The role and treatment of women in Panamanian society are among the many things that shock protagonist Robert E. Clark. His observations, interspersed throughout Death in Panama, are a window into what Panama was like during the early 1980s. Although Death in Panama is a novel and, therefore, fiction, many of Clark’s observations are nonetheless based on fact. Like Clark, I served in the U.S. Army in Panama from 1982 to 1985. What Clark recounts in the book is based on what I saw.
For example, he notices that attractive young women often find good jobs as receptionists and secretaries, while those who are plain or unattractive are relegated to working as maids and cooks. There is also disparate treatment based on social class: women in the upper classes are treated better than those in the poor classes, regardless of their appearance. And, for women who are interioranos (“interior people” of mixed European and Native American descent) or of African heritage, the treatment is the worst.
There are signs that things have gotten better since the early 1980s. Panama had a female President from 1999 to 2004. And in 2013, Panama passed a law that classified “femicide”—the intentional murder of a woman because of her gender—as a crime. The law also established: a Special Prosecutor for the investigation of such crimes, the National Committee Against Violence on Women, and a regulatory framework to eradicate all types of violence against women. Nevertheless, much remains to be done in order for women to achieve gender equality.
A survey conducted by Gallup in 2013-14 found that Latin Americans, when compared to people in Asia, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, are the least likely to say that women are treated with respect and dignity. A median of only 35% of adults in 22 Latin American countries said that women are treated with respect and dignity, compared to 65% of adults in the Middle East and North Africa, 76% percent in Asia, and 72% in Europe.
Panama does fare better than other Latin American countries, however. About half of the adults in Panama believe that women are treated with respect and dignity. Not surprisingly, though, the numbers vary depending upon the gender of the person answering the question: 55% of Panamanian men think that women are treated with respect and dignity, while only 46% of Panamanian women feel that they are treated that way.
The gender inequality that continues to exist in Panamanian society might be the result of the country’s “macho” culture, which characterizes much of Latin America. Or it might be because of the disintegration of the family, which is what the Catholic Church has suggested. Or it might simply be because Panama, despite its economic strides during the last decade, continues to have the second-most unequal income distribution in Latin America. Whatever the reason, if Panama wants to take its place among the modern societies of the world and realize the full potential of its recent economic advances, then it needs to continue on the road to reform.