In Latin America, many single mothers struggle to get child support. Activists and public officials are trying to change that.

The World

Diana Luz Vasquez became an activist for mothers’ rights in Mexico after trying, for years, to get child support for her 6-year-old daughter, Sabina.

Vasquez’s former partner left her when she was two months pregnant and didn’t recognize their daughter, Sabina. He owes Vasquez more than $20,000 in child support payments, she said.

“I’ve heard the same stories from my mother, grandmother, and some of my aunts, because in Mexico, it’s easy to impregnate someone and abandon them without any major financial or moral consequences,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez has been through a complicated and expensive process to hold Sabina’s father accountable. She even had to pay for a DNA test that cost her the equivalent of two months of her salary.

“It’s a very exhausting process, and many women just quit because they don’t have resources, or simply because they get tired of fighting without achieving results,” Vasquez said.

Last year, she came up with a different idea: She organized a protest where single mothers hung the picture of the debtors in a clothes line at a public plaza in the city of Oaxaca, in the southwest of the country. They called it “Tendedero de Deudores,” or “Debtors Clothes Line.” Dozens of women showed up and it got a lot of media attention.

woman with sign
Diana Luz Vasquez, activist for mother’s rights in Mexico and main proponent of the bill, “Ley Sabina.” Frente Nacional de Mujeres Contra Deudores Alimentarios Facebook page 

“In a corrupt country where machismo is so strong, people are more afraid of shame than justice,” Vasquez said.

The protest was so popular that it was replicated across Mexico, and soon turned into a social movement demanding better policies to hold child-support debtors accountable.

They have been pushing for a bill called “Ley Sabina,” named after Vasquez’s daughter, which prevents child support debtors in Mexico from running for public offices, driving, or leaving the country. The bill was finally approved in March, and the government is now committed to creating a public registry of debtors.

Vasquez said that this is a good first step, but a lot more needs to be done to help mothers navigate the process and make sure they receive payments on time.

Children in Latin American countries are far more likely to live in lone-mother families than in any other region, according to the United Nations.

In Colombia, about a quarter of single mothers get child support. In Guatemala, it’s only 14%.

Women at a protest to help single mothers in Mexico get child support.Frente Nacional de Mujeres Contra Deudores Alimentarios Facebook page 

“In these countries, there is less accountability, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done for single mothers to be able to receive any child support,” said Laura Cuesta, an assistant professor with Rutgers University who’s been studying child support policies in Latin America.

It’s usually the mothers who must find out about the system, fill out applications, attend appointments and collect evidence, including about their ex-partners who many times would prefer not to participate or collaborate, Cuesta said, “and that is a burden. And that means that people have to spend resources that many times they don’t have.”

Cuesta’s research found that child support plays a significant role in preventing single-parent families in Latin America from being economically insecure.

Women rally for a bill in Mexico to help single mothers get child support.Frente Nacional de Mujeres Contra Deudores Alimentarios Facebook page 

In the US, there is a similar approach, but according to Cuesta, the process tends to be quicker and less expensive, and there is more policy enforcement.

In many European countries, it’s the government that pays mothers directly and then charges debtors.

“These European countries see children as a public good, and then, the question is not whether the father is paying child support or not. The question is what this child needs to not live in poverty,” Cuesta said.

Several Latin American countries are interested in this policy.

In Chile, the Ministry for Women started a registry of child support debtors last year. Those on this list aren’t allowed to issue or renew passports or drivers licenses. In Argentina, where there’s a similar registry, debtors also can’t get tickets for soccer games.

There are 100,000 people on the registry of debtors in Chile, and 97% of them are men, according to Chilean Minister for Women Advancement Antonia Orellana.

“It’s a gender issue and it has to do a lot with patriarchal values across the region,” she said.

headshot of woman
Chilean Minister for Women Antonia OrellanaWikimedia page 

Orellana mentioned a popular song called “Papito Corazon,” by Chilean folk group Los Picantes. Papito Corazón is described as a handsome guy who has multiple girlfriends and kids and doesn’t pay for child support.

“Many Chileans see this song as funny, but it’s definitely not,” Orellana said.

Her office is trying to change that mentality. They are launching new campaigns to educate women, especially poor mothers, on how to register the debtors on the list and why it is important to do so.

The creation of these registries is a first step, but the problem of forcing the debtors to pay still persists, Vasquez said.

The activists behind Ley Sabina are planning protests in the United States, for fathers who migrate north and don’t send money to their children in Latin America.

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