Special section: The impact of the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis on LAC women

As the current coronavirus (Covid-19) global pandemic unfolds, the socio-economic consequences for LAC women and girls could jeopardise some of the progress accomplished to address gender-based discrimination, and worsen the situation in other areas of concern, such as violence against women. The full scale of short-term and long-term implications of the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak for women and girls in the LAC region remain to be seen. Yet, early reports and evidence from past sanitary crises – such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-16 and the Zika crisis in 2015-16 – suggest that the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak will likely disproportionately affect women and girls across a wide range of areas.

Women in the LAC region are particularly vulnerable to the economic consequences of the outbreak. Their overrepresentation in the informal sector – women’s non-agricultural informality rate in LAC stands at 52%, compared to 47% for men –, the potential impact on remittances, and the additional unpaid care burden will likely combine to worsen women’s economic situation, particularly for the poorest ones. At the same time, confinement measures and their psychosocial consequences could result in an increased number of episodes of violence against women. Similarly, reproductive and personal health will be affected as healthcare capacities become overwhelmed by the rapid spread of the disease and all available health resources are diverted towards the fight against the coronavirus (Covid-19).

Women in the LAC region are at the forefront of the battle against the coronavirus (Covid-19), as they make up the vast majority of the healthcare workforce, which exposes them to a greater risk of infection. Globally, women account for around two-thirds of the healthcare workforce. Moreover, they are underrepresented among physicians, dentists and pharmacists, and overrepresented in occupations such as nurses and midwives, which are overwhelmingly in direct contact with patients (OECD, 2020[1]). Data show that the Americas – which, in this instance, include Canada and the United States – are no exception: the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that women account for 46% of the physician workforce and 86% of the nurse workforce (Figure 0.1) (Boniol et al., 2019[2]).

Moreover, as the crisis deepens in LAC countries with limited healthcare capacities, most of the care roles – which include caring for the sick and people who have the coronavirus (Covid-19) – will likely fall on women’s shoulders, greatly increasing their risk of infection. While the coronavirus (Covid-19) infection mechanisms are still unclear, preliminary reports and statistics show that men’s mortality rate is higher than that for women. Early medical hypotheses and anecdotal evidence suggest that a combination of behavioural factors (for instance, men’s higher smoking rate and men’s lower likelihood of washing their hands, wearing a mask consistently or seeking medical advice) and biological factors (mainly women’s stronger immune systems and the potential role played by female hormones) may explain why men are at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus (Covid-19) (Devlin, 2020[4]; Rabin, 2020[5]). Yet, the fact remains that women’s unpaid care and domestic workload puts them at more risk of being infected. This is particularly the case in developing countries with limited healthcare capacities, where women will likely need to care for members of their households who are suffering from the coronavirus (Covid-19). Past evidence from the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014-16, for instance, suggests that women’s care responsibilities were a major contributor to the disproportionate rate of female infection (OECD, 2020[1]).

The economic downturn in the LAC region could disproportionately affect women, as they are more likely to work in the informal sector and in activities that will suffer the brunt of the crisis. For instance, in Mexico, 56% of women are employed in the informal sector (excluding agricultural activities), compared with 49% of men. In Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the proportion of women employed in the informal sector is 6 percentage points higher than the proportion of men, while it is even 12 percentage points higher in Peru (ILO, 2020[6]). In addition, women are more likely to work in activities that will be severely affected by confinement measures, with limited or no options to telework, thus resulting in a complete loss of income. For instance, in Costa Rica and Uruguay, 17% and 14% of women, respectively, work as private household workers and account for 89% and 90%, respectively, of the workers in this sector. In all LAC countries except Guyana, women account for more than 80% of private household workers. Similarly, women are overrepresented and highly concentrated in sectors such as the retail trade sector and the accommodation, food and beverages sector, which are likely to suffer the most from a general lockdown (Figure 0.2) (ILO, 2020[7]).

At the same time, the economic downturn in Europe and the United States will severely affect economies in the LAC region through indirect channels such as remittances, and will have long-lasting impacts on the poorest people in the region, including women. For instance, in Mexico, nearly 8% of households in the poorest 40% of the population receive remittances that represent more than 30% of their total income (INEGI, 2018[10]). Additionally, more than 56% of the individuals in these poorest 40% recipient households are women. The loss of additional sources of income for the poorest households in the LAC region will disproportionately affect women and will put many of them at risk of falling into poverty.

The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak and its subsequent lockdowns will likely exacerbate and amplify pre-existing inequalities in terms of unpaid work burdens. Prior to the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, women already spent three times more time on unpaid care and domestic work than men in the LAC region (see Chapter 3). Travel restrictions, the widespread closure of school and childcare facilities, at-home quarantines, and the increased risks faced by elderly relatives can be expected to impose additional burdens on women. Lockdowns and confinements are also likely to increase routine housework, including cooking and cleaning.

This situation will put a severe strain on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s objective to achieve a balanced distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between men and women. As women’s unpaid work increases in the wake of the crisis, it may be a challenge to return to the pre-crisis situation, and it may be almost impossible to achieve an equitable distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between men and women by 2030.

Confinement measures, combined with social norms and patriarchal masculinity, could lead to a sharp increase in violence against women. In crisis settings, the frustration caused by lockdowns – lack of social interaction, cancellation of social events, closure of schools – builds up and often triggers a surge in cases of rape and violence not limited to the household. Domestic violence, often committed by men, is deeply rooted in patriarchal masculinity that leads to men’s power and control over women. As the crisis and the uncertainty at the individual and household levels unfold, perpetrators of violence might want to reassert their control and express their frustrations caused by the lockdown through increased episodes of violence (OECD, 2020[1]).

Meanwhile, restrictions on movement also prevent survivors of violence from seeking refuge elsewhere and trap them with their abuser. Support services for survivors, such as hotlines or temporary housing, could also be disrupted, aggravating the situation for women who are victims of violence (OECD, 2020[1]).

Finally, the economic consequences of the crisis, such as loss of income and unemployment, will likely reinforce the economic dependency of women who are victims of abuse. As economic control is key for abusers, insecurity and reduced access to financial resources could force victims to remain in violent households. In March 2020, the Secretaría Distrital de la Mujer (District Secretariat for Women) in Bogotá, Colombia, announced that the city will provide additional and special resources to the victims and survivors of domestic violence in the midst of the emergency caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19) (Secretaría Distrital de la Mujer, 2020[11]).

As the crisis spreads and puts pressure on national healthcare systems, more resources will be diverted towards the emergency response. In particular, resources for sexual and reproductive health services will likely become scarce, thus contributing to increasing health problems for women. Evidence from the Ebola crisis in West Africa shows that the lack of available health services, combined with the fear of getting infected on the premises of hospitals and clinics, led to a sharp increase in maternal mortality (Wenham, Smith and Morgan, 2020[12]). In Sierra Leone, for instance, post-crisis impact studies uncovered that, even assuming the most conservative scenario, the decrease in utilisation of life-saving health services translated into 3 600 additional maternal, neonatal and stillbirth deaths in the year 2014-15 (Sochas, Channon and Nam, 2017[13]). At the same time, the provision of sexual and reproductive health commodities, including menstrual health items, may be impacted by supply chain disruption. Evidence from the Zika crisis in Latin America in 2015-16 showed that gang violence in Brazil and El Salvador directly affected women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, with informal networks controlling who had access to supplies and who did not (UNFPA, 2020[14]).

References

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