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Inter-American Dialogue Webinar on the impact of COVID on human rights, especially women’s rights, in Latin America
Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet


Chinese | Spanish

29 April 2020

I really thank you for hosting this webinar and for inviting me, at a time I think we will all remember for the rest of our lives.

As we are all aware, the COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious health crisis in decades, with severe social and economic impacts.

This is a human crisis. A challenge to our societies, our governments, and ourselves. An enormous test of leadership and humanity as well.

We may be physically distant today, but we must stand together.

Overcoming the pandemic demands decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, and for all. 

Last week, as you all know, the Secretary-General released a report showing how human rights can -- and must -- guide COVID-19 response and recovery.

The priority, of course, is to protect human lives. And for the response to be inclusive, transparent and accountable.

Emergency measures that are helping to contain the spread of the disease, and that are necessary, should be temporary and proportional, protecting people and the rule of law.

And it is vital to ensure that no one is left behind – the health of everyone depends on it.

But while the virus does not discriminate, its impacts do.

The pandemic is a risk to us all, but it has disproportionate effects on the health and livelihoods of certain people and communities.

Some of the most vulnerable in the face of this crisis are those already at risk.

The protection of migrants in Latin America, for example, is a source of concern, with reports of deportations, closed borders and new restrictive legislation.

In Guatemala, migrants are returning with no sanitary safeguards in place, including deportees from the United States who have tested positive to COVID-19 upon return.

There are also reports of deportees from Mexico facing increasing stigmatization, with local communities establishing barricades to prevent their return.

Indeed, the pandemic is generating a wave of stigma and discrimination worldwide, against certain national and ethnic groups, those suspected of having COVID-19 and healthcare workers.

We need to work together to push back against this trend, which feeds on misinformation and fear. Awareness-raising campaigns and the dissemination of accurate, clear and evidence-based information are the most effective tools.

In fact, access to information, public participation and an inclusive response are essential to the overall efforts.  This is a time when, more than ever, governments need to be open and transparent, responsive and accountable to the people they are seeking to protect.

In Latin America, social protests for access to basic rights have been met with excessive use of force in some countries. That was the case in Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela in recent demonstrations against food, water and medicine shortages, as well as lack of transparency of the situation.

My office has also received reports of arrests and detention as forms of heavy enforcement of quarantine measures. Let us remember that people deprived of their liberty, including in prisons, are at very high risk of contamination, given physical distancing is difficult to achieve on those places.

In El Salvador, there are reported cases of ill-treatment and excessive use of force. Many people found in breach of home quarantine were arrested and detained in often overcrowded conditions for extended periods, ignoring repeated rulings of the Supreme Court against such measures. Similar procedure has also been seen in other countries of the region, with over 11,000 arrested or detained in Guatemala, 35,000 in the Dominican Republic and 50,000 in Peru.

Although all of these are concerning trends, we have seen positive measures being put in place in the region.

In Peru, the Supreme Court has called on judges to use pre-trial detention only in exceptional circumstances.

Mexico has adopted a law allowing the early release of prisoners.

And following advocacy from my office in Bolivia and Chile, both countries are cooperating on the entry of nationals to Bolivia.

We will continue working with partners in the region to support human rights-based efforts to address the crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic also represents a high risk to women and girls, not due to any inherent vulnerability, but rather to pre-existing discrimination and inequality.

In Latin America, this is particularly evident for women working in the informal sector, domestic workers, indigenous, afro-descendants, women with disabilities, migrants, women with HIV and those of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity.

To better protect all, the response to COVID-19 should consider gender-specific experiences and needs.

Like in past health emergencies, the current crisis has been accompanied by a surge in gender-based violence.

This has been increasingly reported around the world, especially in places where quarantines, self-isolation and other restrictive measures have been adopted.

For victims, access to support can be difficult due to confinement with the abuser or because such services also risk becoming less available.

The situation is no different in Latin American, a region where the levels of gender-based violence, including femicide, are among the highest in the world.

My office has received concerning reports.

In Brazil, the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender for Women’s Rights indicated that cases of domestic violence had increased by 50% during the confinement period.

In the Buenos Aires province, in Argentina, calls to a support hotline have increased by 60% since the quarantine started.

In Peru, women emergency centres and hotlines are working with limited capacity, leaving many cases unattended. 

To address the issue, support services should be declared essential and remain open; accessible systems to alert authorities and protect victims should be put in place; and victims should be informed about available services.

It is encouraging to see some important measures already being taken.

In Argentina, a government campaign allows women to seek rescue in pharmacies, including over the phone, using a particular code that say they are in danger, so they can be rescued.

