Have you wondered why?
As the coronavirus crisis hits Latin America and the Caribbean, in the midst of International Women’s Month, have you wondered what consequences this pandemic can have in terms of gender in the region? Acknowledging to what extent this health crisis affects women and men differently, is essential to truly understand its effects on people, an implement policies and interventions that are effective and equitable.
While there are gender differences in the death rates of the coronavirus, the most relevant aspect to bring to the table—and one that may not be obvious at first glance- is the indirect effects that have to do with gender roles. Gender roles are the set of behaviors and attitudes that society considers appropriate for a woman or a man. These norms influence our career choices, the jobs we have, and also the type—and the amount—of work we do around the house.
Caring and healing, in hospitals and at home
Let’s start with healthcare professionals, to whom we owe so much right now. In the region, half of doctors and more than 80% of nurses are women, the highest percentage in the world. This occupational segregation by gender is not accidental. It is influenced by gender norms that make healthcare a socially accepted profession for women, as it is an extension of the distribution of tasks at home. As a consequence, the higher proportion of women among healthcare providers means that they face the highest risk of contagion due to their continuous exposure to COVID-19.
Gender roles also limit women’s participation in the labor market and the type of jobs they have. Due to the need to reconcile paid work and family responsibilities, a higher percentage of women in the region have informal and part-time jobs, compared to their male counterparts. In Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, 83% of women have informal jobs, without any type of paid benefits, social security, or protection by labor laws. Also, almost 40% of working women are employed in commerce, restaurants, hotels and domestic work, which are the most affected sectors and the most vulnerable jobs in the economic crisis unleashed by the coronavirus.
Worldwide, women and girls do most of the unpaid work at home. But in our region, this disproportionate distribution of domestic chores and between men and women is much worse. In Latin America, on average, women do 73% of the unpaid labor at home while men do the remaining 27%. By way of comparison, in Sweden, the contribution of men to household chores and caretaking is 44%, in the US 38% and in China 39%. Women’s role in caring for the sick at home puts them at higher risk of contagion. As an example, in Mexico, time use surveys indicate that in households with people with temporary illnesses (such as the coronavirus), women dedicate 23 hours a week to caring for sick relatives versus 13 hours in the case of men. With the pandemic, the demands for care of the sick and the elderly will undoubtedly increase.
A heavier burden
As I write this blog post in my dining room, my husband is preparing dinner in the kitchen, and my teenage son—who is home because of school closings—is setting the table. Without a doubt, I am a fortunate woman, since this is not the reality of most Latin American families. With all family members forced to stay at home –parents working from home and children taking online classes—it is necessary to dedicate more time than usual to household chores, even if no one is sick at home. Someone has to keep kids entertained, supervise school activities, prepare food for the whole family three times a day, do laundry, and clean (and disinfect) the house. Gentlemen, it’s time to learn how to cook!
And let’s not forget that at least some still need to meet their job obligations remotely, while keeping up with household and caretaking responsibilities. It seems like an impossible task. No doubt that many men will step forward to level the playing field, but that will not be universal. The confinement situation will make the asymmetric distribution of the unpaid work carried out by women and girls more visible than ever. These special circumstances require all of us to do our part and share the household responsibilities more equally.
The dangers of confinement
A heavier workload is not the worse problem women face during this crisis. For some women and children, the impact can be alarmingly dangerous. The experience of China and Italy suggests that we will spend weeks in quarantine, and the evidence shows the negative psychological effect that confinement can produce in people. Changes in routines, forced isolation, stress and fear, coupled with the anxiety of losing income, will increase tension and conflict in families. In many cases, these conflicts can reach high levels of aggressiveness and lead to episodes of domestic violence. For those women and children who are confined inside the home with the aggressor, and isolated from other family members, friends, or coworkers, home becomes the most insecure place to be. Just look at what has happened in China, where according to Sixth Tone newspaper, cases of domestic violence doubled during the coronavirus health emergency. Countries such as Argentina and Chile have reacted quickly anticipating the problem by expanding the resources available for remote attention and support services for women and children in situations of domestic violence.
Today it’s impossible to identify with certainty all the implications that the coronavirus will have in the region. But, in the process, we must make sure we understand that these impacts will affect different groups of people differently. Hence the importance of keeping women’s rights and needs front and center of our responses and solutions.
The new dynamics and routines that we are living, both in daily life and on a large scale, represent an opportunity to challenge deep-rooted traditions, change paradigms and start doing things differently, both within our homes and in public policy. One of the greatest legacies of this pandemic could be a greater investment in social protection services for the most vulnerable. Another one, equally important, would be a better understanding of the profound implications of gender roles and a greater willingness to change them.