Care on the Agenda in Latin America
In January 2020, Latin America’s leading progressive think-tank, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), laid out its position on women’s care work in the Santiago Commitment, a bold strategy to advance gender equality in the region signed by all ECLAC member states. Enacted at the XIV Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean organised by ECLAC and United Nations (UN) Women, the Santiago Commitment calls on governments to ‘accelerate the effective implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Regional Gender Agenda’ by ‘increasing the allocation of financial, technical and human resources according to national realities, capacities and legislation, gender-responsive budgeting, and monitoring and accountability’ (ECLAC, 2020a).
In part, the Commitment seeks to advance recognition of paid and unpaid care work, and is clearly aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). For example, SDG 5.4 is to recognise care work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family. This informs Clause 26 in the Santiago Commitment, which calls on signatories to:
‘design comprehensive care systems from a gender, intersectional, intercultural and human rights perspective that foster co-responsibility between men and women, the State, the market, families and the community, and include joined-up policies on time, resources, benefits and universal, good-quality public services to meet the different care needs of the population, as part of social protection systems.’(ECLAC, 2020b).
This is an ambitious commitment, informed by contemporary feminist theorising on gender, care and development, which takes an empowering and comprehensive approach to gender and care by centring gender relations and explicitly naming other elements such as the state and market as jointly responsible for providing care, thus situating care as fundamental in both the ‘private’ and ‘public’ spheres. On 6 March, ECLAC reaffirmed its feminist position on care in a briefing note, in which they argued that, ‘it is necessary to move from the culture of privilege to the culture of equality, and place emphasis on new forms of distribution (of time and other resources), incorporating essential aspects for the reproduction of life, such as care work’ (ECLAC, 2020c). If both paid and unpaid care work is properly valued, ECLAC argues, there will be positive outcomes for everyone—and most importantly, women and girls—in terms of education, work and productivity, and welfare provision. In other words, care was firmly on the agenda in Latin America when 2020 began. So, what happened when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the region?
Lockdown and the Care Crisis
When states in Latin America joined the rest of the world in implementing sweeping social distancing measures towards the end of March, the conversation on gender and care remained in the foreground for many governments. Many states in the region have tried to articulate a response to Covid-19 that takes gender into account, and have introduced emergency social programmes aimed at women. However, the response has also fallen short, leaving some of the most vulnerable women in the region unprotected.
It is arguable that social distancing measures have, in many ways, put the health and lives of women and girls at more risk than exposure to the Covid-19 virus itself. This is because while men may be more prone to infection from Covid-19, the socioeconomic and health impacts resulting from social distancing measures fall disproportionately heavily on the shoulders of women and girls. In particular, existing gender inequalities around giving and receiving care (including those related to economic autonomy, gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive health needs) have been exacerbated as a result of states’ policy response to Covid-19 across the world.
At the beginning of the pandemic, progressive regional think tanks in Latin America were quick to highlight the importance of applying a gendered lens to Covid-19 policy responses. For example, in April, the Organisation of American States (OAS) noted: ‘confinement measures seek to protect public health and prevent the collapse of health services; however, their application is not gender neutral. Households have become the space where everything happens: care, education of children and adolescents, socialization, and productive labour, which has exacerbated the care crisis.’ (OAS, 2020: 4). That same month, ECLAC outlined exactly how women’s caring burdens were increasing due to Covid-19, precisely as a result of this sudden confinement to the home. In particular, region-wide school closures and an increased number of ill people (in the context of decades of decreasing investment in health infrastructures in the region), became major social challenges that women inevitably became responsible for, since it was largely women who had to find time to take on these additional caring responsibilities. Drawing on arguments from their earlier policy documents, ECLAC posited that the Covid-19 ‘pandemic has brought to light, in an unprecedented way, the importance of care for the sustainability of life and the low visibility of this sector in the economies of the region, where it is still considered an externality and not a fundamental component of development…[ECLAC] has repeatedly demonstrated [that] it is women who, whether paid or unpaid, bear the greatest caregiving burden’ (ECLAC, 2020d: 1).
Importantly, regional organisations have emphasised that different groups of women experience different levels of risk and vulnerability. Also in April, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) identified the need to recognise ‘axes of discrimination,’ which can ‘subject people…to a higher risk of infection, limit their access to services, undermine broader COVID-19 responses, and exacerbate the underlying inequities’ (PAHO, 2020: 2). Similarly, the OAS argued that ‘the intersection of gender with other conditions of vulnerability exacerbates the negative impact of the crisis; therefore, it is a priority to pay attention to the most vulnerable groups’ (OAS, 2020: 4).
