Silvia Muñoz lost her job as a domestic worker in Lima; Yolanda Chambi had to close the sale of her traditional costumes on Lake Titicaca: the pandemic aggravated labor gender inequality in Peru and in the rest of Latin America, where more than four million women still have not regained employment.
The pandemic forced many women to stay home to care for their children when daycare centers and schools closed, or to care for sick family members.
Some who were able to return to work found themselves with lower wages and others were forced to join the ranks of informal trade, which is widespread in the region and especially in Peru, the country with the highest mortality rate in the world from COVID.
After the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020, “there was no more work, there was nothing,” says Muñoz, 65, with resignation, in his modest home in Villa María del Triunfo, a working-class municipality in Lima.
1,000 kilometers away, Yolanda Chambi suffered a similar fate.
“We lost all our economic income,” says this 45-year-old designer and embroiderer who sold and rented traditional Andean clothing in the city of Puno, on the shores of Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.
The costumes were purchased by locals for the festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria, a massive celebration with music and Andean dances that takes place every February 2 and has been suspended for two years due to COVID.
Since she could no longer pay the rent for her house-workshop in Puno, Chambi had no choice but to move with her four children to relatives’ house in the countryside, where they grow beans, potatoes and other vegetables to survive.
Several countries in the region provided unemployment benefits in 2020 and 2021, but in Peru this benefit reached few pockets due to the high labor informality (more than 70%) and the low bank penetration, particularly of the poorest.
Throwback a decade
“The crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic in the labor markets of Latin America and the Caribbean had a greater impact on women” and caused “an unprecedented setback in gender equality at work,” says the International Organization of Labor (ILO).
As of 2020, unemployment for women in the region has remained at 12.4%, compared to 8.3% for men. The figures show a rise in gender inequality at work, a bad sign ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.
“Latin America had been walking in the reduction of those gaps, of those indicators, [pero] the pandemic more or less delayed us to the indicators of ten years ago”, said the head of the ILO for the Andean countries, Ítalo Cardona.
He explained that, in addition, the pandemic hit many sectors that traditionally employ women: provision of services, hotels, tourism and the informal commerce system.
The return of Latin American women “to the labor market is much slower than that of men,” Cardona said.
As a result of the pandemic, Daysi Falcón, 34, lost her job as an administrative assistant in a manufacturing company in Lima and now sells plates of food to acquaintances. She said that her relatives were “falling one by one with COVID” and she spent entire months taking care of them.
According to the ILO, 24 million women lost their jobs due to the pandemic in Latin America and more than four million are still out of work.
A similar number of men lost their jobs in the region, but only half a million remain unemployed.
“I feel helpless”
For other women, the pandemic is synonymous with lower wages. Silvia Muñoz, who has to support her sick husband, was able to resume her work as a domestic worker a few months ago, but only four days a week.
And now salaries have dropped by up to 30%: he went from earning the equivalent of about US$25 for a full day to about US$17.5.
“You have to accept it, because suddenly there is someone behind me who charges less,” says the sixty-year-old resignedly. “I feel powerless, because age is advancing, the strength that one has is already weakening, and when one is older, there is no retirement.”
On Lake Titicaca, embroiderer Yolanda Chambi sees no end to her problems.
“The holiday continues to be suspended, our economy continues to be suspended, we do not have any type of income,” he laments.
Now, with the help of her children, she sells breakfasts at the access crossing to the town of Ácora, 30 km from Puno.
Ricardo is a renowned author and journalist, known for his exceptional writing on top-news stories. He currently works as a writer at the 247 News Agency, where he is known for his ability to deliver breaking news and insightful analysis on the most pressing issues of the day.