In the Caribbean, as elsewhere, gender divisions are entwined with power relationships. These power relationships have been disrupted, however, by the increased involvement of women in the labor force, a process that has been occurring gradually throughout Latin America in the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century, but was especially notable beginning in the 1970s. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the percentage in the labor force that was accounted for by women rose from 31.1% in 1970 to 39.4% in 1990. Similarly, in Cuba the rate rose from 31.3% in 1981 to 38.9% in 1990 and 40.6% in 1993, while the percentage of women between the ages of 17 to 54 who were working rose to 42.5% in 1997 and to 44.0% in 2004. For these reasons, the issue of gender relationships is central to debates about economic and social development around the world, but particularly in developing countries.

This increased participation by women in the work force has significantly contributed to a decrease in birth rates, which has reduced the average household size. Caribbean countries, like the rest of Latin America, have experienced decreased birth rates since the 1950s. In the Dominican Republic, for example, between the five-year period of 1950-55 and the five-year period of 1985-90, birth rates dropped from 7.4 per woman to 3.8, a decrease of 48.6%. In Cuba, the birth rate fell from 4.1 children per woman to 1.8 in the same time frame, a decrease of 56.1%. Cuba, in fact, has the lowest birth rate in the Latin America region. The rate has been below the population replacement level since the late 1970s. Both places, meanwhile, have experienced reduced household sizes and increases in the percentage of homes with women as the heads of household and primary wage earners. In 1995, the average household size in Cuba was 3.4 persons with 36.0% of them led by women, while the average Dominican household that year was 4.3 persons and 26.8% of households were led by women.

These increases by women in labor participation and as heads of household have had the effect of increasing women’s influence in other areas of life. One of the indicators most frequently used by social scientists to measure the power differentials between men and women in contemporary societies is the gender development index (GDI), which is derived from the human development index (HDI), both of which were developed by the United Nations Development Program. While the HDI measures human development in terms of factors such as life expectancy, years of education, per capita income and access to potable water, the GDI measures the same factors but considers the inequalities between men and women and takes into account other components, such as childbirth mortality rates, birth rates among adolescents, rates of secondary and higher education among women, the rate of participation by women in the work force, use of contraceptives and medical services, and other factors. Both the HDI and GDI are alternative measurements to macroeconomic indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) or per capita income.

The following table, based on the United Nations Human Development Report for 2010, shows the GDI and HDI for Caribbeancountries included in the report.

Costa Rica0.7250.501
Dominican Republic0.6630.646
Trinidad and Tobago0.7360.473


With a GDI of 0.448, Barbados is the Caribbean territory with the highest GDI in the region and the only one with a “Very High” rating on the U.N. scale. Barbados’ GDI is not much different from the GDIs of the United States and Cuba, at 0.4000 and 0.473, respectively. In any case, it is still far below the GDI of the Netherlands, which has the best rating at 0.174, but is much higher than that of Yemen, which is in last place with a GDI of 0.853. Haiti (with a GDI of 0.739) ranks at the bottom in the Caribbean region and is the only country in the Caribbean with a “Low” rating on the U.N. scale. It should be noted that in many Caribbean countries it is impossible to calculate the GDI due to a lack of data. These cases include countries such as the Bahamas, Suriname, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The involvement of women in the labor force has also had an important effect on family structure, which is reflected mainly in the increase in unions outside of marriage. It should be noted that pairings of this type were already high in the Caribbean region before they began to increase in the 1970s, and the persistence of this phenomenon in the region throughout modern history has been a subject of debate among Caribbean academics. What is lacking is an explanation (and this is the center of the debate) for why this pattern of cohabitation persists and, in fact, has increased, despite education levels for women and other advances for women in the struggle for equality. Why has the rate of cohabitation outside of marriage increased when “what is supposed to occur” is exactly the opposite? Cohabitation in Cuba, for example, rose from 58.4 per 100 marriages in 1970 to 60.0 per 100 in 1981 and 81.7 per 100 in 1987. Currently, this rate stands at 67.1 per 100 marriages in Cuba. This is also the pattern in the rest of the Caribbean and on some islands, such as the Dominican Republic and many of the English-speaking and French-speaking islands, cohabitations outnumber civil marriages. The situation is worse among adolescent women. In Cuba, for example, the rate of cohabitation among adolescent women is 141.4 per 100 marriages, while in the Dominican Republic it is 146.7 per 100. In the Dominican Republic, the average age of women when they first marry or cohabit was 19.3 years in 1995, while among Cubans it was 19.7 years in the same year.

One area in which women have clearly surpassed men is in formal education, and Cuba has the highest rate of women with secondary and higher education in the Caribbean region. This is partially due to the agenda of the communist government, which has tried to eradicate social inequality in the country, whether caused by class struggle or gender. In Cuba, therefore, the struggle to promote women’s development and integrate them into all parts of political, economic and cultural life has been more pronounced than in other countries in the region. Evidence of this is the achievement of Cuban women compared to women in the Dominican Republic, for example.

(15-49 years)
Dominican Republic
(15-49 years)
Elementary education (or less)28.5%43.6%
Secondary education63.9%23.6%
Higher education7.6%13.2%


While in Cuba the percentage of women in their childbearing years (between ages 15 and 49) who were not high school graduates in 1996 was 28.5%, in the Dominican Republic at the same time the number was 43.6%, or nearly half of the female population of childbearing age. Additionally, while in Cuba the percentage of women in their childbearing years who had completed their secondary education was 63.9%, in the Dominican Republic it was barely a third of that, or 23.6%. The percentage of women of childbearing age in Cuba with secondary or higher education is 71.5%. In the rest of the Caribbean, the trend is that more women than men are gaining an education, although this phenomenon is occurring in many developed countries.

The problem of educational disparities between men and women is most acute on the island of Jamaica. Jamaica is the only Caribbeancountry where women have higher literacy rates than men (88% for women compared to 80% for men). Some social scientists interested in masculine identity in the Caribbean have used these disparity figures to argue that there is a pattern of “marginalization of men.” It is interesting, however, that women’s advantages over men in terms of literacy and education have not changed the rates of access by the two genders to high-qualified jobs in the formal labor market, where the differences are minimal.

A pattern similar to the gender disparities in literacy and formal education is seen in the percentage of women in professional or leadership positions compared to women in unskilled labor. In Cuba, 64.6% of working women hold professional positions, while in the Dominican Republic the figure is just 49.0%. Additionally, in the Dominican Republic there is a pattern seen in many of the other Caribbean islands with economies based on tourism. Much of the female population is employed directly or indirectly by this sector of the economy. In the Dominican Republic, there is a strong presence of women in the service sector with 7 of 10 working women on the island employed in activities related to services with a relatively small number in professional and technical positions.

Men are often at a disadvantage to women in terms of education, and along with the low rate of participation in the work force among men, this is often related to less involvement with raising children. The issue of the absence of the father in Caribbean homes and the role of women as the main wage earner in the home has been the topic of a long debate in the social sciences and some authors have tried to show a historical continuation of family models from matriarchal African societies or models that came from life on the sugar plantations under slavery.


Published: May 15, 2012.

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