COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: Impact on Existing Gender Equalities

By Isabel Morales

Gender Equality is the fifth of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations to help the world achieve a more equitable and sustainable future. Latin America and the Caribbean is a region where women continue to experience extreme inequality, and is, therefore, working towards this goal (UNDP, n.d.). Currently, the efforts made to reach this goal have been undergoing major setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been harshly targeting women and other vulnerable groups disproportionately (Ojeda, 2020). The amplified effects of COVID-19 involving women indicate that this phenomenon is aggravating existing gender inequalities.

Strenuous efforts made by governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have seen some progress in terms of overcoming obstacles that prevent work towards gender equality.

Approaches such as the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, established in 1977, produced several equality plans in different countries in the region. Some are established on the basis of executive decrees, like Mexico’s National Programme for Equal Opportunities and Non-Discrimination against Women (PROIGUALDAD), which is “designed to foster a deep-rooted process of change that begins with the internal workings of government institutions” (CEPAL et al., 2017, p. 49). Also, Guatemala’s National Policy for the Advancement and Comprehensive Development of Women (PNPDIM) and Equal Opportunities Plan (PEO) “focuses on measures to increase the participation of indigenous women and proposes reforming the Electoral Affairs and Political Parties Act to establish parity between men and women” (CEPAL et al., 2017, p. 25).

The growth of women’s representation in Latin American politics is also a significant achievement. In the past years, feminist movements have led to the rise of important political figures such as the former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, Brazilian politician Marielle Franco, and the current mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López. In Argentina, women represent 42 percent of the Senate, and countries like “Mexico and Bolivia, show parity in the three branches of government” (OpenDemocracy, 2020).

Different areas, such as labor markets, education, and politics in Latin America, demonstrate progress towards gender equality (Fleischmann, 2019). Yet, the effects of COVID-19 on women reveal the existing faults in the region’s institutions.

The pandemic has shown that women are more at risk of losing their jobs. In Latin America, women represent about 74 percent of the labor force in sectors that were most harmed by the pandemic, such as service and health sectors that provide food, hospitality, tourism, medical or elderly care. Many jobs have shifted to remote work from the start of the pandemic, but others with high female representation cannot be implemented remotely. Thus, women are more likely to lose their main source of income than their male counterparts, facing more obstacles in terms of remote job accessibility (CARE International in Latin America and the Caribbean & UN Women, 2020, p. 6). During the first weeks of quarantine in Colombia, The National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), reported that 56 percent of women work in 31 sectors that are impossible to be carried out remotely (Ojeda, 2020). Those who work in the informal sector are left in a vulnerable situation by not having the benefits of social safety nets like health insurance, which is crucial amidst a pandemic (Hasselaar & Jiménez, 2020).

The role of women in unpaid care is essential for the welfare of individuals, sustaining families, and supporting economies, but it is hardly recognized. Prevailing societal gender norms result in most women being accountable for both professional and domestic responsibilities. Even without a pandemic, women are responsible for taking care of children, the sick, and the elderly (Beltz, 2020). Currently, women’s workload has doubled due to COVID-19 resulting in school closures and an increasingly sick population, which forces women to leave paid work to provide unpaid care work.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than one in four households in the region are led by women, who are often the family’s support system; that represents the highest rate of female-led households in the world (CARE International in Latin America and the Caribbean & UN Women, 2020, p. 5). The highest percentages of time spent on unpaid household work done by women are in Guatemala with 86 percent, Ecuador and Honduras with 79 percent, and the Dominican Republic with 76 percent, which are statistics recorded before the pandemic (Hasselaar & Jiménez, 2020).

Due to these troubling economic effects, the unemployment rate for women in Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to reach about 15.2 percent in 2020, which is an increase of almost 6 percentage points in the unemployment rate compared to 2019 (Bárcena & ECLAC, 2020).

It is not surprising that women have also been experiencing vulnerability in their own homes from the start of the pandemic. In Latin America, around 20 million women and girls suffer sexual and physical violence each year (Sigal et al., 2020). They are subject to several kinds of gender-based violence, such as rape, femicide, and domestic abuse, that are linked to machismo. According to Wilson (2014), “machismo is the belief that women should be subordinate to the needs and desires of their male partners” (p. 4). This way of thinking is quite present in Latin America, reflected by current spikes in gender-based violence.

As most of the world, Latin American and Caribbean countries relied on strict quarantines and lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus and to prevent medical intensive care units from collapsing. These confinements, some of which only permitted people to leave the house for essentials and emergencies, caused women to be stuck with their abusers in a helpless situation. Also, when women become unemployed, they lose their financial independence and start to depend on their violent partners. In Chile, calls to domestic abuse helplines increased about 70% in the first weekend of quarantine, and The Human Rights Attorney’s Office in El Salvador reported nine femicides in the first month of the lockdown (Beltz, 2020). The number of femicides also doubled during quarantine in Argentina, averaging about one woman killed every 24 hours (Sigal et al., 2020).

Gender inequalities revealed by the pandemic show the need for the implementation of new policies in areas where women still experience extreme disadvantages and the support for cultural movements that fight against societal gender roles. It is necessary to acknowledge that Latin American and Caribbean countries have certainly gone a long way in giving women a voice, yet, long-term efforts are still needed to achieve the equality required for a sustainable future.

Isabel Morales is an international student from Colombia at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a sophomore majoring in Economics with a minor in French and a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Through her experiences living in Colombia, the United States and Israel, along with the opportunities offered by the university, she has become greatly interested in Latin American affairs and its role in the study of development economics.


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