of collective housing, since this also resolves the childcare problem.

In a certain sense, this recovers the main historic reference point for indigenous and ladino rural families the home as a unit of reproduction and production except that now it is used more intensively and in conditions of greater poverty. The study on women in the informal sector in Central America states that 80% of self employed women use the home as a place of labor. This intensifies the problems of crowding and promiscuity in the homes, which increases women's tension since they must carry out reproductive and productive tasks in the same unit of space and time. In rural homes:
* The yard is used for small animal husbandry, vegetable and medicinal plant gardens, post harvest activities (husking and shelling corn), artisan activities (pottery, weaving, hammock making), etc.

* The kitchen is used to process products such as cheeses, tortillas, breads, etc.

* The eating room or table serves for sewing or embroidery for home production.

In urban homes:
* The room often used for eating or as the living room becomes a shop for clothing, shoe or artisan production, etc., and for hired out ironing.

* The entrance to the house or its main window becomes a small store.

* The kitchen serves to prepare food and drink for the store.

* In the case of boarding houses or settlements, the common areas are used for hired out washing.

* In houses where there are more than two rooms, one is rented out.

Making Tortillas: Like All of Life

The context in which women, girls and boys have joined the labor market to confront the impoverishment of their families has to some degree contributed to making the generic division of labor in the productive sphere more flexible. In agriculture, women carry out tasks previously considered masculine: land preparation, pesticide management, tractor driving, etc. In commerce and services women work as taxi drivers, police officers and peddlers, among others. The same thing has happened with boys, girls and adolescents, who have had to combine school and work, or leave school at an early age to engage in labor previously performed by adults: ambulatory commerce, construction, prostitution.

But this flexibility is only an appearance since the employment opportunities for females of all ages, whether rural, urban, indigenous or ladino, are still generally limited to domestic tasks of sewing, weaving, washing and ironing.

A study recently carried out in Honduras on Popular Economy demonstrates that activities related to flour processing and to restaurants and cafes appears almost exclusively as women's labor, while men work almost exclusively in mechanics, shoe repair, carpentry and construction.

These tendencies are similar among indigenous women who migrate to the city. In 1990, three of every four indigenous women in Guatemala City participated in generating family income, with tortilla production their primary self employment activity. This is a projection and amplification of women's traditional domestic tasks, except that the activity now becomes a source of family income and a way of preserving the indigenous culture when the family is immersed in the ladino environment.

Slavery of the Maquilas

The situation is made worse by the fact that women's occupations today are intensive in both time and physical labor. The most pathetic example is that of female labor in the maquilas. An AVANCSO study in Guatemala (1994) describes the following: "The workday is 10 hours in the majority of factories, 60% work on Saturdays and 27% on Sundays. All factories include extra hours pressured by the bosses and 40% of the time the extra hours are obligatory, ranging between 5 and 25 hours weekly. At peak times workers must work whole nights, known as 'vigils.' The factories make the women take thiamine to stay awake. The workday is not only long but also intense; every operation must take an average of less than a minute, since pay is based on piece work, the number of processed pieces. To assure this rhythm, women are subjected to coercion and physical mistreatment."
To this must be added unequal employment opportunities. Women carry out tasks with low productivity and profitability and receive lower wages than men doing the same tasks. Salvadoran women earn 61% of what men earn in industry, 70% in commerce and 56% in services. In Costa Rica, women's average wages during the 1980s were 84% of men's average wages. Both female and child labor is associated with systems of temporary contracts, piecework, long hours, night shifts and no social security.

Eat Less and Lower Quality

The family is also a "consumption unit." The gap between the cost of the basic market basket and family income even including the support from the new "workers" has led to structural changes in consumption strategies and administering scarce and irregular resources, in cash or kind. Women are the administrators and articulators of these new strategies, maintaining their historic role as administrators of the family budgets. The following stand out among the major changes and components of the new strategies:
* A reduction in the quantity and quality of food consumption. Given the increase in the cost of the basic market basket and of inactive members in the home war disabled, demobilized and displaced family members one of the first measures is to modify the levels of family consumption, diminishing food quantity and quality. Meals are reduced from three to two a day and in indigent homes to only one. Foods that have been cut out include meat, milk, eggs, pasta, vegetables. Those that have been cut back include sugar, oil and coffee. The basic diet is limited to rice, beans and corn, and in many cases adult women and mothers cut their consumption back even more.

