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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Today, our series, The Changing Lives of Women takes us to Mexico. Single motherhood there is on the rise. A quarter of all Mexican households are headed by women, and the stigma associated with having children out of wedlock is fading. Single mothers are showing up in TV shows, music and even in the president's agenda.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City, it's a dramatic cultural change for an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Single mothers are no longer hidden away, spoken about in whispers or social outcasts. Maria Carlotta Santa Maria is a great example. Mari, as everyone calls her, is on her daily route delivering laundry in her working-class neighborhood in southern Mexico City. She knows and greets everyone: the mailman, the woman on the corner selling salty nuts, her favorite saludos are for the guys at the corner gas station.

MARIA CARLOTTA SANTA MARIA: Buenos tardes. Como estan?

KAHN: She's the kind of person that can make this inhospitable overwhelming megacity seem small and friendly.

(LAUGHTER)

KAHN: Mari says raising her 10-year-old daughter Jimena alone has not been easy. She makes 600 pesos a week, about $50 at the laundry mat, a few more pesos taking in ironing on nights and weekends. She was 38 years old when she says she had an indiscretion with a married man and got pregnant. Back then, she got a lot of grief from her mom and her aunts.

MARIA: (Through translator) Yeah, my mother was upset that I had a child out of wedlock. She's from another generation. Before, everyone was like, ah, look at them, they are divorced. Their husbands left them. But now, no. I think women these days are used to having kids on their own.

KAHN: She's right. More unmarried women than ever in Mexico are having children. Nationally, one-fourth of all households in Mexico are headed by a single mother. In big urban centers like Mexico City, it's as high as 35 percent. Beatriz Santa Maria Monjaraz, who heads the Institute for Women in Mexico City, says she's noticed the dramatic increase in just the last five to seven years.

BEATRIZ SANTA MARIA MONJARAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Santa Maria says, we don't like to call them single mothers.

MONJARAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: She says, we call them women heads of households, because that's what they are doing. They are the sole wage earners in tens of thousands of homes in the city. Why so many single mothers recently? There are many reasons. Mexico's birthrate has dropped dramatically in the past 40 years from an average of nearly seven children per woman to now around two. That's given women new educational and career opportunities.

Mexican women now make up nearly half of the workforce. And with greater economic freedom has come popular acceptance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: Los Tucanes de Tijuana sing about the single mother who is not dependent on anyone. She's mother and father for her kids and gives them everything they need to get ahead. President Enrique Pena Nieto gave a recent shout-out, too.

PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Pena Nieto announced a new federal life insurance program for single mothers. Their children will be taken care of in the case of death. As the president put it, single mothers are the most appreciated, most loved members holding the family together. Anthropologist and editor of a feminist journal, Marta Llamas says, Mexico is modernizing, opening up economically and in turn becoming more accepting.

Eighty percent of Mexican women say they use contraceptives. But Llamas says, the country's roots are still overwhelmingly Catholic.

MARTA LLAMAS: Motherhood in Mexico has been like the normal destiny of a woman. So if a woman is a mother, even if she's a single mother, she's, you know, accomplishing what the culture believes is the best for a woman to be.

KAHN: She worries all this newfound praise glosses over the problems women face today. They're paid far less than men, there is rampant discrimination in the workplace and the levels of domestic violence are alarmingly high. Psychologist Liliana Chavez knows the challenges facing single mothers. She drags over a whiteboard in a meeting room in Mexico City with a diagram outlining the cycle of domestic violence. A dozen women sit in a circle at her weekly group therapy session.

ANITA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: One participant, who only wanted to be identified as Anita, talks about being stuck in an abusive relationship, but unable to provide for her children alone. For Maria Carlotta Santa Maria, the laundry delivery woman, getting married to the father of her child was not an option. She says he had, let's say, a difficult character.

MARIA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: And as the saying goes, she says, we are better off alone than in poor company. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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