Celebrating progress: Costa Rica’s roots on gender equality and Afro descendants

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

Anna Maria Oduber

When we talk, listen, read or write about Costa Rica, we refer to it as a natural

paradise, blessed with an incredible biodiversity and a robust democracy. Costa Rica’s

beautiful beaches, its high literacy rate, its universal healthcare, and the lack of an army are

often at the forefront of what is widely publicized. However, topics such as closing the gender inequality and the role played by Afro descendants in the growth of this country are usually minimized and/or forgotten, despite the large impact they have had and have on my country’s progress.

Throughout my life, I have learned to appreciate the cultural diversity of Costa Rica. In

the next few paragraphs, I would like to provide you first, with a brief notion of the difficulties

women faced to be where they are today. By highlighting their journey and struggles, I hope

to sensitize you into realizing that the progress made on this front is a quite recent

breakthrough. It is important to keep this history alive, so it does not repeat itself. As you will

see, as you read along, it took a long runway before takeoff.

Women, as described by early Costa Rican Historians, remained at home with their

parents until they were married and ready to serve their husbands and procreate. This is still

prevalent in some conservative households and showcases the slow process required to

change this stereotype. Movements, such as that for women’s suffrage, remained at a

standstill for quite some time, and it was not until 1953 that women were finally given the right to vote.

Finally, in 1984, Costa Rica ratified the United Nations Convention for the Elimination

of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and had to validate the equal rights bill between men and women in the legal system. This gave way to the implementation of an institutional framework that allowed women to generate their own income, have control over their assets and bodies and participate in decisions that affect their lives and communities. Additionally, in 1988, the National Institute of Women was created, and a Labor Code reform allowed women to earn an equal pay as with the same jobs. In the last few years, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean men (CEDAL, acronym in Spanish) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have presented indicators that show that there are still many areas of concern regarding gender issues. For example, the women unemployment rate is 13% compared to 8% for their male counterparts. Women occupy a much smaller portion of high-ranking positions and are forced to take on much more informal and lower paying jobs.

The current government has shown a clear dedication at addressing the issues of

discrimination and gender inequality, in several sectors, by starting at the top, as shown by

the 13 female Ministers and 11 male Ministers that conform its Cabinet. The First Vice

President is a black woman, first to occupy this position in Costa Rica.

Throughout the History of Costa Rica, many women have challenged the outdated and

discriminatory stereotypes that permeated the country’s culture; one of them was my mother. My mother, Marjorie Elliott Sypher, a Canadian born citizen, flourished alongside the social democratic ideas that inspired the political and ideological actions of her husband, my father and Former President of Costa Rica, Daniel Oduber Quiros. As first lady she distributed books in order to establish public libraries in the most remote schools of Costa Rica. She also fell in love with the ideals of the cooperative movement and actively engaged in the establishment of the legal institutional framework for cooperatives.

At this time, all these projects, particularly the ones dealing with the cooperative movement,

were rarely spearheaded by a woman, but my mother did not let that stop her. During my

infancy, I quickly realized that my mother was a woman ahead of her time and one who had

a positive attitude and a highly progressive outlook on life.

Afro descendants comprise close to 8% of the population and have also played a very

important role in the nation’s evolution. There were two groups of Africans that arrived in Costa Rica. The first wave came in the form of African slaves brought over by Spanish conquistadors in the 1700s. The second was that of free highly trained workers who migrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work on the railroad built from San Jose to Limon, or on banana and cocoa plantations. Many of the latter had a British and English education. Both populations largely relied on agriculture and subsistence economy.

By its independence in 1821, 17% of Costa Rica’s population had African roots. The

majority lived along the Caribbean coast. These communities created their own blend of

cultures through language, music, food, and art. This cultural phenomenon is present even

today with communities of African descent continuing to speak creole and practice the

customs created almost 300 years ago. Slavery was abolished in 1823 and the country

officially became desegregated in 1948, following the abolition of the armed forces. This also led to the right to vote for Costa Rican’s of African descent as well as the right to run for public office. These Afro Caribbeans and the South Caribbean indigenous people were able to develop, thanks to their innate abilities, strong spirit of solidarity and, above all, their respect for Nature, which provided ways of surviving with intrinsic surveillance, allowing much of the to remain a pristine rainforest.

Costa Rica became the first country in the region to ratify (2013), The Interamerican

Convention Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Other Forms of Intolerance. In 2019,

August was officially declared the month of “Afro descendance”.

To conclude, I believe it's important to always keep in mind the preconceptions of the past, a text out of context, and to remember the sad injustices committed. Despite significant gains over the past decades, women and people of African descent still lack significant

representation in positions of power and comprise much of the poor and manual labor

demographics of the country. The extent to which Latin America will be able to end extreme

poverty and boost shared prosperity will therefore depend, to an exceptionally large degree, on the social inclusion of both these populations. Deepening the region's empirical

understanding of the drivers behind the persistent exclusion is a first step to design

appropriate solutions.


Anna Maria Oduber is a Costa Rican diplomat. She has served in several posts, including

Minister Counselor in Washington, D.C. (2004–2005) and (2011-2015), member of the climate change negotiations (UNFCCC) national team, member of the Costa Rican Commission for International Humanitarian Law, and of the Commission for Nuclear Energy. She is currently the Chargé d’ Affaires, a.i. and Consul General of the Costa Rican Embassy in the Kingdom of the Netherlands and lives in The Hague with her husband and three children.