As pandemic continues, Latin American women lose more ground | Coronavirus pandemic News

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Bogota – Colombia – Elcy Gomez’s monthly rent check has turned into a time bomb.

The mother of three had just started her own herbal medicine business when the coronavirus pandemic hit. As the COVID-19 lockdowns in Bogota continued, his job evaporated, plunging the family into debt.

With a diabetic husband and children in their early twenties just entering the workforce, the economic burden has fallen on Gomez. For a year and a half, the family has collected small amounts of money, just enough to pay for their small apartment on the outskirts of town and put food on the table.

Gomez’s stress is etched on his 55-year-old face, and his situation has not improved as the pandemic continues.

When her last rent check was due on August 4, she said she didn’t even have the first 100,000 pesos ($ 25) to spend on it. The apartment costs $ 200 per month.

Elcy Gomez had just started her own herbal medicine business when the pandemic hit Bogota, Colombia, and as COVID-19 lockdowns continued, she saw her job evaporate and her family go into debt. [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

“We have nothing at the moment to pay our bills,” Gomez told Al Jazeera. “So far we haven’t been able to get anything.”

She begged her landlord to give her more time to pay, as she had to do regularly during the pandemic.

Gomez was eight months behind paying rent on her last apartment before moving to this one, which is cheaper – but she still struggles to collect the money.

Gomez is not alone. Low coronavirus vaccination rates – combined with some of the highest infection rates in the world – threaten to prolong the economic crisis caused by the pandemic in Latin America and to push the region into what the International Monetary Fund and d other authorities warn could become a “lost decade”.

Structural problems and new risks

Women, who have always suffered from more precarious working conditions, are among the most disproportionately affected by this unrest.

Experts fear the pandemic will not only widen endemic gaps, but also bring women back in years of progress in a region that is already lagging behind on gender equality.

“Along with women workers, the pandemic not only affected them by exacerbating the structural problems they were already facing; it also created new risks, ”said Maria Adelaida Palacio, leader of the Bogota-based feminist research group Sisma Mujer.

The root of the problem is structural inequalities that date back to long before the health crisis, Palacio said.

Elcy Gomez (left) and her daughter, Mariela Alfaro Serna (right) struggled to make ends meet with informal work during the pandemic in Bogota, Colombia [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

The gender pay gap in the region already stood at 17% on average for every hour worked before COVID, according to United Nations figures.

Yet the 30 years leading up to the pandemic were marked by the exponential growth of women entering the workforce in the region.

Gomez was among the women who felt they were making progress by starting her new business and launching social work projects in other parts of the country.

“We [women] were the ones who were going to lead the orchestra, as I like to say, ”she recalls. “But we couldn’t because of the pandemic. It was like an illusion. As if I thought I could do something, but in reality, no.

It was a far cry from where she had been decades earlier, when she landed in Bogota after being forcibly displaced by armed group violence from her home in the Cesar region of northern Colombia.

But more than half of Latin American women hold informal jobs – like selling food on the streets or doing jobs without guaranteed working conditions or stable pay – and do those jobs at a higher rate than their male counterparts. , according to the data. performances by the International Labor Organization.

Women also work in sectors – hotels, restaurants and housework – disproportionately affected by the pandemic at higher frequencies than men.

Left unemployed, many mothers were forced to “bear the burden” of childcare and household chores, effectively reverting to “traditional” roles they had come out of, Palacio said.

Widening gaps

In Colombia, unemployment levels for women were already higher than those for men before the pandemic. In January 2020, 10.4% of Colombian men were unemployed compared to 16.5% of women, according to a report by Sisma Mujer citing data from the Colombian government.

A year later, this gap had only widened. Unemployment has jumped across the board, but while it rose to 13.4% for men in January 2021, it rose to 22.7% for women, according to the report.

Gomez’s 21-year-old daughter is among the women who have felt the effects. Before the pandemic, Mariela Alfaro Serna worked as a home nanny for 500,000 pesos ($ 125) a month, working at least six days a week.

Mariela Alfaro Serna studies while her boyfriend plays video games on her phone at her home on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

She didn’t like the job and he paid poorly, but he kept her afloat while she studied for a certificate in systems engineering.

She quit her job after getting the certificate at the end of 2019, hoping it would mean she could enter the formal labor market.

When the pandemic struck, she found herself unemployed in the industry where she studied or in the domestic work she once depended on.

A year after she left, the family who had hired her as a nanny called her back, offering her work to take care of their child when their restaurant reopened.

But there was a catch: they were only going to pay her what she considered “slave” wages.

“I went back, but it was even worse. I would only earn whatever they wanted to give me, 100,000 ($ 25) per month, or maybe 150,000 ($ 38), ”she described. “Finally, I said ‘no’.”

She took on this job to help her family, as her mother struggled to find small social jobs to pay the rent and debt for her bankrupt herbal medicine business, and her older brother periodically worked as a motorbike driver. Taxi.

Now she makes desserts and sells them to neighbors to help lower bills.

“I try to earn as much as I can per month so that I can give my mom at least half or a little more,” she said.

Still, the family had to move to a cheaper apartment and the internet and electricity were periodically cut off, depending on how the month went.

Cycles of violence

The phenomenon does not occur only in Colombia. Arussi Unda, a well-known leader of Mexican feminist group Las Brujas del Mar, said Mexican women face similar challenges.

She noted that her organization, based in Veracruz, Mexico, has seen more women unable to find work resorting to prostitution and survival sex. Unda also fears the economic blow will continue to fuel domestic violence, which has increased in Colombia – and around the world – since the start of the pandemic.

“Women have fewer resources to break out of cycles of violence,” Unda explained.

Sisma Mujer and other women’s organizations in Colombia have raised similar concerns.

Even as the Colombian economy recovers, the fallout poses a long-term risk for women, warned Palacio de Sisma Mujer, noting that this could easily push women into more precarious working conditions and leave unemployed women behind. the return of men to work.

“The risk is that the equality gap will only get worse, and we have a society where women are getting poorer every day,” she said.

“Great potential for women”?

At the same time, Palacio also sees this as an opportunity.

If regional and international entities act intentionally, the economic recovery could offer “great potential for women,” she said.

“Now with the economic reactivation, what we have to think about is, ‘How do we formalize women’s contracts? How can we ensure that women do not find the same precarious working conditions? ‘ She said.

But Rosa Beltran, a 52-year-old housekeeper, thinks it’s more complicated than that.

Rosa Beltran has seen her cleaning clients in Bogota stop calling or demand that she work for a lower rate after asking them to provide the protections to which she is legally entitled under Colombian law. [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

Beltran started working as a cleaner in Bogota, Colombia in 2008 after her husband left her and she had to take care of three children.

For years she applied for clerical jobs, but was never called back, so she cleaned homes without a formal contract.

It wasn’t until all of Beltran’s work evaporated and the people she had worked with for years didn’t pay her during the lockdowns that she began to learn that she had legal rights. on things like severance pay and access to social security.

When the lockdowns ended and her six long-time clients started calling her again, she applied to receive these benefits.

Half of the families stopped calling. Another told her that she had to reduce her weekly costs from 50,000 pesos ($ 13) to 30,000 ($ 7.50) because they “found someone who could do the job for less.”

“It could be an opportunity, but at the same time, there are a lot of women who are afraid to fight for themselves, to say that we have rights,” Beltran told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes I think society looks at you like you’re below them.”

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