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.

Nicaragua daily life
Panama house
Panama City
Volcanic lake
Nicaragua is still working to overcome the legacy of the war against the Sandinista government which, although it brought political equality for women (25-30% of freedom fighters during the revolution were women, an almost unheard of statistic), it was not sufficient to overcome the strength of very traditional role stereotypes, with women still largely revered in the role of mother. We didn’t see a single woman working in the fields; this is seen as man’s work. Instead women seemed to be focused on child rearing, sometimes running small businesses selling goods by the roadside outside their houses.

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.

What will be interesting is to see how the contrasting lives of women in these three neighbouring countries develop. Will Costa Rica’s more economically empowered women escape the ‘how do I have it all’ quandary of many working women in the UK? Will Nicaragua’s enviable level of gender equality (the same report ranks it 10th overall globally based on a composite of rankings around health, education, politics and economics) lead to real opportunity for women in the longer term as it, hopefully, becomes more prosperous? And what needs to be done to ensure a more equitable division of Panama’s wealth so that everyone can participate and benefit? I’d love to go back in 10 years’ time and find out what has happened.

Allison Lindsay

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