Women in Central America, Empowered

Learn before you act. That’s the basic premise of MIT’s J-PAL (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab).

In 2003, three professors established this research center to transform the way the world addresses poverty. A couple decades later, the Nobel Prize-winning work of J-PAL has grown to include nearly 300 professors at universities across the globe all helping to answer the question: “What are the best ways to reduce poverty?”

The answers lie in a growing body of research about what does and doesn’t work. To help governments, nonprofits, and other organizations on the ground create more effective programs and policies, J-PAL shares research carefully evaluated by their network.

Given that Cotopaxi’s mission is also to alleviate poverty, we’re excited to bring on J-PAL LAC (a regional office of the organization focused on Latin America and the Caribbean) as our newest impact partner. 

Although this is the first time we’ll be formally partnering with J-PAL, we’ve used insights from this organization before to help guide our giving strategy. For example, we focus on improving health, education, and livelihood, since J-PAL has identified these areas as having high potential for inciting change. 

Starting this year, we’ll specifically be supporting J-PAL LAC on improving the agency of women in Central America—a region that tends to get less focus and funding than bigger Latin American countries like Colombia and Mexico. 

So how does gender intersect with labor and poverty in this region today? Read on for more about this issue and what it will take to move the needle on female empowerment in Central America.


J-PAL LAC team meetingJ-PAL's training with Mexico City's Women's Secretariat (Photo by Vianney Fernandez) 


A Key Problem: Low Employment 

What exactly does “agency” mean in terms of this project? It’s ultimately about empowering women to set and achieve goals, make important decisions, and be active economic and civic participants in their communities. And employment and income are, of course, key dimensions of agency. 

Across the globe, women are usually less likely than men to be employed: 47% of women vs. 72% of men. In some countries in Central America like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, less than 45% of women are in the labor market, according to Dr. Valeria Lentini, Professor of Economics at the University of Costa Rica. Born in Argentina and raised in Costa Rica, Valeria is leading the J-PAL LAC gender agency project in Central America. 


women marchingWaste pickers in Bogotá, Colombia march for better city policies (Photo by Juan Arredondo, Getty Images)


Valeria explains that the issue is even more pronounced in rural areas, where agriculture is a major industry. According to Valeria, “women have very limited participation” in agriculture in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras—the countries in Central America with the highest poverty rates. 

The pandemic has only made matters more difficult. “COVID is not improving these challenges for women,” says María Paz Monge, Senior Policy and Communications Manager at J-PAL LAC. 

All of this translates to less income and thus less economic freedom for women in the region, which means less agency in general. 


a J-PAL webinar

Dr. Valeria Lentini during a gLOCAL Evaluation Week webinar


It’s Complicated

Low employment among women in Central America is not a straightforward issue to tackle. As Valeria puts it, “institutionalized ‘structures of constraint’ shape the choices available to women and girls.” A few examples?

  • Less participation in political decisions 
  • Limited power as a decision-maker in the household
  • Reduced access to higher levels of education

Another big one? Mobility. “Some women aren’t integrated into society because they face difficulties in leaving their homes,” Valeria explains, “or they don’t feel safe.” 

Another crucial part of any discussion of women in the workforce—not only in Central America but across the globe—is family planning. Since domestic care usually falls primarily on women, lack of childcare often keeps women from seeking paid jobs, too. 


J-PAL presentation

J-PAL staff explaining how governments can transform evidence into policy (Photo by María Paz Monge) 


Solving for Structural Constraint 

As a result of all the complexities at play, J-PAL decided to expand the focus of the project Cotopaxi is supporting beyond economic agency to areas like education and mobility that also play an important role in the well-being of women.

Thankfully, there are already many findings from across the globe related to improving the agency of women economically, culturally, and politically that can be applied to and shared with this region. Valeria shared a few:

  • Programs that help adolescent girls work on soft skills and life skills
  • Laws that safeguard women’s property rights, remove any labor restrictions, and support female political representation 
  • Cash and in-kind transfer programs to help empower women in their marriages and family planning, as well as protect them from domestic violence
  • Providing entrepreneurial training that takes a “rule of thumb” approach (vs. traditional)


Empowerment Takes Time 

There are no silver bullets when it comes to enhancing the agency of women. As a complex issue, it takes long-term investment and time to build strong programs and policies that lead to gender equity. 

“You cannot do that in just one year,” María emphasizes. 

Rather than pursuing band-aid solutions, Valeria and Maria ensure that this project will expand on sound foundations. Given Cotopaxi’s commitment to effective corporate philanthropy, this project collaboration was a no-brainer.  

Another long-term issue that intersects with women experiencing poverty is climate change. “Unfortunately, those with lower income are usually the ones more vulnerable to climate change,” says Valeria. That’s why J-PAL is also looking into programs designed to mitigate climate change, reduce pollution, help the vulnerable adapt, and improve access to clean energy. She adds that women have a role to play in the success of these programs.  


Women in a training

Women's Secretariat of Mexico City training (Photo by Vianney Fernandez) 


Gender Agency Everywhere 

At Cotopaxi, we’re all too aware that while the problem of women’s agency may be heightened in regions like Central America, it’s far from a moot point in the U.S. So as we considered the issue, we took a look at our own stats. At end-2022, 55% of all our employees identified as female and 52% of managers identified as female. 

We also recently revamped our Parental Leave Policy to provide 12 weeks of 100% paid leave to birth parents and eight weeks to non-birth parents, plus two weeks of transition time.  

While we acknowledge there’s always more work to do, we’re proud to have strong gender representation and to be actively creating policies designed to foster a more equitable workplace—while supporting efforts to do the same around the world.