The injustices facing women in Costa Rica
Costa Rica commemorated International Women’s Day on March 8.
Women’s rights in Costa Rica have come a long way in just a few decades.
Until 1949, women couldn’t vote. Sixty years later, Costa Ricans elected the country’s first female president.
Today, Costa Rica ranks 13th on the Global Gender Gap Index1 — ahead of the United States and Canada. Thanks in part to legislation supporting gender parity, Costa Rica also ranks sixth globally in political empowerment.
Despite these noteworthy successes, gender inequalities persist in Costa Rica. Here are three crucial issues:
The gender unemployment gap
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated Costa Rica’s gender unemployment gap. Unemployment is 9 percentage points higher for women than for men2. Women also have significantly lower labor force participation rate (38%, vs. 61% for men).
This is largely a product of women being overrepresented in industries that have been most heavily impacted by Covid-19.
While education in Costa Rica is free (and compulsory) for both sexes, career choices are heavily divided. 92% of Costa Rica’s mechanical engineering graduates are men, for example, with similar disparities for electrical engineering, civil engineering, and computer science.3
“It’s important to identify the main careers for which women enroll in university education, since it’s clear that this choice is marked by biases, prejudices and gender roles,” said Patricia Mora Castellanos, former Minister for the Status of Women.
“From childhood, a conditioning is exercised on the areas that have been socially defined for one sex or another, resulting in women ending up opting for traditionally female careers with less economic and social recognition, meaning they later access lower-quality and low-paid jobs.”
A gender pay gap exists, too. Women in Costa Rica earn 8% less than men for similar jobs.4
Harassment and machismo
While sexual harassment and skewed gender norms are by no means unique to Costa Rica, they can be particularly pervasive here.
The majority of women in Costa Rica have been sexually harassed in a public setting.5 The prevalence of street sexual harassment led Costa Rica to pass a law against it in 2020. While this is a step in the right direction, no single piece of legislation can erase such widespread behavior.
“Sexual harassment harms the physical, psychological and sexual integrity of victims who feel invaded by words, gestures, touching and even attempts at rape or sexual abuse,” the National Women’s Institute (INAMU) says. “The impact of these behaviors is varied, ranging from discomfort to fear, and in some cases physical injuries.”
Machismo culture begins at a young age. A 2017 study from the University of Costa Rica found that teenage girls expressed anxiety about objectification and that Costa Rican schools “perpetuated both the gendered power relations and the passive, object-oriented sense of self among girls.”6
INAMU has launched campaigns to help Costa Ricans “rehabilitate” from the hyper-masculine culture, but undoing decades of machismo is no quick fix.
Gender-based violence has been a topic of national conversation over recent years due to several high-profile homicides. Those deaths spotlight an uncomfortable trend: Since 2007, since a law was passed penalizing domestic violence, Costa Rica has registered at least 376 femicides.7
In Costa Rica, a femicide is defined as “the death of a woman” at the hands of her current spouse or partner. Because of the term’s narrow definition — namely, it excludes former partners or casual relationships — there have undoubtedly been many more.8
According to the United Nations, 36% of women in Costa Rica have experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence at least once in their lifetimes. Nearly 8% have experienced an incident within the last year.9
In 2018, Costa Rica declared violence against women a “national emergency.” From 2010 through 2020, Costa Rica averaged 133 daily requests for protection against a domestic abuser; the majority corresponded to women facing or fearing violence from a male partner, spouse or family member.10
In a particularly striking example, the scoreboard during a 2015 soccer match displayed a live tally of domestic violence calls11. Costa Rica won the game, 1-0; at the final whistle, the scoreboard read “30.”
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This week, Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly approved a project to expand the legal definition of “femicide” to include former partners, or partners in a casual relationship.