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In Journal of Developing Societies, 18, 2-3, pp. 109-48 (2002)



Sylvia Chant


As in many other countries, family life in Costa Rica has changed in recent decades. Marriage is declining, divorce and separation are on the rise, out of wedlock births are increasing, and women head a growing number and proportion of households. Nationally and internationally, statements issued by the media, government bodies and the religious establishment indicate that these trends have provoked anxiety about “family breakdown”. Yet it is less well known if similar concerns are felt at the grassroots.

The present paper explores reactions to family change among 176 low- and middle-income women and men from different age groups in Guanacaste province, northwest Costa Rica. A key finding is that although some trajectories in family life are perceived as encompassing possibilities for new, more flexible and egalitarian domestic arrangements, others are regarded as weakening family unity. Moreover, concerns about “family breakdown” are more common among adult males than their female counterparts or younger people. The reasons behind these disparate views relate to social, legal and economic processes that have destabilized “traditional” gendered divisions of labor, power and rights within Costa Rican households.


Costa Rica has experienced a number of significant changes in family life in the last few decades. Prominent trends include a growing incidence of lone motherhood and female-headed households. These are linked, inter alia, with falling levels of legal marriage, rising numbers of out-of-wedlock births, greater rates of divorce and separation, and mounting involvement of women in the historically male preserve of family breadwinning. Similar processes have been noted in many other parts of Latin America, not to mention elsewhere in the world, and have been variously attributed to globalization, neoliberal economic restructuring, the changing nature of work, increased access to population control, and post-1960s feminist movements [see for example Arriagada 1998; Benería 1991; Castells 1997; Cerrutti and Zenteno 1999; Chant with Craske 2003; Comisión Económica para América Latina (CEPAL) 2001; Datta and McIlwaine 2000; Folbre 1991; Geldstein 1997; González de la Rocha 1995; Jelin 1991; Kaztman 1992; Safa 1995; United Nations 2000].

In a number of quarters, nationally and internationally, these trajectories have been regarded as indicative of a “breakdown in the family,” and have frequently provoked anxiety, especially in relation to the potential impacts on children (see Moore 1994). While the media, official reports, and statements from the religious establishment have often documented concerns about family breakdown, it is less well known, however, how they reflect sentiment at the grassroots. Do people themselves perceive that major shifts are taking place in family and household organization? If so, to what to they attribute these changes? Are the changes identified deemed to be precipitating family breakdown, and to what extent does this hold across gender, age and socioeconomic boundaries? This paper addresses these questions on the basis of interviews and focus group discussions with 176 low- and middle-income men and women of various ages in Guanacaste province, northwest Costa Rica.1

The first section of the paper details major changes in family patterns in Costa Rica in recent decades and considers key structural factors that have impacted household form and organization. This discussion also includes a brief account of the manner in which current trends have been viewed by public bodies (such as government and religious organizations). With reference to the survey population in Guanacaste, section two examines perceptions of family change at the grassroots and the main factors to which shifts are attributed. Section three explores reactions to change among different groups within the sample, including the factors singled out by some as constitutive of family breakdown. The fourth and final section critically evaluates the relevance of the term “breakdown” in the wake of family transitions in Guanacaste. It also suggests ways in which the public sector might better assist families in adapting to some of the problems that are perceived as deriving from them.



Although the “traditional” nuclear-family unit—comprising a male breadwinner, female housewife, and their biological children—has arguably not been as long-lived nor as numerically dominant in Costa Rica as it possibly has been in other parts of the world,2 the proportion of households conforming with this model fell from around one-half to one-third of households between the 1970s and the 1990s [Centro Nacional Para el Desarrollo de la Mujer y la Familia (CMF) 1996:20]. The decline is mainly attributable to an increase in people living alone, a rise in complex or extended households, and mounting numbers of one-parent units, nearly all of which are headed by women (Fauné 1997:92; Pereira García 1998:187). Although lone-mother and female-headed households are not synonymous (Chant 1997), the proportion of female-headed households climbed from 16 percent 1973 to 22 percent in 1997 (Budowski and Guzmán 1998). According to the 2000 Census, this figure has now increased slightly to 22.2 percent [Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos (INEC) 2001:Table 31].

