Monday, December 5, 2011

Balancing work and family: a preliminary study on the challenges that Aruban woman face on a daily basis[1]

Merviné E. Kock, Instituto Pedagogico Arubano

We are female beings poised in the edge of the new millennium. We are the majority of our species, yet we have dwelt in the shadows. We are the illiterate, the laborers, the refugees, and the poor. And we vow no more. For thousands years women have had responsibility without the power, while men have had the power without responsibility. We offer these men who risk being brothers a balance, a future, a hand. But with or without them, we will go on.

A Woman’s Creed,[2] 1998.

Love, commitment and work. Love and work are the foundation of the basic human needs for the huge edifice of society.

Kanter, 2006

1 Introduction

Coping strategies are psychological tools that women naturally develop in order to survive. This study uses data from recent studies to examine how Aruban and other Caribbean women deal with the various challenges in their lives as a result of balancing work and family responsibilities. The well-being of Aruban and Caribbean women lies primarily on two premises; work as a source of livelihood and work as a purposeful activity[3]. This essentially means that woman have to combine both employment and family responsibilities simultaneously to survive. On a daily basis women in Aruba need to cope with the demands of work, family and countless other things. The constant maneuvering between the above mentioned demands often causes serious tensions physically and mentally impacting not only these women but also their loved ones. Regardless of all the drawbacks, Aruban and Caribbean women have amazingly found ways to survive. In the following paragraphs we will take a closer look at the general development of women in Aruba and the Caribbean as well as the strategies mothers use to deal with their multiple roles in society.

2 Aruban women in perspective

As we begin the twenty-first century, women in Aruba are increasingly obliged to make tradeoffs in order to balance love, commitment and work. Gender is an important part of this discussion. Work, family and gender have always been inextricably intertwined. It would be difficult to study these variables without recognizing their relation to one other. Just as the interpretation of work and family has changed, so too have women’s and men’s lives (Wharton, 2006). A woman’s working world has changed into a 24-hour a day, 7-days a week responsibility with simultaneous demands from work and family etc. Experience has shown us that despite the increase in responsibility, it is still possible for an individual to adopt coping strategies that prevent negative spillovers between different domains(Poelmans, 2005).

In 2000, 63.7 percent (CBS, 2003) of women in Aruba were part of the formal labor market. Most of these women were married or single mothers. Research has shown that these women work over 40 hours a week on a regular basis. Due to rises in the cost of living, many women are compelled to take on multiple jobs, especially migrant women who also take care of their relatives in their homelands.

Women in Aruba continue to act as primary caregivers and perform the bulk of household tasks. Luckily, nowadays many women have the choice to start a career, stay at home with the children or do both. Beside this positive development, many women still feel that they have to educate their husbands on household matters and childrearing responsibilities (even when the husband has a high level of education). Many middle-class households have a difficult time surviving without two incomes.

Between the generation of my mother and my eldest sisters, an enormous change has taken place. My mother was a stay at home mom and took care of my thirteen brothers and sisters (myself included). She had a tough job. Her household tasks included cooking, cleaning, ironing, washing dishes, doing laundry, supervising homework assignments, etc. However my eldest sisters were the first to go to school, to get an education and enter the labor market. Despite this admirable development my eldest sisters, whom at that time were civil servants, still felt obligated to retire when they got married. There was still a major discrepancy between the way men and women were viewed. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, female government workers were not allowed to be married and be employed at the same time.

3 Women and development in the Caribbean

The original female inhabitants of the Caribbean belonged to different indigenous ethnic groups (Shepherd, 1999; Shepherd, 2011). These indigenous women played significant social and economic roles in their own cultures. The arrival of Europeans severely affected their world, practically wiping out large numbers of their populations. Those who survived have been exploited in several ways. By 1640, indigenous labor had largely been replaced by African slavery in the overall Caribbean. Of the approximately 15 million Africans that were enslaved, at least one third were females (Shepherd, 1999; Shepherd, 2011).

These female slaves were victims of total exploitation and physical and sexual abuse. Resistance by enslaved women took on many forms; violent and non-violent (Shepherd, 1999). By 1865 slavery was abolished in most parts of the Caribbean. The Caribbean woman got her ‘so called’ freedom. But is the Caribbean woman actually free of exploitation, of oppresion, of physical abuse and of domestic violence? What about the feminization of poverty or the unequal payment of women on the jobfront?

