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Family ties: Wives . . .

By SeriesKristin HelmoreStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 1985

`A woman is very precious,' said the handsome Sudanese attending the American University in Cairo. `I wouldn't want just any man looking at my mother or my sister or my wife.' `That sounds as if you think of a woman as a precious possession.'

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`Well, in a way I suppose I do.'

MOST of the women in the developing world are wives. Marriage and motherhood are universally accepted as women's essential roles -- roles they often assume while still in their teens.

For many, however, the fabric of marriage has frayed to a shred, and thousands of women are raising their children alone. Wherever there is urban migration -- and on every continent thousands of men leave their families in search of work -- marriage suffers. Domestic violence, often the result of alcoholism, also takes its toll, as does a growing sense of frustration and impotence in the face of mounting poverty, unemployment, and alienation.

There are, of course, millions of strong marriages as well: couples whose reserve and apparent lack of communication may not conform to the Western ideal of a ``love match,'' but whose fidelity, self-sacrifice, and shared aspirations give cohesion and stability to the family and to society. Too little marriage

Marriage is at its most precarious in Latin America.

The numbers of female-headed households (officially reported at 20.5 percent, but estimated to be much higher) and of children born out of wedlock are greater there than anywhere else in the developing world. It is estimated that 53 percent of children born in Venezuela are illegitimate; in El Salvador the figure is 70 percent. In most of Central America, at least 50 percent of women are in consensual, rather than legal, unions.

Elo'isa Moreno, a Nicaraguan, works as a cook and housekeeper in Mexico City. She has three children -- all by different fathers, none of whom married her. Miri'an Isabel Chitiva lives in a slum in Bogot'a, Colombia. Though she has three daughters by the same father, she was never married to him, either. When he left about a year ago, Miri'an was glad: She and her daughters lived in fear while he was with them, because on Friday nights he used to come home drunk and beat them.

Elo'isa and Miri'an are typical of women living in what is known as the culture of machismo, the Latin concept of self-assured virility and male superiority.

``Machismo culture comes to us from the Spaniards,'' says Sylvia Schmelkes de Sotelo, a researcher in sociology and education in Mexico City. ``The Spaniards who came were all men. They traveled all around the country and had women wherever they stopped. The typical image of the Mexican family -- with an Indian woman and a Spanish man -- is the image of an abandoned family, of a woman alone.

``Part of the macho culture is never to express your feelings. You can't be kind -- that's not being macho. And it's not badly seen for a man to hit a woman.''

The ``flip side'' of machismo is marianismo, according to Manuel Urbina Fuentes, director of the Mexican government's family planning program.

Marianismo, Dr. Urbina explains, is ``women's support of machismo, their submission to it. They accept their role. If they rejected it, machismo wouldn't exist. Mexican women would be equal if they stood up to men. And this is now being taught.''

``The cultural problem can be attacked educationally,'' Ms. Schmelkes agrees. ``What you see in women of this new generation in the cities is more freedom. You see more equal relationships with men, and the same happens to men because they are also being impacted by universal values. Working with men and women changes attitudes.''

But economic pressures on families are more difficult to control, Schmelkes believes. When men must travel long distances to their workplace or to look for work, ties to the family are weakened, and opportunities for extramarital relationships increase. Too much marriage?