Young Women Speaking the Economy
Mexico: Longstanding Challenges, New Opportunities
Women are "the pillar" of the Mexican economy, according to Mexico's Economic Secretary Bruno Ferrari. Yet this does not speak to the daily reality of most Mexican women. More than a third of Mexicans live in poverty -with poverty rates nearing 50 percent in rural areas -and women are most acutely affected. This along with issues of heavy dependence on remittance, domestic violence, and discrimination all pose challenges to women in Mexico as they try to recover-and make economic advances-during the global economic crisis.
Women comprise about half of the small business entrepreneurs in Mexico. Four out of five of these women entrepreneurs begin their businesses without any government assistance, relying on savings or help from family and friends. As a response, in 2009 the National Fund of Support for Businesses in Solidarity (FONAES) (a federal government organization in Mexico which supports types of microfinance programs) awarded 80 percent of its small loans to women, an action which helped more than 188,000 businesswomen in the past year.
The rise of microfinance has also helped increased Mexican women's opportunities for entrepreneurship. Microfinance organizations such as Pro Mujer offer credit loans to women with little collateral or credit history. However, since the financial crisis, the availability of microfinance loans from non-commercial, low interest lenders has drastically decreased. Seventy-five percent of microfinance organizations in Mexico are funded by a national microfinance program run by Mexico's treasury. With the decrease in Mexico's overall budget, these microfinance organizations have suffered severe cutbacks, and fewer women microentrepreneurs now have access to these essential loans. As legitimate microfinance organizations have made cuts, more women have fallen victim to predatory microlending and exorbitant interest rates, ending up deeply in debt as a result.
Migration and Remittance
For many Mexican families, emigration for economic reasons is commonplace. Mexican men and women leave Mexico to find work in the United States, Spain, or other countries, sending back a large portion of their earnings to support their families back home. These payments are also known as remittance and are Mexico's second largest source of income after oil revenues. Since the crisis hit, there has been a marked decrease in remittance sent back to Mexico, which fell nearly 15 percent between 2008 and 2009.
Mexican women are both the source and recipients of remittance. Mexican women who work in the U.S. contribute 60 percent of all remittance sent to Mexico. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), 18 percent of Mexican adults consistently receive remittance (at an average of about $190, seven times a year). 78 percent of remittance funds pay for basic necessities such as food, medicine and housing. Women are twice as likely to receive remittance as men, with most recipients living on only moderate incomes and having limited education.
When remittance decrease, household incomes fall and more families are propelled into poverty. The consequences of reduced remittance are especially severe in rural Mexican towns known as pueblos fantasmas -or "ghost towns" -because so many men have left to work in the United States. For example, in the rural town of Pacula it is mostly women, children and the elderly who remain. In Pacula, about 80% of households rely on remittance for basic needs such as food and clothing.
Violence Against Women
Domestic violence is a systemic problem throughout Latin America, and Mexico is no exception. Almost 40 percent of women in Mexico have reported experiencing violence by a partner. Nongovernmental organizations in Guadalajara, Oaxaca and Guerrero found that the majority of domestic abuse cases occurred with families that were struggling economically. As families struggle to provide basic necessities, tensions, abandonment, and family violence increase.
Additionally, since Mexican women are becoming more educated and successful in the workforce, traditional male-female relationships where men hold the power have changed. This can create conflict in families, since men may feel threatened as women gain equality. "Conflict in families as masculine domination is brought into question and de-legitimized steadily increase the levels of violence ... These conflicts are multiplied under the pressure produced by unemployment, poverty, and insecurity," notes Mercedes Olivera, author, women's rights activist and researcher at the Center for Higher Studies of Mexico and Central America. There are few resources for Mexican women suffering from domestic abuse: Margarita Guillén Tamayo, director of the National Network of Shelters in Mexico, laments that there are only 14 shelters in Mexico for safe havens for women in violent situations, whereas in the United States there are 4,000.
In some areas, femicide is a regular occurrence. The most extreme example of this is in Ciudad Juarez, where hundreds-and possibly thousands-of women have been killed. The epidemic is so severe that the city is nicknamed "the capitol of murdered women." Many of the murdered women are employees of maquiladoras, factories that import materials to Mexico and then export the assembled product. Despite the known danger to young women in Ciudad Juarez, the city continues to draw tens of thousands of young women from small, poor towns throughout Mexico who have few other options for employment. Although the local authorities and the Mexican government have acknowledged the femicide occurring in Ciudad Juarez, little is being done to bring justice to the killers of these many victims.
Indigenous Women and the Crisis
About 10 percent of Mexico's population, or about 12 million people, are indigenous. Most do not speak Spanish, and instead speak an indigenous tongue (there are 62 indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico, including Nahuatl, Maya, and Zapotec). Education levels among the indigenous population are much lower than the national average, and indigenous women are much more likely than indigenous men to be uneducated. Thirty-five percent of indigenous women are illiterate, compared to 20% of indigenous men. Discrimination against indigenous populations is common, and is most frequently due to their inability to speak Spanish, which leads to employment barriers in Spanish-speaking areas.
Indigenous women are further disadvantaged because they face two-fold discrimination: for being women, and for being indigenous. In their indigenous society, women frequently face patriarchal structures such as machismo and sexism. Oppression and violence against indigenous women is common, affecting their freedom to make decisions and their access to resources. As a result of social inequities and widespread poverty, indigenous women are twice as likely as non-indigenous women to die during childbirth.
On the Bright Side
The Mexican government as well as nongovernmental organizations, feminist organizations and others has been working to alleviate some of the impact of the financial crisis on women, and has managed to make commendable strides.
For instance, the Mexican government recently passed the Gender Equality Act, establishing equal rights for women, expanding its laws protecting women and "guaranteeing the right to a life free from violence." While commendable, the effective enforcement of these laws remains an open question. Amnesty International reports that while 28 states have enacted legislation calling for an end to violence against women, only three of those states and the federal government actually issued regulations to carry out these new laws.
Mexico has also instituted cash transfer programs in which the government transfers cash to deserving families in exchange for a commitment to education or health improvements, such as combating truancy in schools or ensuring children visit the doctor regularly. This program, called Opportunidades, or Opportunities Program, has been heralded as one of the most successful and solid cash transfer programs in Latin America. Government funding for Opportunidades is nearly double the regional average for other transfer programs, and it reaches an estimated 5 million people living in rural and semi-urban areas.
Ultimately, as Mexico recovers from the crisis and the economy continues to grow, Mexican women will be essential in creating a society that is inclusive and economically secure. With women's continued strength and determination, economic opportunities for women, and the support of government, Mexico has an opportunity to move towards a society that is economically strong and free of discrimination.