Pope Francis this week embarked on a seven-day “homecoming” tour of Latin America on his unstoppable quest to defend the planet and the poor.The continent—the most unequal region in the world, and the Argentine pontiff’s home turf—will likely provide fertile ground for more of his legendary sermons on poverty and inequality. After addressing a crowd of a million in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on Monday, Francis is scheduled to attend a meeting of grass-roots political activists and visit one of the continent’s largest prisons, in Bolivia, as well as a slum and a children’s hospital in Paraguay.
While he advocates for South America’s impoverished and disenfranchised, its prisoners, its indigenous peoples and its children, one group is unlikely to feature in Francis’ apparently radical agenda: its women.
Despite his efforts to champion his constituency—the world’s poor, of which the vast majority are women—the pope tends to overlook the feminized nature of poverty and inequality.
Like the rest of the world, including the Vatican, Latin America is built on gender inequality. Important progress has been made in the region over recent decades, and the percentage of its overall population living in poverty had decreased significantly. But the feminization of poverty (an increase in the levels of poverty among women or female-headed households relative to the levels of men or male-headed households) increased from 109 percent in 1994 to almost 117 percent in 2013, according to the United Nations.
Women’s labor participation in the region remains more than a quarter less than that of men, at 52.9 percent, compared with 79.6 percent, as recorded in 2010 statistics. And while the wage gap has shrunk, women still earn a staggering 68 percent less than their male colleagues. South American women are also twice as likely as men to be unpaid workers.
As a public figure who frequently invokes “dignity” in appealing to the hearts and minds of his followers, the Catholic leader would do well to address the results of a recent pollin which Latin Americans were found to be the least likely in the world in 2012 and 2013 to describe women in their countries as treated with respect and dignity. A median of 35 percent of adults across 22 Latin American countries said their women are treated this way—about half the percentages in any other region of the world.