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Women, Culture, and DevelopmentA Study of Human Capabilities$

Martha C. Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198289647

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198289642.001.0001

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Inequality in Capabilities Between Men and Women in Mexico

Inequality in Capabilities Between Men and Women in Mexico

(p.426) Inequality in Capabilities Between Men and Women in Mexico
Women, Culture, and Development

Margarita M. Valdés

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Valdés analyses the situation of women's inequality in Mexico, identifying traditional obstacles to women's full access to constitutionally guaranteed equality of opportunity. Making subtle comparisons between the Mexican situation and the situation in India, Valdés argues that traditional Mexican conceptions of the family afford more advantages than Indian conceptions do to women who seek equal participation in the labour force.

Keywords:   employment, Mexico, poverty, primary goods, rights

I have been asked to make some comments about the way the topics in the papers read at this conference connect with the problems faced by women in Mexico. First, I would like to say why the capabilities approach of which a lot has been heard in this conference seems to me especially adequate for assessment of the situation of women in the Third World with respect to justice, and a good basis for eventually proposing policies and strategies that could help to improve that situation. Secondly, I will refer to some peculiarities of Mexican society which make the situation of poor women in Mexico somewhat different from that of Indian women as described by Marty Chen in her paper. And finally I will refer to the problem of ‘substitutionalism’ and the dangers of ‘cultural imperialism’ and will try to say something concerning the way some feminist discussions in the First World are seen by women of the Third World.

Sen's proposal to take capabilities as that on which one should base judgements of equality or inequality, and hence of justice, seems to me extremely acute. Focusing on capabilities, more than on anything else, allows us to grasp the peculiarity of that which makes variable the quality of a human life, and reveals the true nature of some of the difficulties faced by women's development in the Third World. In my view, Sen is right to emphasize that it cannot be that all there is to justice is the maximization of utilities, nor just giving, or trying to give, people access to the same ammount of ‘primary goods’, ‘resources’, ‘rights’ or whatever. If people are not given positive freedom to function and thus to make an adequate use in and for their lives of all those ‘goods’, the mere fact of having them will not necessarily make their lives better. As Sen points out in his paper, primary goods are just ‘means to the freedom to achieve’.1 Therefore, one of the primary concerns for the practice of justice should be that of examining how capabilities are distributed, and how they can be increased among people, and not just the question of how much of this or that people are to be given. Of course, what people are given could increase their capabilities, but the value and importance of that would be, so to say, derivative from that of the corresponding capabilities it allows them to develop.

(p.427) Now, when we look at the situation of women in Latin America,2 we don't find that their rights are legally restricted, nor that they are legally forbidden to participate in general in the different spheres of public life, nor that they are legally prevented access to different ‘resources’. However, it must be clear to anyone who examines their condition impartially that they suffer from inequality and injustice; and this is so because they lack precisely what Sen so appropriately calls ‘capabilities’, that is to say, the positive freedom to function in different spheres of their lives—and this to a much greater extent than the poor male population. Statistics on education and employment in Mexico reflect in a perspicuous way this lack. If we examine them, we find that although women are as numerous as men in Mexico and have the same legal rights to participate actively in education and paid employment, their actual participation in these fields is notably limited. Only 29% of the economically active population in Mexico are women3 (but notice that only 23% of these earn a wage, the other 6% either are working in ‘home‐based industries’ where they do not receive pay or in the informal sector where they do not have a fixed salary). As regards education, 15% of the female population is illiterate, and only 38% of those students who finish High School are female.4 In the big cities, more than 10% of women have never attended school and only 57% have finished primary school.5 If we consider women's levels of participation in education and employment in rural areas, they are still more discouraging.

