Latin American single mothers are being left behind
WVanessa’s chicken22-year-old, who finished school her goal was to get a job and move out of school favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Those plans were scrapped three years ago when she became pregnant. Vanessa and her boyfriend broke up soon after and she found herself raising her daughter alone. It has been difficult for her to find a full-time job without childcare. For now, she runs a beauty salon from her front room.
In Latin America and the Caribbean stories like Vanessa’s are common. About 11% of households are headed by a single parent, almost always a mother, according to estimates from the UN. That is higher than the global average of 8% (see chart). Even in sub-Saharan Africa – which exacerbates other indicators, such as poverty and access to abortion – single-parent families account for 10% of the total. On average almost one third of Latin American women can expect to have a baby before the age of 20.
The prevalence of single mothers shows how Latin America is stuck in a developmental limbo. No country in the region falls under the World Bank’s definition of low income. Female enrollment in secondary school is close to 100%. Despite being home to a third of the world’s Catholics, attitudes towards sex can be liberal in parts of the region. When asked how reasonable it is to have sex before marriage, about a fifth of respondents in Argentina, Brazil and Chile say it is “always reasonable”, according to World Values Survey, poll. Only 5% of people say the same in Ethiopia and Nigeria.
Despite this, religious views continue to shape access to abortion in parts of the region. More than 80% of women of reproductive age in Latin America live in countries where the Center for Reproductive Rights, an advocacy group, describes abortion laws as “restrictive.” In some countries sex education focuses on abstinence. Machismo it doesn’t help. Diana Rodríguez Franco, secretary of women’s affairs in the mayor’s office in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, describes a common pattern there: “A woman has a child, she is abandoned by the father, she has another child with another man, she is abandoned again.”
The latest data from the World Bank shows that 78% of single mothers in Latin America and the Caribbean are in the workforce, either working or actively looking for work, above average of 73% for all adults. But the unemployment rate among single mothers, at 9.2%, is higher than for any other group, including single women without children and single fathers. Even when they do find jobs, single mothers earn far less than other adults. Often the only job that offers the flexibility needed to juggle childcare is in the informal sector.
This has wider implications for the economy. The UN believes that as women’s participation rate in the workforce is lower, the gender gap will narrow GDP per person down 14% in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2020 and 2050. According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, which measures expected productivity based on health and education, a girl born in -today in Brazil more human capital before age. 18 is a boy. Girls are more likely to finish school and less likely to join gangs. But assuming that there are not many changes in Brazilian society, this girl will not put that talent to use. Considering current labor force participation rates, a woman in the labor market would probably use a third of her talent, while a man would use two fifths .
Governments are trying to deal with the problem. Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have banned the ban in recent years. Cash transfer programs target poor women. During the pandemic the Brazilian government offered double benefits to single mothers. In Bogotá the mayor’s office has built 18 manzanas del cuidadoor “care blocks”, where women can receive free vocational training, sexual health services and help applying for government assistance.
More could be done. In many countries the law forces fathers to pay child support. But enforcement is weak, says Laura Cuesta at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The proportion of single-mother households receiving child support ranges from 15% in Guatemala to 50% in Chile. Franco Parisi, who ran in the presidential election of Chile in 2021, did not campaign in the country. One local problem was a judgment against him for 207m pesos ($260,000) in child support owed to his ex-wife. (His lawyer denied the allegations, but Mr. Parisi later reached an out-of-court settlement.) Even so, Mr. Parisi still won 13% of the vote.
Single mothers must rely on their family for support, instead. 43% of Peruvian mothers live with at least one other adult who is not their spouse or partner. Until governments and fathers begin to provide support, abuelas (grandmother) they have to fill the gap. ■