SAN GABRIEL, Chile — At 4 p.m. sharp on a chilly October afternoon, more than a dozen women walked onto the main road of this tiny Andean town and launched a protest that backed up traffic for blocks.
The women wanted their local government to build more sewer lines, and they'd taken it upon themselves to force the issue. Many of them were single mothers, separated or divorced from their husbands. Those who were still married were living alone while their spouses worked hundreds of miles away in northern Chile.
“There are no men left in this town,” said Julia Severino, 24, who manned the blockade with her young son. “So we women, we’re taking matters into our hands.”
The women of San Gabriel have plenty of company in Latin America.
Across the region, a major social shift is under way as traditional, two-parent households led by men give way to growing numbers of families run by women, many of them single mothers.
More women are completing their educations, earning their own incomes and reducing their dependence on male breadwinners. They're also having fewer children.
The change has overturned age-old traditions in a region where the male-headed household, along with the extended family, has long been considered the center of society.
“We’ve moved past the generation where the woman is expected to stay at home,” said Maria Jose Lubertino, a former legislator in Argentina who now leads that country’s anti-discrimination institute. “Family structures are different, and women are extending their influence.”
In Chile, about 32 percent of households were led by women in 2002, in most cases by single mothers, according to the government’s most recent figures. That’s nearly a 25 percent jump from a decade ago.
During the same period, the percentage of women who were working grew from 32 percent to 42 percent.
The change has been even more dramatic in other countries. In Brazil, the number of households headed by women — 29 percent of all families — soared by 79 percent between 1996 and 2006. About 18 percent of U.S. households are headed by women.
That shift, along with a boom in divorces and separations, worries many who believe the decline in traditional families will fuel everything from rising juvenile crime to domestic violence.
In the poorest neighborhoods of the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador, the sight of men heading households is quickly becoming a thing of the past, said Jussara Souza, a police chief in a slum there.
“This is the new reality,” Souza said. “The majority of the families are separated, with the woman supporting the children.
More women are working, and they’re independent, and they’re not putting up with aggression from men.
“But I see it as a negative trend for the families and for the raising of children and for the women, who have to work even harder now to take care of their children.”
Brazil’s out-of-control street violence goes a long way toward explaining the absence of men, according to a study by Gary Barker, the head of an anti-violence community group in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
His study, based on 2000 Brazilian census figures, found that there were 200,000 fewer men than women between the ages of 15 and 29 in Brazil, with the gap expected to grow to 6 million fewer men by 2050. Higher rates of homicides, suicides and accidents among men explained the gap, the study found.
In Chile, where violence rates are lower, many men have left their families to work in mines and agriculture elsewhere in the country.
In Puente Alto, one of the poorest suburbs of the capital of Santiago, there were 11,000 fewer men than women in 2002, out of a total of 490,000 people, census figures showed. On the other hand, many mining towns in northern Chile have only men.
Argentine community organizer Monica Carranza called the disappearance of men from many neighborhoods a tragedy that's left thousands of women and children vulnerable. About 18 percent of Argentine women were single mothers in 2001, according to the latest census figures.
Many children are getting involved in drugs and crime near the shelters Carranza runs on the periphery of the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. A recent study by a coalition of anti-drug neighborhood groups found that the use of “paco,” a toxic side-product of cocaine, had grown by five times over the past three years in the city.
“Where are the families?” Carranza asked. “It’s just women and children alone. People tell me all the time, ‘There are no more men.’ ”
Yet in this new landscape some resourceful women are thriving. Chilean women's monthly wages grew by 31 percent from 1995 to 2005, while men's monthly wages grew by only 4 percent, census data show. Women earned 79 percent of men's wages in 2005.
Raquel Cavello, a Chilean seamstress, raised her two children alone after her husband left more than a decade ago.
Cavello said she had no work experience but managed to survive with the help of other poor women, many of them also single mothers, in the encampment she lived in on the outskirts of Santiago.
“We had a very important role in the camp,” the 49-year-old said. “We made and sold food to support the community, we cooked for everybody, we guarded the camp at night. We had the same role as the men, maybe an even bigger role.”
For Karen Poniachik, Chile’s first female mining minister, staying single was a natural choice for a self-confessed workaholic.
The 42-year-old heads one of Chile’s most important ministries, which oversees an industry that generates 40 percent of the country’s taxes and 65 percent of its exports. She also heads the boards of Chile’s national copper, mining and energy companies.
“In my case, I’m single and I don’t have a baby, and it’s easier for me to stay long hours here,” Poniachik said. “I like what I’m doing and I like my job.”
Chile’s government has tried to help working families by building hundreds of day care centers and pushing new laws promoting gender equality in the workplace, said Laura Albornoz Pollmann, who heads Chile’s national women’s service.
Some opposition leaders have accused such policies of fueling the decline in traditional families, but Albornoz Pollmann framed the issue as one of equal rights.
“There’s been a tremendous advance in respect to our commitment to the next generation and also to women who need to go out and look for work,” she said.
Margarita Martins, who took part in the protest in San Gabriel, said she didn’t regret staying single after separating from her husband 25 years ago.
For one thing, it gave her more time to get involved in her community and fill the political vacuum left by the town’s absent men.
That was evident at the blockade, where she busily organized her fellow protesters and negotiated with police. After the women left the road, Martins sat down with town officials and pressed her demands.
“That’s how things work these days,” Martins said. “If women are going to get anything done, we need to do it on our own.”