Regional organisations, then, are making the case for recognising the high burden of care that women are facing – with important differences between women – within the wider context of differential gendered impacts of the pandemic. PAHO is asking governments to ‘use the situation as an opportunity to promote the re-evaluation of caregiving roles and transformation in family responsibilities toward co-responsibility and gender equality’ (PAHO, 2020) and the OAS is calling on them to ‘ avoid the sexual segmentation of work – meaning that women are assigned to unpaid work in the home and men to paid public work…with affirmative action measures by productive sectors and public information campaigns’ (OAS, 2020: 13 – 14). ECLAC argues that ‘the current system of economic organizations…is underpinned by care work [and that] this work that women do both inside and outside the home must be made visible and redistributed…between the State, the market and families’ (ECLAC, 2020).
These are powerful arguments. But are governments in the region paying attention?
In attempts to counter the devastating socioeconomic impact of social distancing policies, governments in Latin America have introduced packages of emergency social policies, labour market support for those working in the formal economy and cash transfer relief for those in the informal sector (Blofield, Giambruno, and Filguiera, 2020). Here, on the positive side, although gaps in social provision exist in almost every country of the region, and assistance is generally far below the level needed, the pandemic has inspired the crafting of state infrastructure for redistribution of income in ways that incorporate some gendered concerns (ibid). The response on care, and the care economy unfortunately remains limited, however.
By the end of September 2020, 6 months after social distancing measures began, ten Latin American states had implemented 30 policies between them explicitly related to the care economy. Argentina tops the list with 12 policies; the mode number of policies is 2. Some countries, including Brazil and most of Central America, do not seem to have implemented any special Covid-19 policies on the care economy, although Brazil’s social policy response has been considerable (ibid). Care policies fall into four core categories:
- 9 policies recognise the state’s and community’s role in supporting the delivery of care. They include short-term, time-limited remuneration for those unable to work because of childcare responsibilities; extra remuneration for healthcare workers; and supporting community-based responses to care giving.
- 8 policies exclusively for, or that expressly include, legal protection of domestic workers.
- 7 policies provide exemptions from lockdown / confinement measures to allow caregivers to continue their work.
- 5 information or promotional campaigns that promote co-responsibility of caring between men and women.
Most of these measures were short-term, time-limited emergency responses implemented at the beginning of the pandemic. Six months on, with the region now in a prolonged crisis situation, it is clear that there are important limitations to these policies. Most are informational initiatives or lockdown exemptions, rather than initiatives that recognise the value of care and integrate it substantially into the wider social policy framework. As a result, the care work expected of the most vulnerable women in the region, including migrant women, domestic workers, impoverished women and healthcare workers (with many women falling into several categories) remains insufficiently addressed, and this at a moment when their own care needs are greatest.
Domestic Workers: Vulnerable Women?
The pandemic does not impact on all women equally. It is vitally important to highlight why particular groups of women are referred to as’ vulnerable’ and unpack what is invisibilised in such narratives and the image of the helpless ‘third world woman’ (Mohanty, 1991). With the consistent emphasis on the discrimination that women and girls deal with, it is easy to forget global, human factors that perpetuate this discrimination. Women and girls who are ‘vulnerable’ in socioeconomic or policy-making contexts are not inherently ‘vulnerable’ individuals, and many are active agents for change, including during the pandemic. The example of paid domestic work illustrates these points well.
Structural Discrimination, Racism and Classism in Paid Domestic Work
Despite ‘mak[ing] all other jobs possible, and guarantee[ing] the care and wellbeing of the most precious things we have: our loved ones and families’ (ONU Mujeres, 2020), paid domestic work is hugely undervalued. Domestic workers across Latin America face multi-layered discrimination and lack basic legal and social protection, particularly in countries that have still not ratified ILO Convention 189 on domestic work. Over three-quarters of domestic workers in Latin America carry out their work on an informal basis, meaning they are unlikely to have written contracts and the social security provisions which come with formalised labour. In the context of Covid-19, where risks to employment and health are exacerbated, these factors leave domestic workers particularly vulnerable. Research and testimony from domestic workers’ unions across Latin America shows that high numbers of domestic workers have been fired without pay or redundancy packages during the pandemic, leaving them without access to income or health coverage. Faced with the prospect of losing these essential things, others have either chosen to risk continuing working, or been obliged to do so, often in exploitative and risky working conditions (Acciari, 2020; Juárez, 2020). Two examples in Brazil highlight not only the risks faced by domestic workers during the pandemic, but, crucially, the social and structural contexts that breed these risks.