And in Costa Rica, a Government-led informative campaign, which has the support of my office, is telling every woman: #NoEstásSola, or “You are not Alone”.

I welcome these examples, among many others.

Dear friends,

The full impact of COVID-19 on global and national economies has yet to be felt.

But according to a recent report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, the pandemic will lead to the biggest contraction in economic activity in the history of the region: A -5.3% drop in 2020.  This situation will impact all, but once again women will be specially affected. 

In most Latin-American countries, women are highly concentrated in the low-wage and informal sectors.

Almost 40% of the women working in the region are employed in areas that have really been affected like tourism, commerce, restaurants, hotels and domestic work.

In Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, for example, 83% of women are employed in the informal sector, with no social protection.

Indigenous women are disproportionally represented in the informal economy. Their access to livelihood is at risk and the threat of hunger becoming very real.

In addition, they face barriers to access health care and information. Living in rural areas, many indigenous and afro-descendant women have no access to internet, electricity or public transportation.

My office has also received reports about the limited availability of health-related information in indigenous languages.

This situation is particularly affecting older women.

Moreover, women in Latin America perform 73% of unpaid care work.  With schools closed, they are under additional stress, with risks for their health and well-being. 

In the region, they also represent half of medical personnel and more than 80% of nurses, the highest percentage in the world.

As caretakers at home and hospitals, women are disproportionately at risk of infection.  

Furthermore, overloaded health systems, reallocation of resources and shortages of medical items could undermine the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls.

For example, I have received reports from Honduras on the negative impact of the pandemic on prenatal and post-natal care.

In Guatemala, indigenous midwives, who play a crucial role in their communities, lack basic products to combat COVID-19, including alcohol, gel and soap.

Friends,

Although the challenges posed by COVID-19 in Latin America are indeed grave, we see several promising practices coming from the region

For example, to address the economic impact of the pandemic, the authorities in Costa Rica have taken measures to protect labour rights of women, and reduce credits obligations for projects including youth, women, indigenous, afro-descendants, peasants, migrants, older people and those with disabilities.

In Bolivia, the government granted special leave permits to protect salaries of certain groups, including pregnant women and single parents with children under five years old.

My office is supporting several response efforts in different countries in the region. Some examples include:

Providing technical support to civil society organizations and State institutions that work for the legal defence of women deprived of liberty in El Salvador;

working with indigenous authorities and women organizations, in coordination with the Government, to facilitate access to healthcare information in Panama;

and launching the social media campaign “#MujeresyCOVID19” in Guatemala, which provides a platform to women experts, activists and others to voice their reflections and concerns.

Unfortunately, like in other parts of the world, women and their organizations are not equally represented in the design of COVID-19 responses.

States must take specific measures to ensure that the rights of all women and girls are protected during the crisis.

Of course, everybody’s rights need to be protected. But as we have been discussing, while the virus does not discrimate, the impacts do, and women and girls are disproportionately affected.

My Office has issued guidelines in this regard, including, for example: to ensure that women health workers have adequate access to personal protective equipment and that medical care is available and accessible by all women, including sexual and reproductive health services; to promote equal caregiving responsibilities; and to declare services related to gender-based violence as essential, as I mentioned before.

We have also stressed the critical importance of gender sensitive economic incentives and social safety nets that should reach and empower every woman and girl.      

Friends,

The pandemic is exposing the damaging impact of inequalities, in every society.

Let us be clear: gender equality is not an option, nor can it be cast aside in times of crisis.

It is essential to peaceful, just and resilient societies, as recognized by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

But, also, I have to say this: countries that have women leaders have done so well in the response of the pandemic. They have shown they are decisive, make fast decisions. They also have a very important style of leadership, they are compassionate, but also decisive.

And even though we don’t know how long we are going to be with the pandemic, I hope that it teaches us to look at the world a different way. To see what is relevant, to think of humankind in a different way. To look at political and economic systems that can be really sustainable, to understand the importance of climate action and respecting biodiversity. Many of the last huge pandemics – SARS, MERS, COVID-19 and others are zoonosis.

I also hope this is an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution on women in the world and to give them the opportunities and rights they deserve.

To finalize, gender equality is important and ignoring this would not only be counterproductive, but unprincipled, betraying the fundamental promises every country has made to its people.

When we overcome this pandemic, as we will, we must seize the opportunity of a lifetime: to build back better.

I am confident that it is possible -- if we are mindful of our interdependence, of our equality, and of our equal rights.

If we are mindful that these are global challenges that need all of us, and that the world needs to work together in a collaborative coordinated way.

It shows us the importance of multilateral institutions, that have to deal with global challenges in a global way, and the importance of equality and equal rights.

The United Nations, my office and I are counting on you.

Thank you.