* A drop in the use of fuels, electricity and clothing. Every Central American country has registered consumption drops in these three areas. In Nicaragua, FIDEG estimated that 49% of homes reduced clothing purchases, 16% reduced electricity consumption and 9% cooking fuel consumption in 1994.

* A reduction in health and education spending, pulling children and adolescents out of school. Medical visits are practically eliminated, replaced by self medication. Medicine purchases are also cut back and in some cases replaced by medicinal plants.

* The establishment of new budget methods. The number of consumers is cut back; money is borrowed or purchases are made by credit; and negotiations are made to get cheaper products, although quality is sacrificed. Purchases are made in bulk and foods are processed at home. The useful life of products is prolonged and new purchases are put off. This forces women to administer their relationships with the community, with neighbors, and with creditors or lenders.

Women: Endless and Exhausting Work

The changes and adjustments families have had to make to cushion the impact of the crisis have fallen on women. Being providers of family incomes and heads of household in ever growing numbers has not modified the strict division of labor in the reproductive sphere or made it more flexible. Different studies have verified that assuring the family's daily food consumption forms part of the "obligations" of the reproductive role attributed to women, given male irresponsibility towards the task of "maintaining the family."
Testimonies from metropolitan San Salvador demonstrate this. Women say: "The burden varies according to the type of man"; "Those who have no vices, and that is rare, go to the streets to look for work; but the majority just stay in the house and demand food"; "There always has to be something for them, and if there isn't they get furious. Others just stop worrying and abandon the children because they're only interested in money to go and have fun"; "A woman will find something at any cost so that her children don't go hungry. Women will take on any work, but men won't; they don't accept any old job, and since they're irresponsible, they don't worry much about the house and women have to take over..."
Experience demonstrates that men tend not to vary their consumption levels, especially of alcohol, cigarettes and diversion, and tend to rely on women's abilities to stretch the family budget or find resources in kind or money to guarantee basic consumption. Women fulfill this responsibility in a more complex context and with greater tension and work pressures. They need to manage inter and intra family relations in a broadened home, organize relations with creditors, store owners and neighbors; they knit the solidarity links that make up an essential aspect of survival strategies; they administer the comings and goings of the family group; they adjust meals and schedules to the always irregular number of people and they reaccommodate space so the home can also serve as a production unit.

All of these new tasks are added to the traditional list: taking care of the children, cleaning the home, preparing food, washing and ironing clothes, carrying water and firewood. These activities continue to be assumed exclusively by women (adults, teens and girls) within the family group, but today they are carried out in more difficult and time consuming conditions, especially in urban areas, due to the rationing of lights and water that affects various countries in the region. Estimates of the current daily workday of an urban mother/woman from these emerging families is around 16 to 18 hours. Of these, 5 to 6 hours are dedicated to reproductive tasks.

Rural women continue to have work days extending beyond 16 hours, of which 8 to 10 hours are dedicated to reproductive tasks, with food preparation taking the most time: sorting beans, shelling, washing and grinding corn, making tortillas, preparing "cuajada," carrying water and firewood, taking food to the fields...

In the immense majority of families, the female "double day" turns into a "triple day": production, reproduction, and assuring daily food needs, which not only means buying products but also bargaining, searching for low prices, negotiating loans, trades, favors, credit...

From House to House or in the Street

Families are also "socializing units." In emerging families, the raising and socializing of children has undergone important changes. The logic of the new survival strategies, which obliges men and women to constantly move in different space and times, has meant that the biological mother figure tends to be transferred to other women: grandmothers, sisters in law, aunts, friends. The biological father figure tends to be absent, due to "abandonment" and "irresponsible paternity," and is rarely transferred to other men. This means that primary socialization is fundamentally assumed by women.

The agents of primary socialization are not all that have broadened; so have the spaces where socialization takes place. In the expanded family framework, socialization takes place not only in the home but also in the broad spectrum of solidarity networks, many of which can include crossing geographical borders of countries. During childhood and adolescence, sons and daughters may travel between the maternal home and other homes, where they move temporarily or sometimes permanently. Those who work sleep in their homes, but the street or the work center is the focus of primary socialization. Many have their homes in the street.

