Health and Healthcare Systems

The COVID-19 crisis disproportionately affects women – here's how Latin America is addressing it

Indigenous women sew face masks for sale during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the Satere Mawe Association of Indigenous Women in Manaus, Brazil, April 24, 2020. Picture taken April 24, 2020. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly - RC28DG9UF7Q6

Latin American leaders are tackling the economic impact of COVID-19 on women through innovative policies and initiatives. Image: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Andrea Saldarriaga Jiménez
Coordinator Gender Parity Accelerators, The Inter-American Development Bank
Elselot Hasselaar
Head, Work Wages and Job Creation; Interim Head Education, Skills and Learning, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Latin America

  • Women are disproportionately affected by the economic fallout caused by COVID-19.
  • Latin American leaders are tackling this issue through innovative policies and initiatives that could make a difference for women.
  • Focused and rapid action now can accelerate economic gender parity in the long term.

As the global economy plunges into the deepest recession since the end of World War II, countries around the globe are taking dramatic measures to contain this multifaceted crisis. With the International Monetary Fund projecting global growth for 2020 of -4.9% and the International Labour Organization reporting a global decline in working hours equivalent to more than 300 million full-time jobs globally, we have entered a critical moment.

The global socioeconomic shock is affecting women more negatively than men and threatens to undo hard-won progress towards gender parity in the economy and labour market. Women have been firmly on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, often working in jobs that are underpaid, undervalued and insecure.

But the crisis also provides opportunities to accelerate gender parity in the long term. The pandemic has forced societies, businesses and governments into new methods of working and interacting that could help women improve their position.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the World Economic Forum and the Inter-American Development Bank are working on Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators that bring together leaders from the public and private sectors to collaborate and advance economic gender parity, currently in light of their COVID-19 responses. The Accelerators bring together Ministers and CEOs from across the region to close economic gender gaps in leadership, wages and labour force participation.

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Here are five ways the Accelerators in Latin America and the Caribbean are addressing the impact of COVID-19 on women.

1. Rebalancing the burden of unpaid care work

Global lockdowns and school closures have shifted paid care to unpaid care, with women already performing 76% of total hours of unpaid care work prior to lockdown. Existing gender inequalities force women to leave paid work or educational endeavours because they are unable to manage them alongside the increased burden of care work.

Addressing gendered norms and attitudes towards unpaid care work on a national level may be one solution to this problem. In Chile, the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity is working with businesses to spread the message that men and women should divide the work at home equally, as well as to address violence against women. A shift in this division of work at home could accelerate economic gender parity in the future. Meanwhile, BHD León, a bank in the Dominican Republic and member of the Accelerator, launched a campaign on breaking gender stereotypes about the role of men in the household.

Percentage of time spent on unpaid household work done by women
Percentage of time spent on unpaid household work done by women in Latin America Image: Inter-American Development Bank

2. Extending social safety nets to the informal sector

In Latin America, the majority of women work in the informal employment sector, and women are more likely than men to be temporary workers. This leaves women workers in precarious conditions, without critical social safety nets such as health insurance.

Extending social safety nets to those in the informal sector would make women less vulnerable to future shocks. In Costa Rica, the government established a cash transfer program for the newly unemployed in both the formal and informal sectors, which prioritizes the most vulnerable, women.

3. Ensuring women are well positioned in growth sectors

Women make up a large share of the labour force in some of the hardest-hit service sectors such as food, hospitality and tourism. This means the economic slowdown is impacting women more harshly, especially the poorest women – further exacerbating gender economic inequalities.

Governments and businesses should ensure women are well positioned in growth sectors. In Colombia, the Ministry of Labour is redeploying women to growth sectors such as services, thereby actively hardwiring gender parity in the post-COVID-19 world of work. Mercer Argentina is advising companies to use the opportunity to introduce or accelerate strategic business and workforce changes that may not have been possible before the crisis, some of which can be of direct benefit of women.

4. Supporting small business owners with skills training

The economic slowdown is putting small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) – the powerhouses of many economies – at greater risk of bankruptcy. Of the total number of salaried and self-employed women, 72.6% work in an SME.

Countries must ensure SMEs are well equipped to weather this crisis. Providing financing and skills training are key means of achieving this. For example, Banistmo, a bank in Panama that is part of the Accelerator, has set up programmes to provide female small business owners with financing and skills training.

5. Addressing violence against women

Violence against women has markedly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Argentina, calls to domestic violence hotlines have increased 40% since the government established mandatory confinement. In Colombia, these calls have increased by over 90%.

Countries must adapt services to ensure women can access them while in quarantine. And companies must support their employees. In Argentina, Avon, another company in the Accelerator, launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about the increased risk of violence against women during the pandemic and provide visibility to services available to help them.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

While the pandemic risks exacerbating existing gender economic gaps, leaders have a unique opportunity to seize this moment to put in place sensible, innovative policies and strategies to close these gaps, as seen in Latin America and the Caribbean. As the world is aiming to build back better post COVID-19, it is high time that the public and private sectors mobilise together to support women and accelerate economic gender parity in the long term.

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