COVID-19 has exposed the heavy burden on female heads of household or women responsible for caring for children or other family members. One of the main obstacles continuing to impede women’s access to labor markets is the cultural expectation on their role as caregivers. In Latin America and the Caribbean, as in other regions of the world, the work of caring for and raising children falls mainly to women. Data from 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean shows how unevenly housework and unpaid caregiving tasks are divided up between men and women. In every one of these countries, women report spending at least twice as much time on these activities as men do. In Brazil, Ecuador, and Honduras, the figure reaches four times as much. And this lopsidedness is not limited to domestic duties: mothers even handle the lion’s share of direct interaction with children ages five and under. Across all activities analyzed, mothers do at least twice as much with their children as fathers do.
This discrepancy is one of the factors exacerbating the workforce participation gap between men and women. The size of the gap varies from country to country, from 16 percentage points in Uruguay to 55 points in Guatemala. But there is a common denominator across all countries in the region: fewer women with children under age five work jobs outside the home compared to women who are not mothers, and even compared to women with older children. The availability of childcare services is therefore crucial.
Childcare in this region is costly and out of reach for many, so we need to work to expand access to these services and make them more accessible to help women join the workforce. Childcare centers foster children’s development and increase their skills, and they also give women the opportunity to work for the sake of their families. Both objectives are key, because they interrupt the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
The toll of school and childcare center closures has also left its mark on children themselves. The temporary mass closure of preschools and daycares due to COVID-19 is depriving hundreds of millions of children of learning opportunities. These losses will have a lifelong effect on their education, health, income, and productivity, limiting their future opportunities. In addition to these negative impacts on children’s development, the closures will also have an impact on countries’ human capital and economies. The IDB conducted the first study to simulate losses due to closures of early childhood centers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the consequences that can be inferred are diminished future earnings for today’s preschool-aged children when they become adults. The simulation used different scenarios that yielded alarming results. In the Andean countries, 12 months of closure could mean a 10.5% loss of GDP, while in the Caribbean the loss could be 6.3%, in Central America and the Dominican Republic 7.4%, and in the Southern Cone 6.6%.
The IDB is coming alongside countries to mitigate these negative impacts. For instance, it is helping design educational content about improving parenting practices, as well as strategies for providing support from specialized professionals in case of warning signals like undernourishment, missing immunizations, and depression in caregivers. Communication campaigns are key for sharing information about the importance of early childhood and about strategies and resources available to households, daycare centers, and preschools in today’s context. Most of all, it is important to create safer and more effective conditions for reopening in-person services at daycares and preschools.
Public policies should include services specifically designed and targeted for children who are more vulnerable to the pandemic’s negative impacts. These policies should also cover mothers, fathers, and caregivers, who, during the pandemic, have had to single-handedly take on the task of promoting their children’s development. Now all attention is turned to the transition toward the “new normal”, presenting a major opportunity for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to focus on supporting and protecting children and their caregivers in an attempt to mitigate the pandemic’s negative effects on children. To quote renowned Chilean author and educator Gabriela Mistral, “Kids’ future is always today, because tomorrow is already too late.”