Long-Term Answer to Border Crises: Empower Women

Policy proposals to end the flow of children streaming across the southern border of the United States too often focus on enforcement, including increased military presence along the border or warehouse-like detention centers in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – the three nations that so many try to flee. Such proposals miss the major challenge behind many border crises, that is, minimal attention to a gender perspective on issues that contributes to lingering poverty, violence, inequality and lack of opportunities, argues Marisol Ruiz, a Fox International Fellow at Yale University. Televised and online images of wealth and comforts, along with an estimate that 40 percent of the children in these countries have a parent or family member living in the United States, draws many to the treacherous journey. Investing in education and family-planning programs to reduce birthrates – the number of children born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years, 3.8 for Guatemala, 3.1 for Honduras and 2.2 for El Salvador – could reduce poverty. The policies known as “gender mainstreaming” offer a sustainable approach to ending the massive, tragic migratory influxes that also pose humanitarian and moral crisis. – YaleGlobal

Long-Term Answer to Border Crises: Empower Women

Border crises flare as government policies neglect inequality, family planning and gender mainstreaming
Marisol Ruiz
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In search of security: Poverty and violence have driven 50,000 minors from Central America to cross the border into the US (top); scene of poverty in Honduras

MEXICO CITY: The United States has a border crisis – with more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors streaming into the country overwhelming the administration. The obvious reasons behind their desperate journey of up to 1,600 miles are well known – fleeing violence, drug crime, poverty and lack of opportunities. But the solutions offered by the US government and politicians are short-term palliatives that do not address the fundamental causes including gender inequality and poor governance.

Most of the minors are fleeing from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which have high rates of homicide and poverty. The violence threatens livelihoods, and in addition, about 40 percent of the minors coming from these three countries have a parent or family member living in the United States. Regional migratory surges are common when a struggling country has easy access to stronger, more developed economies and a constant onslaught of images touting wealth and comforts. Conflicts emerge when many in the host country fear the sudden influx might precipitate demographic, cultural or security threats. Migrations are more complicated when the influx is composed mostly of unaccompanied minors – a migratory challenge transforms into a humanitarian and moral dilemma.

The suggestions from politicians are many, ranging from a tough response from the United States and demands for emergency funding to strengthen border security, hasten deportations and relocate the humanitarian crisis to militarizing the border and setting up detention centers in home countries. Central American leaders ask for more US economic aid.

These are but shortsighted attempts to end the flow of children – as politicians and commentators bend over backwards to ignore the region’s major challenge – high birthrates that contribute to desperate poverty.

Neither immigration policies nor presidential pronouncements have enticed children to risk their lives to travel to the United States, but rather hope of escaping the violence, precarious economies and the lack of opportunities in home countries. The solution is not investing millions of dollars in border control, tighter security or foreign aid projects. Ending debate on needed immigration reform won’t eliminate the dire challenges confronting Central Americans.

A common denominator in most proposals is that they lack a gender perspective or simply ignore the concerns of women and girls. A long-term solution is to urge Central American governments to allocate resources – their own and any that the United States may want to contribute – to policies that reduce inequality and promote “gender mainstreaming” – the “globally accepted approach to achieving gender equality,” according to UN Women, so women’s and men’s concerns and experiences are “integral to the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of all policies and programs.”

The United Nations, the World Bank and other organizations have confirmed that economic inequality is deeply rooted in gender inequality. Yet most proposals for ending the US border crisis would continue to fail to address the specific ways in which policy outcomes might harm women and girls, adding to more poverty and violence in these Central American countries. Any approval by US Congress for emergency funds should attach specific conditions to the aid packages, ensuring the money will implement policies focused on gender mainstreaming, highlighting the importance of transforming gender relations, rather than just implementing a one-size-fits-all approach to include women.

Investing in strategic gender interests in the Central American context, would entail investing in education. Enrollment in secondary education is still low, with only 45 percent of girls and 41 percent of boys in El Salvador attending secondary school, which according to the Social Inclusion Index by the Americas Quarterly, “is a mere reflection of El Salvador’s low national spending on education,” or 3.2 percent of GDP. Gender mainstreaming in education policies – such as targeting particular underprivileged groups, and allocating resources and opportunities to eliminate social distortions – could transform communities, encouraging more students to complete high school and delay early marriages and pregnancies that can push young parents into poverty. Women who stay in school beyond the seventh grade have an average of 2.2 fewer children and are more likely to send their children to school, which could break the cycle of gangs, drugs, poverty and children growing up as orphans.

Gender mainstreaming in Central America would also entail investing in maternal and newborn health, as well as investing in family planning and reproductive health. Access to modern contraceptive methods in Central American nations is limited, as is access to safe and legal abortions. Central America is home to two of the seven countries in the world where abortion is banned in all cases, even when a woman’s life is at risk: El Salvador and Honduras. The consequences of total criminalization of abortion are well known: high maternal mortality and morbidity rates due to unsafe, clandestine abortions that disproportionately affect poor and young women. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of sexually active young women in these two countries have an unmet need for contraception. By responding on this issue alone, Central American governments could reduce unintended pregnancies  by more than 66 percent and give women the choice about when and whether to have children or not.

US partisan politics and aid policies have been complicit by discouraging family-planning resources for impoverished nations. The Mexico City Policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule,” sporadically applied since the 1980s by conservative administrations, prohibited foreign organizations receiving US economic aid the right to use non-US funding to provide information for legal abortion or advocate for the legalization of abortion in their country.

Gender mainstreaming would also entail investing in political equality. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, gaps in political representation remain wide: Women hold 20 percent of cabinet positions, and make up 23 percent of the representation in local governments. As a result, public policy does not reflect the conditions in which most women live. According to the Social Inclusion Index of 2014, the three nations post low scores in women’s rights, women’s personal empowerment and women’s perception of government responsiveness. Including women in the policymaking would no doubt lead to policies that respond to specific needs of women in these countries.

Ultimately, policymakers in the United States as well as in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico should strive for a comprehensive solution with long-term vision rather than sticking to partisan allegiances or specific administration goals. If the United States wants to avoid facing an ongoing humanitarian crisis and address its real concerns about demographics and security, it must focus on investment in gender mainstreaming. If implementation of such policies is successful, the lessons could be applied to every other region in the world with treacherous influxes of immigration.

Economic resources are limited. Neither the world’s wealthiest nor poorest nations can afford unchecked flows of migration. Countries with the economic capacity to attract large groups of immigrants must  find the political will and courage to tackle root causes of inequality, by choosing the long-term approach incorporating gender mainstreaming as a process rather than a goal and taking women’s interests seriously as an integral part of the solution.


Marisol Ruiz is a Fox International Fellow (2013-2014) at Yale University and has a master’s degree from El Colegio de México. Her research focuses on gender and international relations and the interconnectedness of the local to the global.

Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale