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(Forbes) The growing incidence of single-parent families over recent decades has become a vitally important issue throughout the world. Few countries have experienced this issue in such extreme as Colombia, where thirty-five percent of children age 0-14 live in single-parent families.
Beyond the challenges the sheer volume of these numbers bring forth to already strained resources, the issue in Colombia is further compounded by the fact that a large majority of these single-parent families are headed by women, and that women represent a disproportionate percentage of the countries poor, a phenomenon commonly labeled as the “Feminization of Poverty”.
It is well-documented that lone-mother households are at the highest risk of poverty amongst women due to lack of income. This is further exacerbated by deprivation of capabilities and the gender biases present in both Colombian society and government.
The culmination of all these factors in modern day Colombia has resulted in a vicious cycle of emotional, financial and social problems and other stressful life events for both the single mothers and their children.
While Colombian culture has seen progressive influences in recent decades, the discriminatory effects of Machismo are still very present in Colombian family life, the work environment, and throughout society. These machismo–based values become alarmingly evident when one analyzes the four predominant types of family structures that generally influence modern day Colombia: Andino, Santanderano, Negroide and Antiqueno.
While each of these family structures have their unique traits and vary greatly in their characterization, a common theme among all four is that the man is head of the household, while the woman’s domain—if she has one—is the home. As such, it is common for women to experience significant psychological stress and to receive little to no training and/or furthering education for skills that would help them find well-paying jobs in the workplace, which further worsens the plight of a newly single mother.
The role of a single parent is challenging for anyone, but particularly for women who have never previously headed a household or worked outside of the home. Upon finding themselves widowed, divorced or abandoned, single mothers can be faced with a host of emotional, financial and social problems, including feelings of hopelessness, a lack of identity and confidence, and challenges in fulfilling basic family needs and education for children. If those challenges alone were not enough, in Colombia the income support system is terribly inadequate, the majority of available work is low-wage, and support organizations and government-backed social programs often lack resources to provide the missing pieces in a scalable and sustainable offering. Even in some of the best cases of disadvantaged single mothers, the lack of affordable childcare and early childhood education options present a significant barrier to finding and keeping employment.
Single mothers often find themselves in situations of financial strain with little to no work, low-paying work, or working less desirable jobs such as prostitution. Financial strain is a key predictor of depression in single parents. Higher levels of depression is predictive of more punitive disciplinary practices and decreased parental nurturance, support, and satisfaction with the parenting role. The constant pressures of poverty, along with increased duties associated with the head of household role significantly increases vulnerability to new life stressors. Poor single mothers often experience a cycle of hopelessness and despair which is detrimental to both themselves and their children.
Given all the challenges facing families with single mothers, it is clear that a new set of methods must be introduced in Colombia, and that is exactly the task that we at the Vida Mia Foundation have set out on. We hope to engage and support single mothers by introducing successful models from around the world to Colombia. As organizations like the Women‘s Initiative based out of San Francisco have shown, when low-income women who have been traditionally underserved and deprived are provided with the resources they need to overcome emotional, economic and social barriers, self-sufficiency for themselves and their families can be achieved and the impact can be powerful.
The results of the Women’s Initiative are inspiring—after just one year of training, program participants nearly double their average annual income, and within five years of the training, 70% of program graduates are still in business. Further, an estimated $30 is returned to the local economy for every $1 invested in the Women’s Initiative, showing the broader social impact of empowering single mothers. The Vida Mia Foundation is drawing on the lessons of these models to establish a program addressing the unique challenges single Colombian women face with the hope of enacting social change.
But while successful models like the Women’s Initiative exist to provide guidance and support, ultimately a lasting change will come from the power, intelligence, resourcefulness, and determination of single mothers themselves. In an airplane crash you are told to place your oxygen mask on first before assisting those nearby, and likewise single mothers in Colombia must be on solid footing before they are able to lift their children and loved ones out of poverty and pursue opportunities.
Although initiatives have already been undertaken in Colombia to provide better social support systems and resources for single mothers, the Vida Mia Foundation believes these efforts must be redoubled with a more narrow focus on sustainable change where single mothers are active participants. Doing so yields a double dividend: when women are economically and socially empowered, they raise healthier, better educated families, and their countries are more economically prosperous because of it, too.
Special thanks to Amanda E. Anderson for contributing to this article.