Over the past decades, the Caribbean has undergone many positive changes (Ellis, 2003). However, on the social level women are still treated as second-class citizens. All Caribbean women are subject to unequal relations of gender(Barriteau, 2001). Although the number of women in the Caribbean workforce is growing faster than for any other group, the majorities are still concentrated in the so-called traditional female markets (Ellis, 2003).The fact that an increasing amount of women are entering the labor market is not always a guarantee for the emergence of an egalitarian familial relationship, particulary where men’s jobs are threatened (Essed, Goldberg,& Kobayasi, 2009). In spite of their high levels of education, women are under-represented in top-level jobs, because they do not manage to break through the “glass ceiling”[1] (Ellis, 2003; Kibbelaar, 2005). In her research, Kibbelaar (2005) finds that women experience family responsibilities as an obstacle to movement up the social ladder. Most of the laws in Caribbean countries state that employers should not discriminate against employees based on their gender, yet there continues to be a gap between law and social practice.

4 Education, migration and poverty

The vehicle for social mobility in the Caribbean is education. There is a general belief in the Caribbean that formal education, training and the acquisition of academic qualifications increases an individual’s employment opportunities. According to a recent study conducted in the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba entitled “Aan de slag met sterke vrouwen in het Koninkrijk”, women are convinced that having an education is the key to obtaining a well-paid job and an opportunity to climb up the social ladder (MBZK[2], 2010). There is evidence that more females are making use of education and training opportunities than their male counterparts (Ellis, 2003). Male dropout rates in primary and secondary schools in most Caribbean countries are very high (RCC[3], 2009; Narain, 2010).
In 1957, for the first time 12 female students were selected to enter the HBS, the academically oriented secondary school in Aruba[4]. Female enrollment in all levels of education has consistently increased since 1957. The statistics show that female enrollment at the secondary level is now estimated to be at 57% and at the tertiary level, 69.3% (CBS, 2008). In spite of the higher educational achievement of females in Caribbean societies, research has shown that unqualified males are more likely to find employment than qualified females. Studies have also shown that women tend to be more qualified than men when holding similar positions (Ellis, 2003). In terms of wages, in the public sector men and women in Aruba earn similar salaries, but in the private sector

women earn less than men. Men earn an average of approximately 525 florins more than women per month (CBS, 2003). It is estimated that Aruba is home to 5,523 single mothers. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that about 25% of these women live under the poverty line (CBS, 2004).

A small number of women hold positions of leadership at executive levels in the Caribbean. Presently a very low percentage of women are represented in parliament and in the executive branch of government. Women’s low participation in politics can be attributed to their negative perceptions of politics, and also their desire to have families (Ellis, 2003).

The migration rates in the Caribbean are among the highest in the world. In some countries, migration rates among women are even higher than among men (Ellis, 2003).Because of the lack of economic opportunities, women often migrate to distant lands with the hope of finding employment. The fact that some have little in the way of marketable skills makes them vulnerable to exploitation, and they often resort to prostitution as a means of getting by (Ellis, 2003; Kempadoo, 2004). While these migrant women are compelled to accept low-paying jobs in their country of migration, many have been able to send back remittances to improve the economic situation of their families in their home countries (Ellis, 2003; CBS, 2004).

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the feminization of household headships has been strongly embedded within discourses of the feminization of poverty. The divorce rate on Aruba is very high, with 75% of marriages ending in divorce. Female-headed households have been depicted as the poorest of the poor, among the 1200 families in Aruba that live under the poverty line and struggle on a daily basis to provide for themselves and for their families (Fernandez-Kelly & Shefner, 2006; Aruba for Aruba, 2011). On the island, single mothers in general and young mothers in particlar have difficulty entering the labor force after becoming mothers, and receive little or no support to finish their education (MBZK, 2010). Gender inequality is strongly correlated with poverty (Nussbaum& Glover, 2007).