What all this means is that although the ‘primary goods’ or ‘resources’ of education and employment are in principle open to women, the majority of them do not participate in those spheres and therefore cannot attain all those functionings that could only come about through education and employment. Again, as regards women's situation with respect to employment, statistics reveal that only 25% (approximately) of women older than 15 have paid employment,6 that they are paid considerably less than men (p.428) for doing the same job, and that there is a marked division of labour according to sex.7 Besides, given the social arrangements that women themselves seem to accept, when they work outside their homes they depend on the father's (or other male's) permission to do so, they have to give a good part or all of what they earn for family subsistence, and, except for some privileged cases,8 they have to accept responsibility for all of the unpaid work in the household. Of course, the entire responsibility for young children falls on the mother even where she has an outside job. And as if this were not enough, in the great majority of cases, women have to fight against the system of ‘social meanings and values’ of the community—as described by Seyla Benhabib9 in her paper—if they want to assume full responsibility in their jobs (women's jobs are socially considered a kind of ‘second best’ in relation to all kinds of ‘family obligation’). What this clearly shows—without even considering the generalized feminization of poverty, to use Susan Moller Okin's expression, or the subjection of women to men in many other areas—is a dramatic inequality between men and women in Mexico.

Now, as I said before, if we analyse the situation of Mexican women using the capabilities approach proposed by Amartya Sen, the injustice to women becomes evident: women are not functioning in many characteristically human ways because of local patriarchal social structures and because of the ancestral history of subjection: these have denied them the possibility of functioning in many different areas and have therefore kept their capabilities at a very low level. The activities of the great majority of women, as in most traditional cultures, are restricted (due to a great variety of social pressures) to the domestic area, so that even if they were given a greater amount of ‘pleasure’, ‘primary goods’, ‘rights’ or whatever, they would still lack the positive freedom to function in many human spheres. As Amartya Sen remarks, the fact that traditional women in the Third World seem to accept the unjust social arrangement in which they live, makes any solution that might otherwise be proposed more complex. That is to say, any policy designed to improve the situation of women should take as central the fact that among the things needed by women in order to be able to function in many human ways is a change in the way they are socially perceived, both by themselves and by others.

Now, in order to complete this explanation of injustice to women in the Third World, we need an argument to show that there is no reasonable basis for denying women the positive freedom to function that men have, (p.429) that is to say, that no ‘principle of difference’ could reasonably be invoked to justify the inequality in capabilities between men and women. In this connection I see a very valuable point in Nussbaum's paper when she defends a variety of Aristotelian Essentialism for the case of human beings.10 Her subtle and intelligent exploration of the most important aspects of the human form of life, and her consequent introduction of concrete basic functionings and capabilities for all human beings, constitute a very strong argument in favour of gender equality. Moreover, on the one hand, her ‘thick vague theory of the good’ has the advantage of being ‘contextually sensitive’ (that is, of allowing for multiple specifications depending upon the varied local conceptions), while on the other side, her argument in favour of essentialism blocks all forms of relativism that could be invoked to try to justify substantial differences in functionings and capabilities from one human being to another or from one culture to another. I therefore see Nussbaum's contribution as not only an excellent companion to Sen's proposal, but also as a necessary supplement to it.

I would like now to make some comparisons between the situation of Mexican poor women and that of poor women in India and Bangladesh as described in Martha Chen's paper.11 From the merely legal point of view both groups of women are guaranteed the same employment opportunities as men, as well as equal pay for equal work. However, this de jure situation is far from being reflected in the situation de facto. Poor women in Mexico and in India do not have the same options as men as regards getting a paid job outside the household, and when they do get it they are paid less than men. Moreover, in both regions there is an accepted division between the private and the public spheres, an ancestral custom of dividing work according to gender, and a traditionally patriarchal family organization. However, the lack of a caste system in Mexico and the fact that there is not such a close connection between the wealth and status of households and the kind of work women are allowed to do, make things perhaps less dramatic for women in Mexico than in India. Another difference I perceive, to the advantage of Mexican women, is the ‘extended’ conception of the Mexican family which offers better protection for widows and single mothers and makes it easier for women who have young children to get gainful employment outside their homes; while at work in the big cities more than half of the women can leave their children with close relatives who look after them without expecting any payment.12

