In response to the Central American migration crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump has embraced a punitive approach that seeks to deter would-be asylum seekers, subjecting those already in the U.S. to squalid conditions in overcrowded detention camps.
Conversely, Democratic presidential candidates have said they would focus on addressing the “root causes” of migration in Central America – namely widespread violence and hopeless poverty – by promoting economic development.
For this approach to succeed, Alexandra Kissling and Maria Pacheco of the civil society organization Vital Voices told The Globe Post that future development in the region must be inclusive and must center women.
“If you have a boat and only one side has paddles, the boat is going to go around circles,” Pacheco said. “So we feel that to be able to empower women is not just for women. If we want to have powerful regions with prosperity for all, women also need to have opportunity.”
With chapters in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica, Vital Voices works to support thousands of women in a region where poverty and high levels of gender inequity are pervasive. In July, Kissling and Pacheco were awarded the McNulty Prize at the U.S.-based Aspen Institute for their work with the organization.
Guatemala, where Pacheco founded Vital Voice’s chapter, has the largest gender gap in the region – ranking 104 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index. It is also one of the three Northern Triangle countries which have seen particularly high levels of emigration in recent years.
"When we invest in women, we transform the world." @McNultyPrize laureates @mariapachecogua and @akissling from @VitalVoices are tackling gender inequality across Central America through economic, social & political empowerment. https://t.co/O2dVobkR3L #AspenAction pic.twitter.com/NHHZPtrR8A
— The Aspen Institute (@AspenInstitute) July 25, 2019
As Kissling notes, closing this gap in places like Guatemala is not just a matter of social justice but is also key to generating economic growth. In its 2017 report on global gender disparities, the World Economic Forum estimated global GDP would grow by $5.3 trillion by 2025 if the gender gap were closed by just 25 percent over the same period.
“When a woman is able to sustain herself and have an income, she then becomes a human being. Not only from a civil rights perspective, but also as a citizen that contributes to better the society,” Kissling, who co-founded the organization’s Costa Rica chapter, said.
In part, the gender gaps in Central American countries can be attributed to a “Machismo” culture that enforces stereotypical gender roles and excludes women from participating more meaningfully in the economy, Kissling and Pacheco said.
But they also argued that there are broader, systemic barriers to both gender equality and inclusive economic development, such as a lack of access to education and other public resources. And though groups like Vital Voices have been able to make significant impacts for women in the region, they said that civil society cannot address these barriers alone.
Throughout the region, rural villages that rely on subsistence farming have been disproportionately hit by severe poverty, and women have been particularly affected.
“The face of poverty in Guatemala is the face of a woman, but also the face of indigenous women,” Pacheco said.
In recent decades, the local farming industry has declined dramatically across the region, in part because of climate change, experts believe.
“Food does not grow here anymore,” Pacheco said. “We had a vast majority of families living on corn and beans – subsistence agriculture. But now it’s removed because of climate change.”
Others have argued that trade policies pushed by the United States, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, have served to crush local farmers in favor of large multinational agribusiness corporations, driving hundreds of thousands of farmers off their land and into unemployment.
The decline in local agriculture has culminated in widespread despair and hopelessness that has led many to leave everything behind and migrate in hopes of finding a decent life for their children.
“There are no jobs. You don’t have your crops that used to grow. There is no water. And you start children seeing children die. That’s a trigger,” Pacheco said.
To remedy the situation, Pacheco and Kissling said that governments must invest in public services such as healthcare, education, water infrastructure, social security and childcare that will provide some dignity to families and give them a chance to support themselves.
“That’s what we will need besides vital voices,” Pacheco said. “As civil society, we can push some things, but the skill that the government has, if it’s done properly, that’s a huge impact.”