NICARAGUA: Gender Revolution in Schools Not Reflected at Work

Thursday, February 3, 2011
Central America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Karla Mendoza, a 26-year-old Nicaraguan, has worked hard to have a professional career. But despite two technical degrees, courses in computer science and public relations, a nearly complete university degree, and eight years of work experience, she is not there yet.

"It doesn't matter how much you study, if you're a woman," Mendoza complained to IPS. "It seems like they always give preference to men, even if the men make more mistakes and know less than you."

Mendoza has brought a lawsuit against a private hospital in Managua for firing her because she demanded a raise.

The young woman, who was working as a receptionist and data entry technician in the hospital and was sacked in June along with eight other women who were also asking for a raise, is an illustration of two divergent realities described by studies and analyses by experts.

While there has been a revolution in access to education by girls and women in Nicaragua, who now have more years of schooling than men, economic and labour discrimination on gender grounds has withstood that transformation.

A study by María Rosa Renzi, head of the economic development and equity unit in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Nicaragua, shows that girls and women have greater access to education than boys and men in this Central American country.

The report on Women, Work and Leadership, presented in late 2010, found a growing gender imbalance in the country's classrooms as more and more boys are dropping out of school to join the informal labour market and help support their families.

According to the National Institute for Development Information (INIDE), there were 238,780 children and adolescents under the age of 17 working on the streets of Nicaragua in 2005.

Although the official statistics have not been updated, unofficial estimates for 2010 put the number at 300,000 in this country of 5.8 million, where 2.8 million people are under 18.

Since 1997, Nicaragua has successfully promoted the incorporation of girls and young women into the educational system, Renzi's study says.

"Female enrolment rates are higher than male enrolment rates at the preschool, primary, secondary and university levels," Renzi told IPS. "There has been a significant increase in enrolment at all of these levels over the last 10 years."

Between 1997 and 2008, net coverage in secondary education rose from 29.9 percent to 48.1 percent for girls and from 24.8 to 42.9 percent for boys, the study says.

The Nicaraguan government celebrates the achievement of gender equality in primary education as evidence of early compliance with one aspect of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight sets of objectives that were adopted by the international community in 2000 with the aim of curbing poverty, disease and gender inequality and boosting development.

In a September report, the administration of left-wing President Daniel Ortega stated that at the preschool and primary school levels, girls have outnumbered boys in the educational system since 2009.

MDG 3 on women's empowerment includes the target of eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels no later than 2015.

The government report also notes that the gender imbalance in favour of females is most marked at the university level, where the ratio is 129.5 women for every 100 men.

Sociologist Óscar René Vargas said that while Nicaragua is experiencing a veritable "revolution" in terms of the proportion of girls and women in the classrooms, the educational system continues to reproduce gender stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination against women and their subordination in society.

Vargas, the author of two books on the MDGs in Nicaragua and Central America, further said that if actual attendance is taken into account, the gender imbalance is even more marked than what the official figures reflect. He said the real ratios are two girls to one boy at the primary school level, three to one in secondary school, and over four to one in the university.

"There is a heavy, irreversible imbalance, which is a positive phenomenon with a view to the future of this country, because more women are being educated and trained," Vargas told IPS. "But it is also partly negative, because the lack of education of men has an impact on the development of the family and society."

The other side of the coin, he said, is that in spite of the advances seen in education, society does not yet fully recognise women as subjects of economic and labour rights.

"This is seen in low wages, limited promotion opportunities and lack of recognition of women in the labour market, and the limited role they are given in decision-making," he said.

Vargas said women more often find work in the huge informal sector than in the formal economy, where they would be covered by the country's labour laws and social benefits.

In the informal market, the workforce not only tends to earn low wages but also faces low levels of protection, he pointed out.

According to his studies, women in Nicaragua earned 76 percent of what men with the same jobs and qualifications earned in 2009.

But while the gender wage gap is 10 percent in the formal sector, it is 30 percent in the informal market.

Moreover, women still hold only 20 percent of managerial and executive positions, despite the advances in female education.

The phenomenon that has stood in the way of Mendoza's career aspirations is a global one. According to Facts & Figures on Women Worldwide, published in 2010 by the United Nations, access to education has increased globally for girls at all levels.

"In 2008, there were 96 girls for every 100 boys in primary schools, and 95 girls for every 100 boys in secondary schools. In 1999, the ratios were 91 girls to 100 boys in primary education and 88 girls to 100 boys at the secondary level," the report says.

But the wage gap is shrinking much more slowly. And according to the same report, 65 percent of jobs held by women in developing countries in 2009 were in vulnerable employment, compared to 58 percent for men.