As part and parcel of the fall-off in male-headed family units, marriage rates dropped from 30.8 to 23.5 per 100 between 1980 and 1994 (Ministerio de Planificación Nacional y Política Económica 1995:5-6), and between 1980 and 1996, divorce rates rose from 9.9 to 21.2 per 100 [Proyecto Estado de la Nación (PEN) 1998:210]. Official figures also indicate that the proportion of births outside marriage in Costa Rica increased from 23 percent in 1960, to 38 percent in 1985, to 51.5 percent in 1999 [Budowski and Rosero Bixby forthcoming; Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (INAMU) 2001:8].3 In addition, the proportion of children without fathers registered on their birth certificates rose from 21.1 percent in 1990, to 30.3 percent in 1999 (Ibid.:9). The fact that nearly one in three children born in Costa Rica now has a “padre desconocido” (“unknown father”) is significant insofar as traditionally only formally acknowledged children have received their father’s surname and entitlement to paternal support (Budowski and Rosero Bixby forthcoming). Two-thirds of births from unreported fathers occur to women under 19 years of age (INAMU 2001:8), which conceivably helps to explain why as many as 16 percent of single parents in the country are under 18 years of age (see also note 3).

Divisions of Labor in Households and Workforce Participation

In addition to shifts in the legal and demographic contours of family life, there have also been important changes in intrahousehold divisions of labor, especially in respect of the rising labor force participation of women in their childbearing years (CMF 1996:20). While there was only one female worker for every three men in the 20–39 years of age cohort in 1980, the gap had narrowed to one in two by 1990 (Dierckxsens 1992:22). Between 1980 and 1995, the share of the workforce made up by women in Costa Rica rose from 24.3 percent to 30.5 percent (Fauné 1997:58), and in 2000, this figure had reached 32.1 percent (INEC 2001:Cuadro 2). Despite the fact that women’s average wages are lower than men’s, and that women in general are more likely to be unemployed, increases in male unemployment have been noted in the 15–25 year and 45–70 year age cohorts, with periods of unemployment also becoming longer (Arias 2000:26, Table 1). Some of these changes have been driven by sectoral shifts in the Costa Rican economy. Agriculture, for example, a predominantly male domain, recruited only 20 percent of the national workforce in 2000, compared with 51 percent in 1960.

Moreover, mounting emphasis on agroexports over time has been associated with increased casualization, seasonal unemployment, and temporary migration of men in search of work. These trends have been juxtaposed with significant growth in the share of the labor force in services (from 30 percent to 53 percent between 1960 and 2000), which has tended to favor women. Women are currently half of the workers in this sector, which occupies as many as 84 percent of the economically active female population in the country (INEC 2001:Cuadro 13). The expansion of light manufacturing in free-trade zones, mainly around the San José Metropolitan Area, has also opened up opportunities for female workers (see Sandoval García 1997). Additional impetuses to rising female employment have emanated from declining birth rates associated with increased access to birth control, the growth in female education, and, more recently, mounting pressures on households to expand and diversify their sources of earnings in the wake of neoliberal economic restructuring. As elsewhere in Latin America, the progressive “feminization of employment” also seems to be linked with a “feminization of household headship” (see Bradshaw 1995a,b; Chant 1997; Chant with Craske 2003: 181; Safa 1995, 1999).

Legislation, Social Policy, and Family Change

While economic and demographic trends have clearly played some part in household transitions, another important set of influences undoubtedly derives from gender-aware legislation and social programs. From the 1970s onwards, particularly during the presidency of Rodrigo Carazo (1978–1982), pressure from women’s advocacy organizations contributed to an unprecedented recruitment of women into national political life. Then, in 1986, following the conclusion of the United Nations Decade for Women, Costa Rica established its National Centre for Women and the Family [Centro Nacional para el Desarrollo de la Mujer y de la Familia (CMF)]. This organization, which in 1998 became the National Institute for Women [Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (INAMU)] and is now headed by a Minister for Women, has played a major role in initiatives that have strengthened women’s position and rights within and beyond the family. This is especially so since the passing of the far-reaching Law of Social Equality for Women (Law no. 7142) in 1990, which aimed not only to promote, but to guarantee, women’s equality with men (see Chant 1997:136-137).

