I recently returned from a cycling holiday to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Incredible trip. Cycling allowed us to experience first-hand the beauty of Central America, its lush rainforests, smoking volcanoes and outstanding wildlife. Whilst there though, I was struck by the differences in the lives of the women from each of the three countries, given that superficially at least they seem to have similar natural resources, the same political legacy of colonisation by the Spanish, and similarly-ingrained religious traditions and values.
Panama is a country of contrasts. Panama City is a modern, Central American version of Miami with skyscrapers, expensive restaurants and luxury living for some, funded by the vast receipts from the Panama Canal. Sadly those communities living in more remote areas often appeared to exist in levels of squalor I have only seen matched in the worst slums of India, with no visible distribution of wealth to bring these communities up to a more ‘civilised’ standard of living. This huge income disparity is reflected in official figures which show that 20% of Panamanians live in poverty and a further 17% in extreme poverty, despite Panama having one of the highest per capita incomes in Latin America. Rural women are particularly affected by issues of illiteracy and limited access to opportunity and this was reflected in the villages and communities that we passed through.
Costa Rica benefits from its long-standing tourist trade, and from its 1948 decision to dispense with the military, freeing up considerable monies to invest in the population. Costa Rica boasts a highly educated population, with 6.3% of GDP spent on education (higher than the UK at 5.5%, and almost double the spend of both Nicaragua (3.9%) and Panama (3.8%)). This seems reflected in the role of women in society, with the education of women having been a priority for decades (as reflected in a recent World Economic Forum report (Global Gender Equality Report 2013) as ranking Costa Rica no. 1 in terms of educational gender equality in the world (the UK by contrast ranks a fairly paltry 31)). Talking to our Costa Rican tour guide he commented that the opportunity for education has led to women taking on less gender-stereotypical roles than might be seen as typical for Latin American countries where the culture of machismo still reigns strong. This may also be a reflection of the rise in general living standards and cost of living which means it is increasingly necessary for women to take on a more economically active role.