Several women's rights groups said on Thursday moves toward free trade are undermining the position of women in a region where machismo is entrenched, domestic violence is a problem, and governments have often taken hardline stances against abortion.

Activist Francini Mestrun said at an event organised by the Brazil-based Latin American Network of Women Transforming the Economy that "poor women are not the same as poor men". 

Some argued open-market policies have hurt Latin American economic sectors such as agriculture that employ large percentages of women.

Participants at the six-day conference, which has drawn more than 60,000 people from around the world, also called for UN peacekeepers to leave Haiti, demanded poor countries' debt be forgiven, and backed Cuban leader Fidel Castro's proposal for a permanent "anti-terrorism" tribunal to battle US abuses against poor countries.

Chavez speech

Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, whose social and economic policies have been widely discussed at the forum, welcomed the activists in a televised speech on Thursday.

"There is a group of citizens that have come to this extraordinary event from other parts of the world, called together by the social movements from the entire world.

People wave Cuban flags during
a meeting of the Social Forum 

"Once more, in the name of our people, I welcome you, wherever you come from and whatever you represent," Chavez said.

Women's issues also have won increasing attention among anti-globalisation activists.

Rosana Heringer, a co-ordinator in Brazil for ActionAid International, said water privatisation - an issue that has caused violent protests in Bolivia and Guatemala - especially affects women, who are often responsible for finding access to water in poor communities not served by profit-driven water utilities.

Latin American and Caribbean countries have also increasingly turned to tourism as a primary source of income, spawning a booming sex trade that has turned the trafficking of women into a profitable crime, some leading activists said.

Women's benefits

Others criticised a tendency towards part-time jobs that they argued has given companies an excuse to eliminate health care and other benefits for women.

"Poor women are not the same as poor men"

Francini Mestrun,
women's rights activist

Concepcion La Agua, a 45-year-old Indian leader from Ecuador, said the many problems faced by the region's women are all rooted in the mentality that "we are only good for having children, for being maids in the house and for being servile in the home".

Juana Vasquez, 61, a Maya Sacapulteca woman from Guatemala, warned against blaming the problem on globalisation or other outside influences, saying Latin America has to face up to what she called endemic abuse and aggression towards women.

Citing a Mayan creation myth that recounts the birth of life equally from four women and four men, she said: "How do we combat this? We return to our cultural roots; that's where the answer lies."