Because of the lack of essential support, women cannot lead lives that are fully human. This lack of support is frequently caused by prejudice, discrimination, and social injustice perpetrated against women. Even in a constitutional democracy like Aruba, women are equals in theory, but second-class citizens in reality (Nussbaum & Glover, 2007).

5 Mothers; work and family

Aruba is a multicultural society with an unequal gender situation. Throughout the 1970s, the typical outmigrant was a male breadwinner who moved to another country in search of better employment opportunities. In the 1980s, women started emigrating more independently.

In Caribbean societies, there exist multiple family types. Families tend to have a matrifocal or matricentric structure. Evans and Davies (1996) describe a number of basic types of family structures, including:

1. The marital union

2. The common-law union (couple living together, but not legally married

3. The visiting union (the mother still lives in her parents’ home)

4. The single parent family.

5. The blended family[1]

6. The commuter family[2]

7. The childless family[3]

Family conditions vary depending on circumstances and cultural background.

Female participation in the labor market has rapidly increased during the last four decades. In 1960, the participation was as low as 26.7 percent (CBS, 2003). It is now 56.7 percent (CBS, 2008). Another important reason why so many women have joined the labor force is because of increasing divorce rates. Aruban women bear the brunt of the childrearing responsibilities while the men still hold on to their old lifestyles.

Work intensity has increased and has added a strain on many families. Bosses want their workers to respond in speedy fashion, consume and produce vast amounts of information, provide comprehensive customer service and to top it off, be on call 24 hours a day. The pressure has become nearly insupportable (Grant-Vallone & Donaldson, 2001; Zimmerman, 2001; Gambles, Rapoport, & Lewis, 2006; Pitt-Catsouphes, Kossek, & Sweet, 2006). Because of this fast-paced life, parents cannot dedicate enough time to their children, their spouses, and their community (Guest, 2001; Grant-Vallone & Donaldson, 2001). The consequences are evedent. There is a increase in juvenile crime, child neglect and abuse, drug abuse and school dropout rates. Adults very rarely participate in community organisations and the elderly are put in ‘old people’s homes’ (Guest, 2001; Grant-Vallone & Donaldson, 2001; Middleton, 2008). In Aruba, juvenile crime has increased by 150% (KPA, 2008) and teenage pregancy rates are among the highest in the region at 12.3 % (CBS, 2008).

The above mentioned presures have effected women not only physically but also psychologically. Many women are even on the verge of a mental breakdown (Zimmerman, 2001; Poelmans, 2005; Pitt-Catsouphes, Kossek,& Sweet, 2006; Mason & Mason Ekman, 2007; Middleton, 2008). They have to cope with burnout, psychosomatic complaints, psychiatric disorders, mental stress and psysical strain (Guest, 2001; Grant-Vallone & Donaldson, 2001; Poelmans, 2005; Pitt-Catsouphes, Kossek, & Sweet, 2006). Few organizations have implemented appropriate support mechanisms for their female employees (CBS, 2003). Many Aruban women are left to develop their personal work-family coping strategies.


[1] Edited by Gregory Richardson.
[2] Robin Morgan in collaboration with Perdita Huston, Sunetra Puri, Mahnaz Afkhami, Diane Faulkner, Corrine Kumar, Simla Wali, Paola Melchiar.
[3] Spiritual development is also important.
[4] Glass ceiling: …..invisible artificial barriers, which block women from senior executive positions…
(Kibbelaar, 2005).
[5] MBZK: Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken (Ministry of the Interior and Relations of State).
[6] RCC: Regional Caribbean Conference on Keeping Boys Out of Risk.
[7] HBS: Hoge Burgerschool = a kind of high school.
[8] These families are generally created by divorce and remarriage or live together. In blended families, biologically unrelated children live in the same household. (Father with his children and mother with her children who than have children together.)
[9] One of the parents lives and works in a different country. One parent provides the primary residence, and the other parent comes home for a short period of time. This occurs for different reasons, e.g.difficulties to find a job.
[10] Not wanted or wanted to have children but were unable because of a variety of social and/or biological forces that interfere and result in unplanned childlessness or choice not to have children because they concentrate on their careers, or have another perspective regarding having children. (FamilyTies. [n.d.]. What are the family Types. Retrieved May 5, 2011, from Family Ties:

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