Gender and Family Values in Costa Rica

President Laura Chinchilla stands at a podium ready to give a speech.

In May 2010, Laura Chinchilla became Costa Rica’s first female president and Latin America’s fifth female president in the last two decades. Photo © ITU, licensed Creative Commons attribution.

Officially speaking, women and men in Costa Rica enjoy absolute equality. The 1949 constitution says as much, and a 1966 constitutional amendment prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, or religion. The 1974 family code stipulates that husbands and wives share equal rights and responsibilities, and that a woman can do everything from inherit property to form a corporation on her own. There are laws on the books against sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The far-ranging 1990 Ley sobre la Igualdad Real de la Mujer (Law for Women’s True Equality) was intended to help close the gap between women’s legal rights and their “true” lives. It provided for a host of reforms, including that schools were supposed to modify materials that promote sexist stereotypes, such as books that state “Mother kneads the dough while Father reads the paper.”

The 2010 election of Laura Chinchilla to the country’s highest office was a real boost to the morale of all Ticas, showing just how far a (well-connected) woman can rise in a male-dominated society. In May 2010 she became Costa Rica’s first female president and Latin America’s fifth female president in the last two decades.


Traditions Die Hard

Sound like a feminist utopia? Not exactly. Traditions die hard, and Costa Rica is still a machista society, where little girls are taught to serve their brothers at the dinner table. In hiring, men are more likely to get high-level positions. The Institute of Social Studies in Population (IDESPO) reported recently that Costa Rican men earn, on average, 40 percent more than women, with the majority of female workers employed in low-paying agricultural, domestic, and manufacturing positions. Add to that high rates of teen pregnancy, single motherhood, and domestic violence, and you’ll see that Ticas have a lot to contend with.

On the other hand, there are more women than men currently enrolled in most of the country’s universities, though it is still common for women to give up their studies or careers once they marry.


Marriage and Kids

Most Ticos are married by the age of 25, although those who are studying for advanced degrees tend to wait longer. Increasingly, both husband and wife work, and often a nanny or relative spends more time with the children than their parents do. In 2012, the fertility rate was 1.92 children per woman, the same as the rate in Great Britain.

Although Costa Rica is a Roman Catholic country, outside-of-marriage births are common. The law deals with this trend by insisting that both parents, whether the couple is married or not, are responsible for their children. But when a deadbeat dad skips town, there are no official resources to track him down.

A study in the early 2000s showed that a majority of women in active sexual relationships used contraceptives, at least some of the time. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica (except when the mother’s life is at stake), though it is widely available in private clinics for those with money, and in back alleys for those without.

I’ve heard from several Tico sources that the single most important piece of advice a father can give his son is, “Hijo, you can’t expect to sleep with every woman in the world. But you’ve got to at least try!” Sure, it’s a joke, but like many jokes it has a large grain of truth in it. Men here are expected, to a certain extent, to proposition every eligible woman they meet, and there’s still a strong double standard when it comes to fidelity. A man who strays expects to be forgiven by his long-suffering partner; a woman had better not expect the same indulgence.


The Family

In Costa Rican society, it’s all in the family, with the law backing up generations of tradition. Slights of honor against family members—even long-dead ones—are punishable by law. A person who murders a relative may get a longer jail sentence than one who kills a stranger. Adults are legally responsible not only for their spouses and children but also for other family members in need, such as a sibling with disabilities.

Relatives who live outside the city may come to live with urban relations in order to find better work or attend school. Children are more likely to play with their siblings or cousins than “outsiders.” Many adults count their siblings among their best friends and spend most of their social time with family members. Families go into business together, and government officials hand out prime jobs to family members.

What does this mean to the newcomer? Many North Americans leave home at an early age, perhaps settling far from their family of origin. They create a new sort of family out of good friends and community. That happens much less in Costa Rica, where people tend to stay put and are more insular and clannish.

It can be hard to break into these clans, and although Ticos are known as polite and welcoming, the welcome often stops at the front door—literally. Especially in the country, visitors are not often asked to come inside, although you may be invited to sit on the front porch and have a lemonade. Long-term expats joke that if you’re lucky enough to have a Tico invite you to his house, he won’t tell you how to get there. Ticos may also be wary of people who they think will be here today and gone tomorrow.

It’s not impossible to make Costa Rican friends, but it takes time and effort. Start by being as polite as you know how, and try not to take offense if your friendly overtures are not reciprocated as you would like. If you have children, you’re one step ahead— you’ll have a door into Tico families with kids the same age as yours. If you work with locals, that’s another way in. And remember, there are plenty of other foreign residents who are in the same boat, and more than happy to commiserate about it. Enduring friendships have been based on less.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Costa Rica.


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