In addition to introducing clauses on the compulsory joint registration of property in marriage (or in non-formalized unions, registration in the woman’s name), prohibition of dismissal from jobs on grounds of pregnancy, and greater rights for victims of domestic violence to evict the perpetrators from their homes [see Badilla and Blanco 1996; Investigaciones Jurídicas S.A. (IJSA) 1990], the Social Equality Law paved the way for several new legislative initiatives with important implications both for women’s personal rights and entitlements, and for the material and social viability of “nonstandard” households. Prominent developments in this regard have included: the Law Against Domestic Violence [Law no. 7586 (1996)], the Law for the Protection of Adolescent Mothers (Law no. 7739 (1998)], the Law for Women in Conditions of Poverty [Law no. 7769 (1998], the Law for Responsible Paternity [Law no. 8101 (2001)], reforms to articles 84, 85, and 89 of the Family Code, recognizing children born outside marriage [Law no. 7538 (1995)], the addition of articles 242–246 to the Family Code acknowledging the legal validity of consensual unions, and reform of article 5 from the same eliminating the equivalence of women and minors [see CMF 1996:22; Colaboración Area Legal 1997; Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social (IMAS) 1998; INAMU 2001].

Much of this legislation has been accompanied by the introduction of significant new gender policies and programs, particularly during the National Liberation Party regime of President José María Figueres (1994–1998). Not only was this administration responsible for establishing a National Equal Opportunities Plan [Plan Nacional para la Igualdad de Oportunidades entre Mujeres y Hombres (PIOMH)], and a National Plan for the Attention and Prevention of Intrafamily Violence [Plan Nacional para la Atención y Prevención de la Violencia Intrafamiliar (PLANOVI)], but the first dedicated program for female-headed households in the country: the Comprehensive Training Program for Female Household Heads in Conditions of Poverty (Programa de Formación Integral para Mujeres Jefas de Hogar en Condiciones de Pobreza) (IMAS, 1999a). Launched in 1997, this latter intervention was spurred, in part, by a rise in poverty among women-headed households from the mid-1980s4 and the fact that following ratification of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1989, the Costa Rican state has made concerted moves to increase guarantees of children’s well being [see United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) 1998].5

The main thrust of the Female Household Heads program was to award a stipend to beneficiaries for up to six months during which they would take training courses in personal development, self esteem, and employment and income-generating skills (see Marenco et al. 1998). In the present Social Christian Unity regime of President Miguel Angel Rodríguez, this initiative has been continued in a revised form as “Creciendo Juntas” (“Growing Together”), which forms part of the Plan Nacional de Solidaridad (National Solidarity Plan). Although Creciendo Juntas has been extended to all women in poverty, around half the 15,000 or so beneficiaries reached between 1999 and 2001 were heads of households.6 Two ancillary programs, aimed at the young, also accompanied this scheme. The first of these, Amor Jóven (Young Love), launched in 1999, is concerned with heightening sexual awareness and preventing pregnancy among adolescents; the second, Construyendo Oportunidades (Building Opportunities), seeks to (re)integrate teenage mothers into education, and to equip them with personal and vocational skills to enhance their own lives and those of their children (see Chant 1999a, 2000; IMAS 2001; Primera Dama de la República 2001). Aside from these initiatives for women and lone mothers, the National Solidarity Plan encompasses a program geared to strengthening family cohesion (Programa de Fortalecimiento Familiar), which assigns basic income supplements to families in extreme poverty, and another (Programa Infancia y Juventud) which provides assistance for children and youth from low-income families, mainly in the form of care, after-school activities and youth development (see IMAS 1999b,c).

Public Concerns about “Family Breakdown?”