Cleonice Gonçalves was one of the first people to die from Covid-19 in Brazil. This was ‘not by coincidence’, argues Acciari (2020), but instead the result of a perfect storm of inequality, racism and structural discrimination. Cleonice was ‘a black woman, aged 63, diabetic, leaving [sic] in the city of Miguel Pereira in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Her employer, a resident of the upper-class area of Leblon, had just returned from a trip to Italy and did not inform her employee that she had been contaminated. One survived, the other did not’ (Acciari, 2020: 121). Here, Acciari is drawing attention to the deadly disparity in privilege between the women. Another early casualty was five-year-old Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva, a black boy who was accompanying his mother at work due to national school closures. He died after being left alone by his mother’s employer, incidentally the wife of a politician, who has been released on bail. Miguel’s mother has commented: ‘If it was the other way round, I wouldn’t be [bailed], because I’m poor’ (Santana in Phillips, 2020). Because of the race and social class differences of the employer and employee, the case exposes ‘the unacceptable neglect of a black child, but also an ugly reminder of Brazil’s deeply rooted racism and slave-owning past’ (Phillips, 2020).
Domestic Workers’ Activism during Covid-19
Domestic workers’ unions and activist organisations in Latin America were thriving long before the pandemic, and they are continuing to promote domestic workers’ rights now through campaigning and direct action supporting other domestic workers.
In Mexico, national and local unions are supporting those domestic workers who have been fired without salary or the redundancy pay to which they are legally entitled, or those who have been forced to continue working, doing extra hours without pay or working without adequate safety protection (Juárez, 2020). Marcelina Bautista, the founder of the country’s first national domestic workers’ union, has also participated in dialogue with the government to demand better protection for domestic workers during the pandemic. Feminist collectives have organised at the local level to provide food and other necessities to women in precarious employment, including domestic workers (Ventura Alfaro, 2020).
In Brazil, the national domestic workers union FENATRAD launched a campaign that received parliamentary backing, demanding adequate protection for domestic workers who had to continue to work, and paid leave for those who could not. The union also supports domestic workers with practical support such as guidelines on protecting themselves from the virus and negotiating with employers on Covid-19-related pay and labour conditions, supporting the claim emergency state benefits to which they are entitled, and distributing food baskets to unemployed domestic workers (Acciari, 2020: 124-125).
In Guatemala, the domestic workers’ union ATRAHDOM has led efforts to support domestic workers and other low-income women in situations of risk by providing them with basic food and hygiene supplies, PPE, and even by organising digital cash transfers. Presently they are working on helping their members gain access to basic health coverage (ONU Mujeres, 2020).
It is domestic workers’ activism, along with that of their allies in academic and policy-making circles, that has ensured paid domestic work remains on the agenda at national and regional level. These actors have used their existing organisational strength to continue their fight to demand fairer working conditions and state protection during the Covid-19 crisis. The existence of the eight policies named above that expressly protect domestic workers is both testament to their efforts and the particularly fragile conditions in which they continue to work. The fact that on-the-ground support from domestic workers’ unions to their colleagues is still required to supplement state offerings demonstrates the limitations of these hard-won policies.
The Complexities of Care: Why Women need Intersectional and Holistic Care Policies
The example of domestic work is one of the clearest ways that we can see the differences of experience among women during the Covid-19 pandemic. Differences in social class, ethnicity, race, dis/ability, migrant status, rurality, and age all figure in who cares vs. who is cared for. While regional organisations are beginning to recognise the importance of these differences, it is not always so clear in national level discussions about women and Covid-19, and much less so in policy. Instead, we still find women treated as a homogenous and vulnerable group. Stronger, intersectional and intercultural policies are essential in order to best empower and support women who face axes of discrimination that significantly disadvantage them, such as their ethnicity, age, migrant status or socioeconomic situation, all of which inform their gendered experience.
