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Colombia Table of Contents



In the 1980s, there were continued signs of change in the traditional norms and patterns of family life, resulting from the high rate of rural-to-urban migration, the growth of urban industrial centers, and accompanying socioeconomic developments. The decline of the patriarchal extended-family structure was apparent in urban society, as increased geographic and social mobility weakened kinship ties and extended greater independence to young people. Families at the bottom of the social ladder were adversely affected by geographic dislocation and were increasingly less cohesive. They continued to be characterized by a large number of consensual unions and mother-centered households.

Traditional elements of trust and mutual dependence among relatives, no matter how distant the relationship, were still strong. The already large circle of kin relationships was extended through the institution of compadrazgo (see Glossary), a complex form of ritual kinship. Ties with relatives and compadres (godparents) continued to be important in political and business activities and provided the low-status person with a wide circle of mutual assistance.

The nuclear family unit continued to be authoritarian, patriarchal, and patrilineal. Legal reforms had extended equal civil and property rights to women, but tradition dominated malefemale relations, and roles and responsibilities in marriage were still relatively clear-cut. In the lower class, in which the father was frequently not a permanent member of the household, the mother often assumed the role of chief authority and family head, but in all other cases the father unquestionably occupied this position. Within the household, the wife was considered the father's deputy and the chief administrator of domestic activities. Her first duty was to bear and raise children. She was also expected to keep the household running smoothly and efficiently. In her relations with her husband, she traditionally was supposed to be deferential, thinking of his wishes and needs before considering her own.

Men of the upper and middle class had always been paternal and protective toward their dependents and tried to shelter their wives and children from undesirable outside influences. The activities of women were severely circumscribed because of the male concern with protecting the honor and virtue of the wife and unmarried daughters. Women in the upper and middle classes traditionally were not permitted to do work outside the home except for volunteer work. The social life of women in the upper and middle classes, particularly of unmarried girls, was limited to the home, the school, the church, and well-chaperoned parties and dances.

The lower-class or lower-middle-class woman was under far fewer restrictions than her upper-class counterpart. Formal chaperonage had always been impossible to maintain because of family instability, economic need, and the frequent absence of the husband and father and because moral standards differed somewhat from those of the upper social levels. The lower-class woman usually had to be employed and contribute her salary to the family's subsistence or work in the fields beside her male relatives. Her economic contribution gave her a degree of equality and, combined with the matrilocality of lower-class life, i.e., the fact that a husband tended to live with his wife's family, limited the husband's and father's control over her.

There were increasing exceptions in urban society to the traditional concept of a woman's role. Many women in the upper social levels were well educated, and some pursued careers in such fields as the arts, social welfare, and education. Colombian women were also considered among the most politically active in Latin America. Many of them held high elective or appointive offices. At the same time, women who engaged in these activities were considered exceptional. Most upper-class and upper-middle-class women did not work after marriage but devoted themselves to their homes, families, and church groups.

The Roman Catholic Church was the single most important force affecting marriage and family life. Nearly all formal marriages took place within the church, and most other turning points in the life of the individual family member were marked by religious rites. The Concordat of 1887 with the Holy See was replaced in 1973 by a new agreement, which opened the way for increased acceptance of civil marriages. After decades of debate, a divorce law permitting the dissolution of civil marriages was passed in the mid-1970s. In the late 1980s, however, the debate over divorce for Catholic marriages continued unresolved.

Moreover, regardless of the increasing acceptability of civil weddings, most middle-class and upper-class families still tried to provide their children with the most elaborate church wedding they could afford. In the lower class, consensual union, in which both the religious and the civil marriage ceremonies are foregone, was common. In rural communities with traditional lower-class standards, formal marriage was regarded as neither important nor essential. Despite the efforts of the church to encourage legal marriage within the lower class, people in this group generally regarded Catholic marriage as a heavy social and economic burden. At the same time, however, Catholic marriage was recognized as the ideal and the preferred legal, social, and sexual basis of the family. Although other kinds of union were more prevalent within the lower class, Catholic marriage often connoted superior social status and prestige. In contemplating religious marriage, both men and women might consider carefully the heavy costs involved against the prestige that would be gained.

Some Colombians, especially those in the middle class, regarded marriage as one of the best means of facilitating upward social mobility. At the same time, however, members of the upper class were generally reluctant to marry persons of lower social position. With the increasing independence of young people and the declining authority of the family, marriages between relatives had become less common, but intermarriage between families of similar aristocratic background was a custom that few young people chose to disregard.

Data as of December 1988

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Colombia Table of Contents