As in India, during the last two decades there has been a steadily increasing participation of poor (Mexican) women in gainful employment;13 the (p.430) reasons for this are in part similar to and in part different from those which explain the phenomenon in India. First, the economic recession in the eighties in Mexico had as a consequence a general drop in salary levels, thus obliging women to join the workforce (in formal or in informal employment) in order to contribute to the family budget. Secondly, given the notable decrease of salaries in the primary sector, men tried to find better opportunities in other sectors and women came to take over some of the jobs traditionally considered as ‘men jobs’. This, I am sure, is helping to abolish the traditional division of work according to gender. Finally, many foreign firms looking for a cheap labour force have invested in in‐bond plants (called ‘maquilas’) generally located near the border with the USA and in these plants they have preferred to hire a great majority of women, both because of their greater manual ability and because of their stronger commitment to their work. So a variety of economic factors during the last twenty years have impelled Mexican women to seek work outside their homes; as in the case of Indian women, their only motivation for taking a paid job (in the great majority of cases) has been extreme neediness. But even if that is so, I see very positive features of this phenomenon. On the one hand, as Susan Moller Okin has maintained in this conference,14 employment makes women less dependent on men, gives them a chance to improve their status within the family, and so enables them to establish a better bargaining position in their relations with men. On the other hand, the mere fact of having a job outside the home breaks the social isolation of women who have traditionally been secluded in the domestic sphere: this creates a manifold of prospects for them to function in different social spheres and to react against their subordinated situation. It should be no surprise that in the big Mexican cities many poor women workers have started participating actively not only in workers' unions, but also in social and political urban movements; for given their need for adequate urban services if they are to have outside jobs, and given their direct experience of the many deficiencies in those services in the poorer sectors of the cities, they have organized themselves and other women so as to demand urban reforms that might start to change the face of the poor sectors where they live.15 It should also be noted that, even if on rather a small scale, the participation of women in paid employment is starting to change the cultural patriarchal patterns that have been responsible for inequalities in capabilities between men and women in Mexico and hence for the division of work according to gender, with all its consequences.16

(p.431) I would like to finish these comments by touching upon a problem which is mentioned both in Ruth Anna Putnam's and in Jonathan Glover's papers for this conference. Putnam's paper discusses the problem of ‘substitutionalism’ and that of Glover's mentions the danger of new forms of ‘cultural imperialism’. The problem at bottom seems to me to be the same: they worry about the right that feminist thinkers in the First World have to diagnose what is going wrong for women belonging to different cultural traditions in the Third World. Given that the problems of women in the First World are not the same as those of Third World women, perhaps their respective situations are not comparable or ‘commensurable’. In this connection, I would like to mention two things. First, there is my favourable surprise at seeing that many of the papers read at this conference (written by ‘feminist thinkers of the First World’) showed so much sensibility for the particular problems faced by the poor female population in the Third World. Secondly, if we accept something like ‘the thick vague conception’ of human good proposed by Martha Nussbaum, as Glover remarks, we can have good grounds for supposing that, notwithstanding the cultural peculiarities which arise from different ways of realizing the goodness of human life within distinct cultures or traditions, there is enough in common to all of us to ‘sustain a general conversation’, in Nussbaum's words, and thus to enable us to perceive the phenomenon of injustice to women either in our own or in other cultures.

Concerning ‘substitutionalism’ it seems to me that there is no such problem if the criticisms from one culture to another focus on the general human needs and capabilities; a problem could arise in cases in which, under the false presumption that some ways of realizing specific human functionings are ‘better’ than others, one human group tries to impose its own ways on others. That would, of course, be an act of ‘cultural imperialism’. What feminist thinkers need is a great deal of imagination and sensibility so as to be able to recognize ways of realizing some given human functioning in other cultures which are different from the forms that functioning takes in their own culture. I am sure that this is not an easy matter, but it is not an impossible thing to do. We can all recognize a difference between, on the one hand, criticizing the fact that many Indian or Mexican women do not dress as First World women do and, on the other, criticizing the fact that they have less to eat than men do, or have less access than men to medical care, or are not given the same educational opportunities as men, or don't have the same employment options as men, or are not allowed the same sexual freedom as men. Of course, there are more subtle and difficult cases than those just mentioned; but they should be considered and discussed one by one—and in each case one should keep in mind that the ways people achieve some functioning can vary from culture to culture. One should not judge before trying to understand.

