Latin American women must be at the center of the post-COVID recovery

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Woman carpenter in Mexico. Woman carpenter in Mexico.

Progress in closing critical gender gaps in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is at risk of reversals today. Girls and women in the region are seeing their opportunities to fulfill their full potential curtailed as a result of the pandemic’s lingering impacts, inflation, emerging war, and increases in climatic risks.

International Women’s Day, on March 8, also marks the second anniversary of the coronavirus-related restrictions around the world. As the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean emerge from the pandemic, it is a good opportunity to make a forceful call to action: women must be at the center of the post-covid recovery.

The past two years have been challenging for everyone, but they have been especially hard for women. They have been the most affected in terms of employment and income losses. A World Bank study using High Frequency Surveys warned last year that women workers in LAC were 44% more likely than men workers to lose their jobs at the onset of the crisis . As the situation evolved, temporarily unemployed workers started to go back to work. But the difference among women and men persisted.

A year later, a new round of these surveys continues to show discouraging results: job losses are markedly (2.5 times) higher for women than for men.

Why has it proven so difficult for women to recover quickly from this crisis? An increase in caregiving responsibilities and a slow recovery of sectors that predominantly employ women partly explain these impacts.

Despite this difficult panorama, I am confident we can reverse this scenario just as we were doing before the pandemic, when countries in the region were making significant progress in narrowing stubborn gender gaps.

Indicators from our Country Gender Scorecards, a resource that benchmarks gender indicators in human endowments, economic opportunity, and voice and agency for 29 countries in LAC, depicts a region that was moving steadily towards a more balanced participation of women and men in decision-making structures. For example, between 2000 and 2020, the share of seats held by women in Bolivia’s national parliament increased from 11.5% to 46.2% —24.4 percentage points higher than in the average low- and middle-income country.

The progress that women have made in terms of educational achievements is indisputable. In many countries, women have narrowed the gender gap in educational attainment and even surpassed men in enrollment and completion rates in secondary and tertiary education. For instance, in Jamaica, girls are slightly more likely than boys to complete lower secondary education (84.7% vs. 83.4%, respectively).

Empowering women

Achieving gender equality requires creative policies and firm commitments. The pandemic appears to have triggered small positive changes in some important dimensions critical to women’s empowerment.  

One important change is that men are participating more than before in household and unpaid care work, initially as a result of lockdowns, but subsequently during the pandemic. Although the share of individuals reporting an increase in the amount of time caring for family is still higher among women than men in Latin America and the Caribbean (53% and 42%, respectively), men’s increased involvement in caregiving offers an opportunity to make sure the shift is permanent, and eventually, the care work is equally distributed.

The pandemic has also accelerated the rate at which countries are embracing digital technologies, which has led to an increase in the prevalence of teleworking by almost ten times in LAC. This form of work offers advantages, especially for women, such as the flexibility of hours and the possibility of reconciling paid work with family and care responsibilities.

Importantly, as more evidence is gathered, governments and the private sector are gaining new insights into how this pandemic is transforming women’s and men’s lives and taking appropriate measures to respond to existing gaps. 

For instance, Colombia enacted measures that prohibit discrimination against women in access to employment ; introduced shared parental leave and increased the length of paternity leave to encourage the sharing of responsibilities for unpaid care work. In Ecuador, Produbanco, a large local bank, is providing new credit to businesses– particularly women-owned micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs)— whose cash flows have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much more can and should be done, for the benefit of all: achieving gender equality could increase human capital wealth by 21.7% globally, and total wealth by 14%. 

The best way to celebrate International Women’s Day is to take immediate action for gender equality now that the worst of the pandemic is over, to ensure a more inclusive and sustainable future. And women should be at the center of that future.


Carlos Felipe Jaramillo

World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean

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