Executive summary

Since the early 2000s, countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region have experienced remarkable socio-economic development. Many LAC countries are in transition to higher income and development levels. Yet, inequalities remain pervasive in all aspects of life, including those between men and women. Behind gender inequality, discriminatory social institutions constrain women and girls from fully enjoying their rights and opportunities. Indeed, discriminatory formal and informal laws restrict women and girls from accessing basic rights such as comprehensive health services and assets. Social norms and practices that stem from patriarchal models continue to create disproportionate expectations for women and men, which often lead to undermining women’s capacity to participate as equal actors in the household and society. By lowering total factor productivity and reducing the level of education and labour force participation of women, among others, discrimination in social institutions also has economic consequences: it reduces global income by 7.5%, and throughout the LAC region, before the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, it already induced a loss of USD 400 billion, or USD 1 135 per capita. In this context, the Social Institutions and Gender Index 2020 Regional Report for Latin America and the Caribbean identifies progress made and remaining challenges since the third edition of the SIGI in 2014. In addition, it calls for adequately addressing the forms of discrimination against women that are deeply embedded in social institutions.

According to the SIGI 2019 Global Report, the LAC region performs better than Africa and Asia but still trails behind Europe and North America. The region is characterised by strong feminist movements which have advocated for gender equality and women’s empowerment over the years. On International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020, hundreds of thousands of women across the LAC region rallied for gender equality. In Mexico, this was followed on 9 March by ‘A Day Without Us’ to protest against gender-based violence and women’s restricted rights. Efforts led by women’s organisations in the region have attracted attention and have sparked public discussions on the paths towards inclusive and gender-equal societies in many spheres.

Newly introduced gender-responsive legislative frameworks and holistic approaches also demonstrate the region’s political commitment towards Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5) on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Since the third edition of the SIGI in 2014, seven countries have passed legislation setting the minimum legal age for marriage at 18 years for boys and girls, with no exceptions. Countries in the LAC region have also introduced new legal frameworks protecting against more types of violence against women, including femicide. Moreover, many countries have taken measures to recognise, redistribute and reduce women’s unpaid care and domestic work. In a move aimed at improving the protection of women’s workplace rights, progress has been made regarding introducing or extending maternity and paternity leave schemes. The LAC region has also strengthened the legal framework to promote women’s political participation at national and local levels. The proportion of women in parliaments in the region was 30% in 2018, which is higher than the global average of 24% and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member country average of 29%.

Weak legal frameworks with loopholes in some areas still restrict women’s access to rights and empowerment opportunities. The persistence of legal loopholes, coupled with discriminatory practices, still allow girls to marry before the age of 18 years. The LAC region is the only region in the world with no significant reduction in child marriages since the mid-1990s. Every year, one in six girls in the LAC region gets married or enters an informal union before the age of 18 years. Furthermore, no country in the region has yet introduced a comprehensive legal framework protecting women from all forms of violence against women, including rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, in educational institutions and in public spaces. Legal frameworks also largely fail to protect women in workplaces. Nine LAC countries continue to prohibit or restrict women’s access to certain professions. Many countries also do not legally guarantee equal remuneration for work of equal value. Moreover, laws in some Caribbean countries continue to define women’s citizenship rights in relation to their marital status.

Discriminatory social norms and practices frequently offset the effect of policies aimed at achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment. Across all LAC sub-regions, the most challenging area is the family sphere, revealing the presence of deep social discrimination governing intra-household dynamics between men and women. SIGI data show that women in LAC countries are often confined to their reproductive and caring roles. More than one-half of the LAC region’s population believes that children will suffer when a mother is in paid employment. In addition, women spend three times as long as men on unpaid care and domestic work. A disproportionate burden of household chores on women hinders their advancement in other spheres of life. Social norms also contribute to the gendered segmentation of occupations and sectors, often amplifying existing gender pay gaps. Discriminatory attitudes and violence against women in politics hinder women’s full and uninterrupted political participation. Violence against women often stems from gender norms – especially machismo – which also justify this behaviour. About 27% of women in the LAC region have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime (16% in Central America, 21% in the Caribbean and 33% in South America). Yet, 11% of women aged 15-49 years believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife under certain circumstances.

Different individuals and groups of women experience different forms of discrimination based on their socio-economic status, race and other factors. Discriminatory norms and practices can sometimes exacerbate the discrimination certain groups of women face, particularly in the case of indigenous, afro-descendant, migrant, rural and low-income women. For instance, indigenous women often face a double burden in access to land and non-land assets. Evidence shows that increasing global demand for products such as quinoa generates intense pressure on agricultural development and threatens indigenous women’s access to their traditional and customary lands due to their lack of formal land titles. Women from rural areas or ethnic minorities also face additional challenges in the area of civil liberties, such as registering the birth of their children, accessing the justice system and participating in political life.

Women who are at the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination face various challenges and additional obstacles, which create further marginalisation and inequality. Child marriage is more prevalent among poorer income groups: 39% of underage marriages take place in the poorest quintile, whereas the comparable figure in the richest quintile is 8%. Women in the poorest income group also spend more time on unpaid care and domestic work than those in higher income groups – approximately six hours a day, compared with two-and-a-half hours for women in the highest income group. This reveals that access to home technology or paid care services can ease the burden of household responsibilities. Society’s marginalised groups of women also face more barriers in accessing healthcare systems. The use of modern contraceptive methods is 20% lower among indigenous women than the general population. In addition, migrant women often face double discrimination by being both immigrants and women.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment cannot be achieved unless further attention is paid to discrimination in laws, social norms and practices. While the current coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis can put a hold on existing gender-transformative policies and programmes, this is also the time to gear up the efforts towards SDG 5 and put women at the centre of the crisis’ policy responses. The following table describes the most urgent actions to be taken by governments in the LAC region.


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