The Plight of Single Mothers in Costa Rica

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Part of the Roulin family portraits by Van Gogh. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Part of the Roulin family portraits by Van Gogh. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Despite recent national initiatives to curb the incidence of single motherhood in Costa Rica, this socioeconomic trend continues to be a significant issue. According to a recent report by CB24, a regional cable television news network that focuses on Central American matters, single mothers make up 31 percent of the population in Costa Rica. Although Costa Rica is a Latin American leader in terms of government support given to single mothers, there are concerns about the impact to society, particularly when boys are raised solely by their mothers.


A Generation of Men Raised by Women

Single mothers gave birth to half of all babies born in Costa Rica in 1995. Nearly 60 percent of these births occurred in low-income rural areas, despite the fact that population in these communities is sparse in comparison to the Greater San Jose Metropolitan Area (Spanish initials: GAM). As is the norm in Costa Rica, baby boys are born at a rate that is nearly two percent higher than baby girls; however, greater mortality rates for males of all ages reverses this trend as they grow up, which explains why in Costa Rica there are more women than men.

The situation in Costa Rica has improved with the enactment of the Responsible Parenthood Act in 2001. The Costa Rica Star has previously reported on the various positive effects of this law:

The law is based upon the premise that children born in Costa Rica have an inherent right to know the identity of their fathers, and likewise also have the right to be supported by them until the age of 18 -or until 25 years of age if the child decides to further his or her education.

Aside from establishing identity and parental support, the law touches upon other societal issues particular to Costa Rica as a constitutionally Catholic country in Latin America.

[With this law,] the burden of choice [falls] upon new mothers who are unmarried at the time of delivery. Once the baby is born, a woman who has a civil status of single, divorced, widow, or in a “common law” marriage or civil union will be approached by a representative of our Civil Registry. If a woman is married at the time, the law summarily states that the child takes the paternal name and the father is responsible for support without exception. In all other cases, the mother is briefed on the rights extended by the law to her and the baby.

Essentially single mothers decide what is good for them and their babies at the time. If she decides that her child should get to know who his or her father is, then she signs a form that authorizes a search for the errant father. The search starts with Civil Registry employees and may be escalated to include Fuerza Publica (national police force) officers if they believe the father is trying to hide. In some cases, consulates abroad may be contacted. DNA testing and arrangements for payment of child support follows.

A 2011 report by La Nacion showed that only one out of three single mothers are taking advantage of the law; still, the birthrate in Costa Rica dropped by about 6,000 births in just one year after the law was enacted. In the first 10 years of enactment, 43,488 women took advantage of the law, and 27,342 Tico children got to meet their fathers and took on their last name in the Spanish naming custom.


It’s Either the Army or Prison

In English-speaking countries, there’s a pessimistic belief that boys who are raised in single mother households are more likely to end up in the army or in prison as they become adults. This concept was explored by author Chuck Palahniuk in his novel Fight Club, which was made into a film starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in 1999. At an elucidating moment in the story, there is a discussion about masculinity and how boys raised without a dependable model of manhood could become overly protective of women and extremely spiteful of men.

The concept can be roughly explained as follows: Boys raised without a father see their mothers struggle to raise them by themselves. If they eventually learn that their fathers are absent because they wanted to be absent, they will get angry at this knowledge. Without positive male figures in the lives, these boys’ unchecked anger may turn into resentment and hate towards other males. They will grow up to love and admire their mothers to an extent that will make them protectors of women and loathers of men. This hatred of males that are not in their social circles could be dangerous when combined with violence, aggression and challenging socioeconomic conditions.

A description of the world of Fight Club in the novel is as follows:

“What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women.”

Basically, the members of the Fight Club secret society are men who did not learn how to be men. There were many crucial aspects of manhood that they did not assimilate from their absent fathers, whom they learned to hate anyway. Fight Club is a way to channel this pent-up aggression. In real life, you have the army or crime; however, Costa Rica proudly abolished her army more than six decades ago, so there goes that outlet.

An example of what could happen to boys raised by single mothers and without a good role model to teach about masculinity is explained in the excellent book Marcos Ramirez, a roman à clef written by Carlos Luis Fallas of Mamita Yunai fame. Marcos Ramirez is essentially Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye rolled into one, but the complete absence of a biological father and the worthless presence of a stepfather who is marginally a man in the same biological sense leads to disaster. Since Marcos Ramirez is born in Alajuela in early 1909, Costa Rica did have an army then; which is where young Marcos ended up after a tumultuous boyhood that planted a seed of anger as he witnessed the struggle and anguish of his mother to raise him by herself in abject poverty.

After coming back from the skirmishes of the Coto War of 1921, whereupon Costa Rica lost 50 soldiers and ceded back the island of Bocas del Toro to Panama, a nation which in turn would lose part of her territory to the United States under an interventionist policy, young Marcos moved from Alajuela to the turbulent southern suburbs of San Jose, where he supported his mother and his young sisters who seemed to be born each year, and whose fathers he often resented because they were absent. Marcos goes on to make friends with neighborhood miscreants also raised by single mothers, and he gets his first taste of violence and petty crime. It does not take long for Marcos to get into serious trouble, which could have meant a term in prison; however, he goes on the lam to Limon to become a nobody -just another worker in the banana plantations.

What can single mothers in Costa Rica do to prevent their sons falling to the plots of Marcos Ramirez or Fight Club? To this effect, the government offers various social programs that are determined by Public Law 7735 “Protection of Adolescent Mothers.” Funding for these programs is paltry; less than $400,000 were made available to place young mothers in fast-track vocational programs with guaranteed employment in 2013. Considering that Costa Rica sees about 14,000 teenage moms each year, the magnitude of this issue is not being addressed adequately.

In the first-person report by CB24 mentioned at the beginning of this article, a woman named Guadalupe explained her difficulties in raising two children on her own; in the end, however, she mentioned feeling very proud of her parenting accomplishments, which were augmented with government assistance.


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