(p.432) I have tried to show the ways in which many of the questions discussed at this conference relate to problems faced by women in Mexico. Of course, some of the topics discussed by feminist thinkers in the First World would be considered as far‐fetched or even pointless by poor women in the Third World. The reason for this is not that those topics are not important in themselves; the reason, I believe, is that poor women in the Third World are under pressure to respond to more immediate and urgent matters. In even the smallest details of their everyday life they have to face explicit and manifold manifestations of injustice to them, and so are not ‘capable’ of seeing the deep roots of that injustice. After all, one needs to be free of those pressures if one is to have the capability of thinking clearly in this area. The time will come, let us hope, when women of the Third World will be capable, in Sen's sense, of seeing the importance of these topics.


I would like to thank Mark Platts for carefully reading my text and suggesting many ways of improving it, both stylistically and conceptually.

(1) See Amartya Sen, ‘Gender Inequality and Theories of Justice’, in this volume.

(2) I will focus specially on the situation of women in Mexico, but I think that it can be taken as representative of the situation of other women in Latin America.

(3) See Evaluación del Decenio de la Mujer, 1975–1985 (Mexico: Consejo Nacional de Población, 1985), 35.

(4) Ibid.: 57–8.

(5) See C. Welty, ‘Participación Económica Femenina y Fecundidad en el Área Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México’, in Cooper, Barbieri, et al. (eds.), Fuerza de Trabajo Femenina Urbana en México, vol. 1 (Mexico: UNAM, 1989), 193.

(6) Numbers published by the Mexican Population Agency don't seem to be very reliable on this matter. So, for example, in Resultados Principales de la Encuesta Nacional Demográfica de 1982 (Mexico: Consejo Nacional de Población (no date)), 56–8, it is held that only 15% of women older than 15 have a paid job in the country, 25% in small cities and 30% in the big cities. By contrast, in Evaluación del Decenio de la Mujer, 1975–1985 (Mexico: Consejo Nacional de Población, 1985), 35–6, it is held that 37 out of every 100 women older than 15 were working for pay or ‘had the possibility of working’ in 1985. Again, in Informe de la Delegación Mexicana Sobre la Conferencia Mundial Para el Examen y Evaluación de los Logros del Decenio de las Naciones Unidas para la Mujer: Igualdad, Desarrollo y Paz (Mexico: Consejo Nacional de Población, 1985), 12, it is held that only 20% of the economically active population are women; compare this with what is said on the same topic in the preceding paragraph in the text.

(7) See María de la Luz Macías, ‘División del Trabajo por Sexos y Salarios en la Industria de la Transformación en el Distrito Federal, Guadalajara y Monterrey’, in Cooper, Barbieri, et al., Fuerza de Trabajo Femenina, vol. 2.

(8) In these cases it is always another female member of the family or another woman employed as a domestic worker who does the household chores.

(9) See Seyla Benhabib, ‘Cultural Complexity, Moral Interdependence and the Global Dialogical Community’, in this volume.

(10) See Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings’, in this volume.

(11) See Martha Chen, ‘A Matter of Survival: Women's Right to Employment in India and Bangladesh’, in this volume.

(12) See Carlos Welty, ‘Participación Económica Femenina’, 204.

(13) See Orlandina Oliveira, ‘Empleo Femenino en México en Tiempos de Recesión Económica’, in Cooper, Barbieri, et al., Fuerza de Trabajo Femenina, vol. 1, 29–66.

(14) See Susan Moller Okin, ‘Inequalities Between the Sexes in Different Cultural Contexts’, in this volume.

(15) See Alejandra Massolo, ‘Participación de la Mujer en la Tercera Jornada’, in Cooper, Barbieri, et al., Fuerza de Trabajo Femenina, vol. 2.

(16) See, in this connection, José Manuel Valenzuela‐Arce, ‘La mujer Obrera: Reproducción y Cambio de Pautas Culturales’, in Cooper, Barbieri, et al., Fuerza de Trabajo Femenina, vol. 2.