Interpreting autonomy : work, sexual violence and women's empowerment in the northern Mexican border
This study explores the extent to which women's employment status promotes autonomy among low-income women in the northern Mexican border. Autonomy is assumed as inherent in women's freedom from sexual violence in and out of the household, and therefore an underlying question to the above would be as follows: Which aspects of women's employment status offer valuable options to resist and overcome violence. As a framework for discussion, I use the theoretical context of the New International Division of Labor (NIDL) and gender debate. In exploring the question above, I focus on the symbolic meanings women attribute to their experience as female workers, in connection to traditional gender notions. Such focus allows for a perspective on women's autonomy beyond the material aspects of work and into the symbolic realm of their experience. The analysis explores the impact of age, marital status, education, migrant origin, spirituality and structural change. The argument has three main levels: First, the need to address the symbolic dimension of women's autonomy and dependence and its relevance to the impact of work on their daily life. I focus my analysis of this dimension on women's assimilation of Catholic gender notions in the Mexican context. Second, I consider women as active agents in that they are capable of transforming such notions and promote autonomy in their lives. Third, I explore the key factors in women's shift from a passive assimilation of Catholic gender notions to their challenge and positive use towards women's autonomy. The final conclusions provide support for both the integration and exploitation perspective, showing that maquiladora employment can offer both the means for further dependence and increased autonomy. The outcome is relative to women's access to media communication and emerging gender roles, access to information and education resources, the availability of support networks and a positive assimilation of Catholic gender notions. These factors converge in two key elements that I consider particularly significant in women's paths toward autonomy, namely women's positive notion of self and gender solidarity. Consequently, work is most efficient in leading to autonomy when women assimilate their role as workers within a framework of elements that promote empowerment in their lives. This process is illustrated through a case study that explores the role of community support networks in women's experience of work and autonomy.