COVID-19 in Latin America: Women’s Security in an Insecure Economic Landscape

By Madison Beltz

COVID-19 has had a considerable impact on every economy in the world, but for many women in Latin America, personal security has been the price.

The Latin American and Caribbean regions have the highest levels of income inequality in the world, with wide gaps in living standards across regions, countries, and socioeconomic spheres. However, combined with pervasive gender inequality throughout Latin America, finding an adequate response to COVID-19 while still providing protections for women’s safety has been complicated.

By and large, women in Latin America are more at risk than men of losing their jobs and not returning to work due to the coronavirus crisis. Nahla Valji, senior gender adviser at the United Nations, commented on the pandemic’s effect, saying, “Historically, economic crises have hit industries that are male-dominated like manufacturing, agriculture, mining, but this time it’s the inverse.” With massive job losses as the pandemic rages through Latin America, the low-paid and informal sectors dominated by women (such as in retail, restaurants, and hotels) are those hardest hit by weeks of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. In the Caribbean, where many economies depend heavily on tourism, some countries will see half of the working population lose their jobs. In Bolivia, Guatemala, and Peru, eight out of 10 women hold informal jobs where the threat of unemployment is most severe. Because women are employed in already precarious sectors, they are more likely to lose their access to any income and will be less protected by social welfare systems, such as unemployment insurance.

Women, even without a crisis, are the primary caregivers of the sick, elderly, and children. This workload has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis with an increasingly sick population and limited access to childcare. This increased workload disproportionately forces women out of the formal workforce. Furthermore, when women lose or leave their jobs, they lose their financial independence and, in turn, can become dependent on a violent partner. During times of crisis – such as natural disasters, wars, or pandemics – the risk of gender-based violence escalates.

This has proven to be true during the COVID-19 disaster as well. In Argentina alone, data from Observatorio Ahora Que Si Nos Ven reported 49 femicides from March 20 to May 10, 2020, averaging about one woman killed every 24 hours. In El Salvador, the Human Rights Attorney’s Office reported nine femicides in the first month of the lockdown. In Mexico, as of April 13, 2020, more women had been murdered (367) than had died due to COVID-19 (100) since the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case on February 28.

With such troubling figures, either change or chaos is imminent. In an unprecedented age of uncertainty and upheaval, it is meaningful to look to UNSCR 1325 and the broader Women, Peace and Security agenda (WPS) as the architecture for addressing such a crisis. The resolution, which addresses how women and girls are differentially impacted by crises, while also recognizing the critical role women can and do play in peace building and reconstruction, is instructive in several ways. Governments must provide measures that do not leave women behind and that include women in the decision-making process. Creating substantive plans to combat the disproportionate effect of crises on women is a necessity, but as the WPS agenda intimates, their inclusion in the process is essential. However, Latin American governments are not the only mediums for initiating change.

In recognizing this differential impact of the pandemic on women and girls, the potential of the private sector to invest in its female workforce is key. Commercial banks can play an important role in women’s business establishment and generally provide resources and voice to women’s economic participation. Moreover, companies’ insistence in investing in its female workforce equitably will spell change for both women and enterprises as an entire demographic is given access to the broader economy.  However, according to Valji, even more pertinent is the existence of women in positions of leadership “to ensure that solutions are informed by a diversity of views and experiences. … If not, we can deepen inequalities.”

Consequently, Latin America has become alight with feminist movements in wake of the increased level of femicides and sexual violence. Mumalá in Argentina has launched a campaign for a declaration of national emergency for women. In Mexico, more than six million women staged a protest in early March 2020 to emphasize their place in the economy, society, and to decry rising femicides. Says Tarah Demant of Amnesty International’s Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program, “They know the solutions they need; now it’s up to the government to start listening.” In order to find stability in these nations, women must have a seat at the table in drafting legislation that targets the economic and security shortcomings increasingly exacerbated by the pandemic.