INTERVIEW: Earning a living is biggest obstacle for Colombian women - presidential adviser

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 13 August 2013 05:26 GMT

A woman inspects coffee berries on a plantation near Viota in Cundinamarca province, Colombia, on March 2, 2012.REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

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In a country where women’s unemployment is twice that of men's, and where teenage mums are the norm for rural families, Colombia’s top gender adviser talks about the work ahead of her

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tackling unemployment among women, the high prevalence of teenage pregnancy and impunity in cases of sexual violence are key challenges Colombia faces in improving women’s rights, the country’s chief adviser on gender equality said.

The most serious problems they are up against are a lack of job opportunities and ways for women to earn a living - such as setting up their own businesses - along with unequal pay. Fixing these problems would in turn address domestic violence, according to Nigeria Renteria, the recently appointed presidential adviser on gender equality.

“We think that improving opportunities for women to earn an income can help reduce rates of violence against women because it brings them economic independence. There are women who accept violence, and violence continues because they are afraid to make any decisions that affect their children and the stability of the family,” Renteria told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at her office at the presidential palace in downtown Bogota.

Colombia’s unemployment rate for women is 13.7 percent - almost double the jobless rate for men - government figures show. And while men’s labour market participation in Colombia is 75 percent, the rate for women is 54.1 percent.

TEEN MUMS

Tackling Colombia’s high teenage pregnancy rates - which are among the highest in Latin America - is another priority for Renteria, who was appointed by the Colombian president to her post in June.

One in five teenagers in Colombia, aged from 15 to 19, is or has been pregnant, according to government figures. Teenage mothers in Colombia, as in other countries in Latin American and the developing world, are more likely to drop out of school and earn less as adults, making it difficult to escape the financial hardship that grips many young mothers, Renteria said.

“Few manage to get out of this cycle of poverty that teenage pregnancy generates,” she said.

Behind the country’s high prevalence of teen pregnancy, says Renteria, are myths and misconceptions among teenagers about contraceptive methods, even though girls and boys over 14 years old can get free contraception in government-run clinics.

“We’ve spoken to teenage boys and girls, and they have started to tell us what they think. One cultural myth you hear a lot is that if a woman washes herself with water and lemon after sex she won’t get pregnant. Another one is drinking Coca-Cola with a flu pill after sex.”

Preventing teen pregnancy involves working more closely with youth groups to debunk these myths and offer teenagers activities in their spare time, such as after-school sports clubs, she said.

In rural Colombia, where there are few job opportunities, many teenage girls see motherhood as something that will give purpose and meaning to their lives when there is little else to do.

“In rural areas the situation is much more complicated. It’s very traditional there. Girls think it’s the way it is because their mothers and grandmothers become mothers at the age of 15. It’s normal. That’s why we’re working with schools on sex education to show girls they have the right to decide when they want to become mothers,” said Renteria.

Teen pregnancy as a result of rape, often at the hands of family members or stepfathers at home, is still largely a taboo subject in Colombia.

Having sex with a child under the age of 14 is a crime in Colombia, carrying a prison sentence from 12 to 20 years. Yet few are prosecuted, and the law has done little to stop the sexual abuse of girls. In 2011, 6,291 girls aged 10 to 14 gave birth, according to government figures.

“WOMEN BECOME REVICTIMISED”

Renteria is also tasked with raising awareness about domestic and sexual violence against women among public officials and society as a whole.

In 2012, there were 55,638 reported incidents of domestic violence, and 16,063 reports of alleged sexual violence against women, according to Colombia’s National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.

Colombia’s patriarchal society and macho culture are factors behind violence against women, local women’s rights groups say.

Renteria and her team of 15 people work with health officials, prosecutors and police officers across Colombia offering them advice and support on how to implement existing laws on violence against women and ensure public funds are set aside by local mayors and governors to promote gender equality.

A lack of confidence in the criminal justice system and low prosecution rates for sexual violence cases are preventing women from coming forward and more cases going to court, Renteria said.

“It’s actually quite difficult for an aggressor to be arrested or be punished for what he did. As such, women feel this generates a kind of impunity, which doesn’t give a woman much confidence to report on someone who has harmed her because they feel that nothing is going happen. Women become revictimised because they have to tell (officials) what happened to them several times,” said Renteria, a lawyer.

The key challenge is putting existing laws protecting women’s rights into practice.

“Our challenge is to help in the implementation of laws for women who have been victims of violence. We are working very hard with all sectors so that officials know the steps that need to be taken to help women when they report sexual violence crimes. There has been some progress but we have observed that there’s still much more to be done.”

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