While the Costa Rican state is clearly concerned about protecting and promoting the rights of vulnerable groups and, thanks largely to the efforts of CMF/INAMU, has shown itself willing to work with more flexible definitions of “family” than are often found elsewhere (see Chant 1999a, 2002b), this is far from being an open endorsement of family plurality. For example, many official (and academic) publications continue to use the term “familia completa” (“complete family”) to denote units comprising two parents and their children, whereas one-parent households are consigned to the category of “familia incompleta” (“incomplete family”) (see Sagot 1999:101). Moreover, although CEPAL (2001:V16) notes for Latin America more generally that the term “desintegración familiar” (“family breakdown”) is seldom defined explicitly and/or is used to describe factors as disparate as rising divorce rates, new family functions, and lack of intrafamily communication, one of the principal evocations in the Costa Rican case relates to the absence or irresponsibility of one or both parents, normally fathers, as encapsulated in another increasingly common term: “paternidad irresponsable” (“irresponsible fatherhood”). This again tends to reinforce the idea that “family” is synonymous with the “in-tact” male-headed unit and is the standard from which other configurations deviate.

In turn, links are sometimes drawn with between decline of “the family” and other social ills. As one author writing in the prominent Social Science journal Ciencias Sociales put it: “Disorganization and disintegration of the family are the cause of declining moral values, economic pressures and social problems such as prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction and violence” (Loaíciga Guillén 1994:10) [my translation]. These latter issues, in turn, are of major significance to Costa Rican society more generally, with nearly one-quarter of the population ranking delinquency (including violence) and/or drugs as Costa Rica’s biggest contemporary problem.7 Although perceptions of rising violence could in part be due to increased denouncements of intrafamily abuse (facilitated by the new support mechanisms for women and children itemized above), it is also the case that violent muggings and murders are on an upward trend, possibly relating to mounting levels of arms ownership in the country (see PEN 1998:44). As far as the Catholic establishment and its “Movimiento Familiar Cristiano” (“Christian Family Movement”)8 are concerned, the erosion of social values within the country also owes to increased sexual freedom (Schifter and Madrigal 1996:62).9 Falling rates of marriage, increased illegitimacy, prostitution, and the rising visibility of homosexuality are targeted as primary concerns here, and have provoked numerous Church appeals for adults to set good examples to their young by eschewing the evils of libertinism and modern consumerism, and conserving “family traditions.” Similar messages are promulgated among Costa Rica’s growing Protestant community.10

Although there are clearly assumptions embedded in these discourses about the ideal form that households should take, it is also true to say that many public discussions of “family breakdown,” at least on the part of secular bodies, emphasize the importance of intrafamily relationships, particularly those between parents and children, and link problems in this domain not so much with factors internal to families (such as “breakdown” in their membership or “deviant” social behavior), but with wider structural processes. For example, a number of press and academic articles in recent years have expressed concern about declining parental involvement in the daily care and socialization of children. This is attributed not only to rising economic pressures and growing work burdens on parents, but to the spread of new technology and exposure to media. A study conducted on adolescent depression in 1999 by a consortium of national and international agencies, for example, concluded that one of the main reasons for rising rates of depression among the young was that “parents have abandoned their role through overwork; the television and computer have taken the place of parents” (see also CEPAL 2001 on Latin America more generally) [my translation].11 This is endorsed by other recent research that has asserted that the hierarchy and hegemony of the family are being displaced by modern communications, especially television, thereby weakening traditional support systems for children and adolescents (see Tiffer 1998:116; Moreno 1997). Indeed, Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of access to television and personal computers in Latin America, at 387 television sets per 1,000 people in 1998, and 39.1 personal computers (the regional averages for Latin America and the Caribbean in the same year were 225 and 33.9 respectively) (World Bank 2000:310-311, Table 19). The number of Internet hosts per 1,000 people in the year 2000 was 4.1, which placed Costa Rica in sixth place in the region after Uruguay (19.6), Mexico (9.1), Argentina (8.7), Brazil (7.2), and Chile (6.2) [United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2001:48-50, Table A2.1].

In summarizing the views of public bodies on family change a range of apparently contradictory tendencies can be identified. Although, on one hand, a decline in “traditional” patriarchal households may owe partly to the efforts of the state to secure basic human rights and welfare for vulnerable groups, the male-headed nuclear unit still seems to be something of a normative ideal in public (and especially in religious) circles. Concern also remains about the potential effects of its demise on social stability, cohesion and reproduction. By the same token, there is recognition that the quality of family life and intrafamily relationships are not governed simply by the configuration of households, but by wider structural factors over which individuals have little control. This, as I have argued elsewhere, has led to a situation in which public discourses of changing patterns of family life in Costa Rica are perhaps more strongly marked by notions of a “crisis for” rather than a “crisis in” the family (Chant 2002b: 376). In other words, if families are “breaking down,” then this is not just because of the “new” ways that people are organizing their lives, but because social structures and values have been undermined by development and globalization. To what extent to these kinds of interpretations mirror those at the grassroots?