When the Father is Absent

The primary socialization period in these types of families is shorter. The early incorporation into the work force abruptly cuts childhood short. Adolescence is barely begun when teens begin to pair off and early pregnancies begin. Daughters, and particularly sons, grow up and are socialized with no reference to that paternal figure which includes father, head of household, main income provider and transmitter of knowledge, skills and experiences. His active presence assured the possibility of reproducing the same family life pattern in the future. The current reference point is a masculine figure that establishes cyclical ruptures in unions and demands infidelity, abandonment and irresponsible paternity as his rights.

The learning process through the paternal figure has been practically eliminated. The process of transmitting experiences from father to son has been substituted by a reference group made up of equals: neighbors, street friends, work partners. The adult masculine figures who are present during primary socialization choose punishment as the primary learning method.

Daughters are not as affected because the biological father figure has not been an historical reference point for women's primary socialization. And even though the transfer of the maternal figure to a group of women is a new element, it does not modify the traditional socialization process for women in terms of learning their position of subordination to men. On the contrary, this continues to be reinforced. From an early age, women who intervene in the socialization process, whether permanently or intermittently, demand that girls help with domestic tasks and reinforce their future role as women. It is a teaching process that accompanies the fatalistic process around the destiny that sooner or later all women suffer: pregnancy infidelity abandonment and the loneliness of taking on family maintenance alone. The discourse is so powerful that it is literally reproduced in early adolescence with pairing off and early pregnancy.

This kind of socialization, segmented and empty of references, weakens links of affection and the sense of belonging, reinforces authoritarianism in adults, anomie in young people and women's subordination.

Men in Crisis

The lack of jobs, job instability, scarcity of resources to guarantee daily consumption, the conditions of crowding and promiscuity that characterize precarious settlements, collective housing and rural homes, the traumas left by war, the coexistence of a conglomerate of nuclear families living under the same roof and competing for scarce resources and limited spaces have all contributed to tensions in intra family relations. They thus create ideal conditions for resolving daily problems through conflict rather than consensus. Screams, punches and insults become more effective than words for communication. Interpersonal relations deteriorate due to fights and gossiping that originate in the lack of privacy and competition for use of common goods. To all this must be added problems of drug addiction and crime.

These factors, fruits of poverty, have exacerbated intra family violence, but the roots of violence go deeper, into the machismo of Central American culture. Violence is positive within machista culture; it is a central component in the construction of the masculine identity attributes of toughness, force and aggression. This violence begins with the formation of the couple; the union is seen as a relation between possessor (the man) and possessed (the woman). The children are seen as property of the parents. The concept of love legitimizes jealousy and demands of fidelity. The impossibility of establishing equitable relations between the couple, between father and children, between mother and children and between brothers and sisters, exerts pressures toward violence as a mechanism to resolve conflicts. This explains the sense of impotence and frustration that, in women’s' opinions, men feel in the face of the crisis.

"Because of their machismo they get desperate, they get angry when they have no money, no job, when they are without the firearms that gave them so much power. And the way they release their impotence is by attacking people less powerful than themselves: their woman, their children. Or leaving them after hitting them to go and have fun with other women, to get drunk and forget what they have done" (El Salvador).

"The mistreatment we receive comes from husbands or partners. They force us to satisfy them in sexual relations and if we don't, they hit us or don't talk to us for a long time. They insult us even though many of us maintain them economically. They are jealous of us even though they have various women" (Garífuna woman).

"Violence is expressed in the family by hitting with fists and sticks. They hit the children. They insult us, saying we're worth nothing" (Miskito woman).

Intense Violence Within the Home

Different studies carried out within the action framework of the Panamerican Health Organization and the Interamerican Human Rights Institute as well as pioneer works in the region's women's movements verify that the pattern of violence adopts different expressions: physical, sexual and psychological, ranging from slight abuse to mistreatment, rape or lesions, to murder, in a spiral of cruelty.

In Costa Rica, 84% of victims of violence are women and 96% of sexual offenders are men. Of every 100 babies born, 16% are to adolescent mothers. Within this group, approximately 90% of girls under 14 become pregnant as a result of sexual abuse, generally committed by close family members. Girls are 95% of incest victims, and 32.5% of all raped girls have been raped by their own fathers. A full 67% of all sexual aggression occurs in the home of the victims.