While paid domestic work is finally beginning to find its way into policy, we must remember who still remains invisibilised. For example, we still do not know even how many girl domestic workers exist, and as such, we know little about their experiences, before and during the pandemic. We know that adult domestic workers face exploitative conditions and restrictions to their autonomy; for girls, the lack of control over their lives and work is likely to be even more acute (Lines, 2018). Furthermore, in most literature on care and Covid-19, the focus is on the extra burden of care for those who are caring. As we have argued here, recognising this additional care burden in policy is incredibly important. Yet policies designed to strengthen and empower those who are cared for are also urgently needed.
Finally, the burden of care for domestic workers does not stop in their professional role taking care of other households. They also have caring responsibilities in their own homes, and, as domestic worker unions and other women’s organisations show, often it is domestic workers who take on the responsibility of caring for their co-workers in the absence of structural, state support. We need to acknowledge the many and varied ways in which care is consistently carried out, and by whom. Care must be valued as a fundamental part of the productive economy, with responsibilities and recognition shared between families, individuals, the state and community.
Women’s care work is now on the agenda at the regional level and, to a lesser extent, at national level in Latin America. Arguments in favour by regional organisations are bolstered by strategic documents such as the Santiago Commitment, and align with the commitments governments have taken by adopting the UN Sustainable Development Goals and thus making the assertion that care must be understood as a fundamental, essential part of the economy, with responsibility to provide care to be shared equally between genders, the community and the state. At the national level, while attempts to include gender and care in Covid-19 policy response are an important step forward, policies fall short in the practical and sustainable protection they offer the most vulnerable women, including domestic workers. Despite this, many vulnerable women continue to organise to demand policy change and are stepping in, even in the midst of the pandemic, to offer practical support to each other when government policies are limited. It is essential that states in the region now follow the advice on care laid out by progressive regional organisations in order to create comprehensive, sustainable policies that foreground care as a valuable and essential part of the economy, now and in the post-pandemic world.
Images in this piece and more creative, feminist responses to Covid-19 from Mexico can be found at www.lasiluministas.art
Acciari, L. (2020). Care for those who care for you! Interface 12 (1) pp. 121 – 127
Blofield, M., Giambruno, C. and Filguiera, F. (2020). Policy expansion in compressed time: Assessing the speed, breadth and sufficiency of post-COVID-19 social protection measures in 10 Latin American countries. United Nations: Santiago
ECLAC (2020a). Latin American and Caribbean Countries Approved the Santiago Commitment, Which Seeks to Accelerate Efforts to Fulfill the Regional Gender Agenda. Available at: https://conferenciamujer.cepal.org/14/en/news/latin-american-and-caribbean-countries-approved-santiago-commitment-which-seeks-accelerate
ECLAC (2020b). The Santiago Commitment. Available at: https://conferenciamujer.cepal.org/14/en/documents/santiago-commitment
ECLAC (2020c). Note for Equality N°30: The care economy as an accelerator of the structural change with equality. Available at: https://oig.cepal.org/en/notes/note-equality-ndeg30-care-economy-accelerator-structural-change-equality
ECLAC (2020d). The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the care crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean. Available at: https://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/45352/4/S2000260_en.pdf
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ONU Mujeres (2020). Valorar el trabajo que sustenta a familias y sociedades: La demanda de las trabajadoras domésticas de América Latina. Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/es/news/stories/2020/9/feature-value-domestic-workers-across-latin-america
Phillips, D. (2020). Five-year-old’s fatal plunge provokes hard questions about Brazil’s racism. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/12/brazil-black-boy-fall-death-racism
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Tallulah Lines and Jean Grugel
Quintana Roo, Mexico
Jean Grugel is Professor of Development Politics and Director of the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre (IGDC) at the University of York, UK. She has written widely on Latin American political economy, including on post-neoliberalism and the left. Her current research focuses on gender and global health, funded by Research Councils UK. Jean has also served as trustees on a number of NGOs, especially in the field of childhood and has advised the EU and UNICEF on the implementation of children’s rights. Recent publications include articles in Health Research Policy and Systems, European Journal of Politics and Gender, Development and Change, World Development, Human Rights Quarterly, Development Policy Review, Citizenship Studies International Affairs. Twitter: @York_IGDC
Tallulah Lines is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of York and Research Associate at the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre. Her research interests are decolonial feminism, social movements and human rights. Her Masters by Research in Women’s Studies focussed on domestic workers in Playa del Carmen Mexico. Interested in using art to communicate academic research, Tallulah recently created a public mural to share the results of that research in Mexico. She is co-founder of feminist art collective Las Iluministas.