As stated earlier in the paper, in examining popular views on family change, I draw from a 1999 survey of 176 low- and middle-income men and women from three broad age bands (see Table 1).12 The survey consisted mainly of focus group discussions, organized as “talleres” or “workshops,” in which participants were invited to reflect on gender and the family in Guanacaste at the end of the twentieth century, and how things had changed (or not) in their own lifetimes (see Chant 1999b for fuller details). My assistant and I gave our informants substantially free rein to talk about issues that mattered to them, and, in the interests of “respondent autonomy,” attempted to keep our own interventions to a minimum. Aside from “setting the ball rolling” up on key topics, such as what the concept of “family” summoned up for people, and if people felt that family life was changing, we tended only to intervene a) where we felt that assertions needed substantiation and/or corroboration (for example, where there seemed to be an over-idealization of the past), and b) to ensure that people who wanted to speak got a chance to do so. In line with this methodology, the present and following sections consist mainly of basic reportage using transcripts from individual interviews and group sessions. Most of the critical analysis of this material is left until the concluding part of the paper.

The Context of the Survey

The setting of the survey was the province of Guanacaste in the northwest of the country. This area is distinguished from other parts of Costa Rica on a number of counts, particularly in respect of its high levels of poverty and un- and underemployment. In 1998, for example, unemployment in Guanacaste was 7.2 percent and underemployment was 19.8 percent, compared with national levels of 5.6 percent and 13.1 percent respectively [Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Comercio (MEIC) 1998; Aguilar et al. 1998]. This is mainly due to the fact that until the 1990s, when international tourism began to take off along Costa Rica’s north Pacific coast, the province was reliant on a small number of agricultural activities (primarily cattle ranching, rice and sugar production), with limited or only seasonal demand for labor. This, coupled with the fact that earnings are considerably lower in Guanacaste than in other parts of the country (male wages are on average 13 percent less in Guanacaste than in San José for example—Arias 2000:21), has given rise to high levels of permanent migration13 as well as short-term outmigration, particularly on the part of low-income men. Moreover, the shrinking of agriculture’s role in the provincial economy in recent years has given rise to a situation where, in contrast to the rest of the country, rates of underemployment and open unemployment among men have exceeded those of women. In 2000, for example, male and female levels of unemployment in the “Chorotega” planning region (which comprises mainly of Guanacaste) were 5.9 percent and 5.4 percent respectively, and the figure for male underemployment was as high as 18.2 percent compared with 16.5 percent for women (INEC 2001:Cuadro 9).

Male underemployment and periodic outmigration have, in turn, been associated with considerable instability in household composition and livelihoods in the province (see Chant 1992, 2000; Moreno 1997:9). Long-standing tendencies for men to desert their spouses and children, and/or to engage in heavy drinking and multiple sexual relations, are widely attributed to the economic and physical hardships of migration combined with the psychological and emotional stresses on couples engendered by frequent and/or prolonged periods of separation. Formal marriage has traditionally been less common here than in other parts of Costa Rica, with only 30.9 percent of women with coresident partners being legally married in low-income settlements in Guanacaste in the 1980s, compared with 73.3 percent at a national level (Chant 1997:170). Similarly, whereas in Costa Rica as a whole in 1996, 52.8 percent of births occurred to married women, in Guanacaste this was only 34.7 percent [Dirección General de Estadísticas y Censos (DGEC) 1997:25]. According to the 2000 census, the proportion of female-headed households in the Chorotega Region was 23.4 percent as against a national average of 22.2 percent (INEC 2001:Cuadro 31). By the same token, links with extended family members, especially among women, have often helped to compensate for the weakness of conjugal unions and/or the precarious nature of male support. The fact that patterns of conjugal informality and extended family support networks seem to be an ongoing reality in Guanacaste, especially among the poor, conceivably constitute major reasons why the erosion of the “traditional” male-headed household model now occurring at a national level did not elicit undue interest or commentary in our group discussions.

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