TACOMA, Washington — No country on earth has been left unscathed by the social, political and economic destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has exacerbated social issues and inequalities everywhere, especially in already vulnerable areas. Latin America, a group of countries that have long been considered the most unstable and unequal in the world, has been left uniquely devastated as it has been identified as the hardest-hit region in the world. Latin American women have been disproportionately harmed by the disruption of COVID-19. Latin American women endure unique challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the crisis has presented opportunities for strides toward greater gender equality throughout the region.
COVID-19 in Latin America
COVID-19 has exacerbated many of Latin America’s problems, especially those regarding economic and social equality. The unemployment rate was expected to rise from 8.1% in 2019 to 13.5 in 2020; the poverty rate was expected to rise 7.0 percentage points in 2020; the extreme poverty rate is supposed to increase by 4.5 percentage points from 11.0% to 15.5%. The latter increase indicates that 28 million Latin Americans will enter a state of extreme poverty in 2020, defined as living on less than $1.90 a day.
Already marginalized populations are especially targeted by these changes. Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world and COVID-19 has only further stratified the area among lines of class, race, ability, gender and sexuality. Latin American women have been particularly affected.
COVID-19 Exacerbates Latin America’s Inequalities
Latin America was so easily weakened by COVID-19 due to its highly informal labor market. Many in Latin America work informally. Not only are they the most likely to lose their jobs in the pandemic, but these people also do not have access to Latin America’s already perpetually stressed social welfare systems. This is particularly true for marginalized populations, who are much more likely to work informally. Such facets of the population are generally unemployed, uninsured and unable to access social services during the pandemic. Latin American women are one such group that is particularly vulnerable.
As a researcher at the Inter-American Development Bank, Jordan Abbott explained in an interview with The Borgen Project, “Women and children tend to be disproportionately employed in the informal labor market. This means that they are the first to lose their jobs — these are the most vulnerable jobs to exist and they are probably the lowest paid to begin with.” He continued, “The women’s labor force participation rate is growing in Latin America, yet declining in the rest of the world… but we fear that because so many of these jobs are considered part of the informal labor market, these gains will be reversed just by one year of a pandemic.”
COVID-19 and the Vulnerability of Latin American Women
Latin American women have been left particularly devastated by COVID-19. Because 78% of Latin American women work in the informal sector, their ability to absorb economic disruption is generally weak. This has heightened already high rates of female unemployment, domestic violence and unpaid labor.
Latin American women are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they dominate the fields of domestic and caretaking work, however, these positions are usually unpaid. Latin American women spend three times more than men on unpaid labor. Before the crisis, this amounted to between 22 and 42 hours of unpaid labor per week, a number that has only increased due to COVID-19. Abbott explained, “Though you might not consider taking care of a child for three hours a day or cooking meals or doing laundry as a job, this is the same thing as unpaid labor.” Among paid laborers, there remains a significant pay gap: women account for 72.8% of employees in the healthcare sector, yet their pay is 25% lower than their male counterparts.
Quarantine measures have presented Latin American women with many unique challenges. Women have had to work extra unpaid hours due to both the shift to homeschooling and the expectation to care for sick family members. Extra time in the home has also heightened Latin American women’s susceptibility to domestic violence, femicide and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. For example, domestic violence hotlines for women in Chile and Mexico have reported an increase in calls of over 50% since the pandemic began. In Peru, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations reported 2,463 gender-based violence complaints in the first six days of lockdown alone.
COVID-19 Response Impacts Future of Women
COVID-19 has presented Latin American countries with a choice: either institute policy to protect women from the pandemic’s effects and foster long-term greater equality or keep the status quo of a stark economic gender divide. The U.N. has named equality the key to Latin America overcoming the pandemic, as their participation in the labor force would help sustain income and aggregate demand. Its policy brief on Latin America and COVID-19 recommends that governments help facilitate new job opportunities for women in the most technologically advanced and emerging sectors, such as technology, medicine and pharmaceuticals, to help offset their disproportionate loss of jobs due to the virus.
Abbott has his own set of recommendations: namely, cash transfers, Universal Basic Income, strengthened social safety nets and tax reform. He explains, “The burden of taxation is higher on poor people than it is on rich people … the solution is to reform the tax code in order to build an adequate social safety net and provide people with cash transfers until we can weather the storm.” The poor people he mentioned, of course, are disproportionately women.
Beyond government solutions, there are also myriad grassroots projects that target specific problems Latin American women face. For example, “Let’s decide now! Reducing adolescent pregnancy in Loreto” is an upcoming Plan International project that advocates for sexual and reproductive rights and pregnancy prevention for adolescent girls, especially Indigenous girls, in Loreto, Mexico. In 2017, more than 34% of adolescents in Loreto were mothers or pregnant and 30% of women between the ages of 15 and 19 did not use family planning methods. It aims to mitigate this problem by teaching adolescents about reproductive health and rights, increasing reproductive health services and promoting formal education for girls. The project is expected to commence in 2021.
If the dire position of Latin American women is not addressed, much of the recent progress the region has made toward gender equality will be largely erased. Latin American nations are in incredibly precarious positions and the challenges their women are facing will have to be central to COVID-19 relief efforts.
– Abby Tarwater