Latin America: Empowering Young Women to Overcome Violence, Poverty, and Discrimination

By Fulton Armstrong*

Study participants take part in group discussion in Cali, Colombia / Universidad del Valle / FLACSO-Costa Rica / Creative Commons license

In addition to documenting the often-overwhelming challenges facing young women in Latin America, the Vidas Sitiadas (Besieged Lives) project coordinated by the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) of Costa Rica analyzed promising approaches for empowering women to improve their lives. The solutions are not one-size-fits-all, but they address similar underlying drivers – gender inequality, systemic violence, and the chronic lack of social inclusion and economic opportunities – in Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.

  • Governments have largely failed to address young women’s rights to political and economic inclusion, to protection from community violence, and to progress in reducing and ending gender-based violence. Many of the women feel like prisoners in social and cultural constructs that ignore their needs, undermine their sense of self-worth, and deprive them of the skills and self-confidence necessary to build a better life. Women who want to improve their lot in life often can’t afford the necessary education, and are held back by being from stigmatized neighborhoods, lack of basic social services and transportation, and limited access to employment.

The challenges have deep roots and defy quick fixes, but the Vidas Sitiadas studies revealed that projects addressing their underlying causes can enable progress in individuals’ lives, especially when government steps up in coordination with private companies and NGOs. The programs examined have been in place for several years, so their long-term impact is difficult to gauge, but participants’ feedback shows they are based on sound analysis and point to practical, sustainable solutions.

  • The Girasoles (“Sunflowers”) programs designed and implemented by the Paniamor Foundation in Costa Rica emphasize close collaboration among civil society and government at the national and municipal level. Located in a municipality of San José, the initiative is supported by the Ministry of Justice and Peace, the semi-autonomous National Institute for Learning (INA), and the “Civic Centers for Peace” of the area. Girasoles works with young women to overcome their sense of vulnerability through developing skills, rethinking identities, and rebuilding relationships.
  • The Primer Trabajo (“First Job”) initiative by the Arbusta Company, which specializes in information technology, and Santiago-based Espacio Público demonstrated that getting a first job is a woman’s best means to increase social and economic inclusion in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Medellín. In addition to providing on-the-job training, the company empowers women through personal development classes in areas such as listening and speaking skills, problem-solving, and dealing with violent situations. The experience has enabled some women to change homes, drop old relationships and make new ones, and feel agency over their lives for the first time.
  • The Club de Niñas (“Girls’ Club”) by Glasswing International in El Salvador has demonstrated the value of women creating social bonds while in detention facilities and after their release. The program focuses on the roots of problems that contributed to their involvement in criminal activities – poverty, exclusion, gender discrimination, and lack of opportunity. It improves young women’s ability to protect themselves from gender-specific threats and provides opportunities to replace old friendships and reduce economic dependencies that contributed to their past troubles. Interviews show the program increases their self-confidence to make and carry out decisions.
  • The Jardines Maternales (Nursery Schools), run by the Buenos Aires Municipalidad de Avellaneda, have demonstrated the value of childcare to young women who are employed, receiving assistance, or otherwise engaged in positive social interaction, according to a report by FLACSO Argentina. The program enables young women to work and develop important social capital, which also positions their children for greater stability and progress.
  • An Economic Opportunities study, carried out by the Universidad del Valle (Colombia) with young women who live in high-violence neighborhoods in Cali validated two important recommendations to support women striving to liberate themselves from the traps of inequality and exclusion. Based on in-depth interviews, the study called on governments to guarantee higher education – to build skills and enable social contacts – for women who finish secondary education and to provide early-childhood care so they can work full-time.

The problems of young women are the problems of all of society – economic, security, political, cultural – and long-term solutions therefore need the support of broad swaths of society. The Vidas Sitiadas project shows that equipping girls and young women with tools to navigate unequal and struggling economies, systemic violence, and suffocating gender roles is important – and feasible. It has provided the proof of concept and identified some concrete steps forward that alleviate the suffering and fear of at least some young women. That incremental progress is important, but macro solutions reducing or eliminating the many obstacles women face will take political will and time.

  • Government collaboration in some of the projects has already been key, and that success could provide the foundation for persuading political, economic, and security elites to broaden and deepen it. Increasing social inclusion and reducing violence in society and in the home will benefit everyone. Long-term progress will require serious reflection into deeply entrenched aspects of each country’s attitudes and practices toward women, but Vidas Sitiadas has shown that concerted action can make a difference.

This is the final of three AULABLOG articles on the Vidas Sitiadas project. The first two discussed the impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic on women and programs for women under detention. For additional information about the project, undertaken by FLACSO-Costa Rica and its partners with support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, please consult the Vidas Sitiadas website.

September 12, 2022

*Fulton Armstrong is a Research Fellow at CLALS and Director of the AULABLOG.

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