A joint programme for equality in Costa Rica

Gabriela Gamboa stands by an glass door wearing a protective face shield.
Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

From the coasts, and mountains to the export of crops and tourism sites (in Buenos Aires, Puntarenas and Limón), Costa Rica's multiculturalism, and multi-ethnicity takes shape, in which Costa Ricans and migrant people converge, including Afro-descendants, indigenous people and non-indigenous people.

Woman smiles as she pensively as she stands on a beach looking towards the ocean.

Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

A new joint programme has been established to provide tools to social co-managers for basic protection for families and women's economic autonomy in these three cantons.

When Gabriela Gamboa changed her studies from pharmacy to social work, she knew that she had found a career that would not only bring food to her table: it would also give her the satisfaction of working to support women and their families get out of poverty.

In 2015, when Gabriela was 23 years old, she started working at the Mixed Institute of Social Assistance (IMAS) as a co-manager. There, while working for the Bridge to Development programme — a state initiative that addresses poverty in a comprehensive manner — she learned about the limitations that many families based in Quepos and Fray Casiano de Chacarita (in Puntarenas) face in their native province.

Like each of the IMAS co-managers, Gabriela is committed to her work with a community that has been hit by poverty and citizen insecurity.

"You have to jump into the water," says the co-manager, "work for the people".

Gabriela smiles proudly at the camera as she holds a folder of material for her clients.

Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

Every day, and for several months, during 2016 and 2017, Gabriela traveled to the Fray Casiano on her black motorcycle, and soon, she was welcomed, appreciated and sought after by the community. Families learned that they were being offered institutional support to help them overcome extreme poverty and address the persistent challenges of inequality in their communities. 

Close up of image from an iPhone of Gabriela sitting with one of her clients outside.

Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

“During my visits, I found households headed by women with poorly paid jobs or no jobs at all. Half of them sell food or clothes to make a living. Others, clean houses. That is their method of survival. Most of them are also in charge of caring after people with disabilities, the elderly and minors.  For these women, considering a formal education is difficult because they are overloaded with trying to earn a living and care for dependents,” says Gabriela. 

A hopeful woman

As co-manager, she ensures that families are aware of the support options offered by 18 state institutions. These institutions have protocols in place to serve the population of the Bridge to Wellbeing component, which is part of the Bridge to Development Strategy. The guidance she provides helps to construct a two-year plan for each family.

The profile of a woman's face as she stares out pensively.

Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

Gabriela reaches out to those who do not know about these benefits. House by house, she offers support with issues related to education, health, social security, and she provides options to strengthen employability or start businesses. These options are intended for families who meet the requirements to access the programmes.

The co-manager's face lights up when she remembers the lives she helped change: a young woman that managed to finish school, college and start a university career or some older adults that proudly acquired their training certification.

Gabriela shares testimonies from people who required institutional support to restore their basic human rights and well-being. Behind Gabriela's work, there are institutional programmes, support networks, work agreements, and financial resources, which embody the strategy to combat poverty in the country.

A woman looks up stoically as she holds a large bag over her shoulders.

Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

A joint programme is born

One of the initiatives to reduce the social and economic gaps that affect women is the joint programme strengthening the Bridge to Development Strategy to break the cycle of poverty at the local level with a gender and environmental approach, implemented since the beginning of the 2020. 

The joint programme will set up three innovation laboratories, for women participants of the Bridge to Development Strategy in the cantons of Buenos Aires, Puntarenas and Limón to develop productive initiatives designed from an environmentally sustainable solutions approach that promote their economic autonomy with an intersectional gender perspective. This has been achieved in partnership with the United Nations in Costa Rica, through its Agencies: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN Women.

It has been financed by the Joint SDG Fund to help advance the fight against poverty. According to Margarita Fernández, Director of Fideimas, Bridge to Development has merged two central elements that align with the objective of this cooperation: a gender-specific, and a social protection approach.

The initiative will strengthen these two key elements, develop and promote the employability, entrepreneurship, and incorporation among women in the cantons of Puntarenas, Limón and Buenos Aires, aligned to the national and international standards and mandates on environmental sustainability.

A woman smiles happily as she stands at a desk holding a mask.

Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

“These women are brave, confident, have the drive to succeed, [they are] fighters, visionaries, they know what they want, they always seek the well-being of their family. Women don't give up. They do not expect anything to be given to them, they are capable of taking over the world, in order to carry out their business and their family,” said Fernández.

Challenges within Costa Rica

Juan Luis Bermúdez, Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion, believes that Costa Rica has made progress on gender equality in general, but there is still more progress needed for entrepreneurial women.

A female surfer smiles as she holds her surfboard by the shore of a beach.

Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

“The first step is to put women at the centre, instead of placing our institutions, projects and programmes as the goal of state action. The second step is to listen to their voices: not stifle the voices of women and their needs,” explained the Minister.

According to Bermúdez, Bridge to Development manages to connect previous efforts with a diverse pool of institutions to provide a more effective response to the problem of poverty.

"Bridge to Development is the consolidation of the lessons learned by Costa Rican institutions, and its society, in addressing the multidimensional phenomenon of poverty."

Along the same lines, Francisco Delgado, Vice Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion, said that Costa Rica needs to make progress in implementing mechanisms that reduce wage disparities in all spheres of employment and social co-responsibility for caregiving, such as paternity leave.

“It is important to recognize that caregiving tasks are a shared responsibility, and that these tasks are not incidental, but are part of sustaining society and the market-based economy. The country must also fully guarantee the sexual and reproductive rights of women; as well as introducing the gender perspective in the programmatic offer of the social and labour institutions, which allow access to the social protection system.”

“To achieve Sustainable Development in Costa Rica we need to prioritize actions concerning women. This joint programme is the best example that we have the political will and national and local capabilities to help tackle the challenges to obtaining decent employment, access to training, and institutional services to achieve a better quality of life for the women living in this country. The United Nations is committed to supporting Costa Rica in their efforts to ensure no woman is left behind,” says Allegra Baiocchi, UN Resident Coordinator in Costa Rica.

If this is accomplished, co-managers like Gabriela Gamboa will have more access to communities with more tools for change. She will be able to help more women and families obtain lifestyles with greater equality and greater opportunities. Co-managers like Gabriela and the brave and enterprising women, citizens and migrants, are already transforming Costa Rica so that no one is left behind.


  • Story: SDG Fund Costa Rica 
  • Photography: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores
  • Writing: Rodolfo González Ulloa 
  • General supervision: Sofía Salas Monge, Joint Programme Coordinator and Ingrid Hernández Sánchez, UNDP

Produced by UN Costa Rica. The article was originally published in Spanish to the UN Costa Rica website. To learn more about the work being done in the country, visit:

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United Nations Resident Coordinator Office
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United Nations Development Programme
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