In El Salvador, one of every 6 women is raped and one of every 3 suffers sexual abuse, in which 94% of the aggressors are men and over 50% were or are affectively united with the woman. The majority of sexual violence cases occur in the home.

In Nicaragua, physical mistreatment, sexual abuse and violence are reported as the main expressions of violence against women. Men known and connected to the family fathers, partners, ex partners, brothers, stepbrothers are 87% of the rapists, and 60% of the rapes occur in the victim's home.

In Guatemala, 40% of murdered women are killed by their partners. The most common intra family violence is between partners, followed by violence of brothers against sisters, fathers against children, stepfathers against stepdaughters, sons in law to mothers in law, fathers in law to daughters in law. Among the 80% of women who are accosted in their own homes, three quarters of them were accosted by their husbands and more than half received serious lesions from sharp weapons.

In Honduras, violence against girls is the main expression of intra family violence. Among relatives, the father is the most frequent aggressor.

In Panama, 90% of sexual aggressions are against women and 41% are rapes. In 67% of the cases, sexually attacked women declared that they knew the aggressor. Virtually all married women (99.5%) are hit by their husbands.

How can Central America move toward democratization and pacification if this pattern of family violence has become common and is sanctioned with impunity?

It Is Not a "Fatal Destiny"

Families are also "examples of power." The distribution of power within Central American families has been determined by a patriarchal and authoritarian code, justified and legitimized in the paradigm of "natural" rights derived from sex, which converts the man into the head of the family, owner of the house and family goods, the one who controls the money, has authority and decision making control, and owns women's bodies and the children. This paradigm is accepted by wives, mothers, sons and daughters. Relations with children are also built on these bases of domination and subordination; the fathers command, the children obey. There is no room for discussion about decisions within this scheme of family organization.

This concept has been virtually the only historic reference for intra family distribution of power and has been socially legitimized within existing Civil Codes. In recent years, however, it has begun to be challenged by both the new Political Constitutions and the practice of men and women in the region. Although it may seem paradoxical, the challenge has come from men themselves, in that there has been a generalized transgressor conduct regarding the roles, duties and obligations that sustain the status of father and head of the family; men are not fulfilling their role as the only or primary providers of family incomes and are not fulfilling the role of responsible father and faithful husband.

The "ideal" family model was considered to include the biological father as responsible head of household and family maintenance, with dependent and subordinate women wives housewives and economically and affectively dependent sons and daughters. This model has necessarily been losing legitimacy insofar as the figure of husband and father masculine authority is being completely disfigured before the ever greater presence of women head of households, mothers and minor children fulfilling the role of income providers, hundreds of thousands of children unrecognized or abandoned by their fathers. The results of this process can be no other than the weakening and loss of legitimacy of masculine authority and the paternal image as a model for new generations.

Other factors have also contributed to this weakness, especially with respect to paternal authority: youth migration within and outside of the country, early incorporation of boys and adolescents in military activities and early pairing off. From women's perspective, the crisis of masculine authority has its origin in the weakening of men's self esteem and the loss of security and confidence, as they find themselves unable to bridge the ever widening gap between the roles tradition has assigned them and the access to ways to fulfill those roles. This reality of weakened authoritarianism is not expressed in daily life, but is hidden behind ever more authoritarian conduct, in which men try through violence, apathy or indifference to reaffirm a power that is losing its legitimate base.

From an androcentric view, the official discourse largely attributes the crisis of authority within the family to women's abandonment of their maternal responsibilities to massively and intensively join the labor market. This diverts the focus of attention from what is truly happening in families.

The greatest problem is unquestionably intra family violence and the fact that it is not recognized as a social problem. As long as mistreatment appears as the paradigm by which men establish their relationships and so many women continue to live this drama as part of their "destiny," facing it every day in silence, crying, putting up with it, and justifying it as a consequence of men's natural machismo, much, or almost everything, is still left to be done.

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Families: Violence and Survival

Deactivating Mines: Pacifying Nature

The Electoral Process: For Elites Only?

El Salvador
Labor Unrest and Organized Crime

Peace Process Stalled Till After Elections

The Tacamiche Conflict: A Good Test


One Year into ESAF: What Must Still Be Adjusted?
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