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Human Rights and Women’s Leadership in Latin America in the age of COVID-19

Opening statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

1 December 2020

Dean Maria Cancian,

Dean Joel Hellman,

Fr. Matthew Carnes,



I am pleased to join you in this conversation about human rights and women's leadership in Latin America in the context of COVID-19.

These topics are extremely important to me.

Almost a year into this crisis, we are painfully aware of its tragic impacts.

With almost 58 million confirmed cases worldwide, COVID-19 has claimed over 1.3 million lives.

Jobs and livelihoods are also victims of the pandemic.

We are now looking at a severe recession – the deepest since World War II, threatening to push well over 100 million people into extreme poverty.

The pandemic also threatens the gains made in health and education over the last decade, especially in the poorest countries.

This is a human tragedy.

Latin America is one of the most affected regions in the world.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean,

ECLAC, the region will experience a 9.1% drop in GDP this year.

This could lead to an unemployment rate of around 14 per cent, affecting particularly the most vulnerable, including women, young people and workers in the informal sector.

Poverty will increase to around 40 per cent of the population, exacerbating income inequality.

Even before this crisis, socioeconomic determinants of health, such as inequality, discrimination and poverty, were already major reasons why millions of people lack access to good quality health care and services.

While the virus poses a threat to everyone, people already in vulnerable situations have been suffering the worst from the pandemic, -- both its health and socio-economic impacts.

People living in poverty. People of African descent and members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, whose rights have been for too long affected by structural racism. People with disabilities. Older people, especially those in care homes. Migrants and refugees, among others.

I am concerned about the situation of indigenous peoples. As of mid-November, over 73,000 indigenous people in the Americas have been infected by COVID-19. These include members of 238 indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin. More than two thousand deaths have been recorded.

The global economic downturn has also had an enormous impact on women. More broadly, the crisis could mean the reversal of hard-won gains in women's health, economic participation and equal rights.

Around 62 per cent of the global workforce, over 2 billion people, earn their livelihoods in the informal economy. In many developing countries, women represent the majority of informal workers and are often in more vulnerable situations than their male counterparts.

In Latin America, women are highly concentrated in the low-wage and informal sectors, reaching 83% in Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, with no social protection. This percentage increases for indigenous women.

Almost 40% of women working in the region are employed in areas that have been highly affected by the pandemic, such as tourism, commerce, restaurants, hotels and domestic work. According to a study by ECLAC, UN Women and the International Labour Organization, 93 percent of domestic workers in Latin America and the Caribbean are women. Moreover, women in Latin America perform 73% of unpaid care work. 

As a consequence, women are more likely to be employed in precarious, ill-paid jobs, with no access to social insurance benefits such as paid maternity leave, unemployment insurance or pensions.

It is crucial to have social protection systems that take into account women's unequal burden of unpaid care work through their life cycle.

My Office has been working with several initiatives in this regard.

Let me give you a few examples from South America.

In Paraguay, we are studying the impact of unpaid care work on the realization of women's rights to social protection.

In Peru, we are working with afro-descendant women in Lambayeque and Piura to give voice to their experience of systemic discrimination in access to social protection and decent work.

And in Uruguay we are looking at COVID-19 cash transfers and how they contribute to protect women's rights.

But that is not all, around the world, the pandemic has been accompanied by a surge in gender-based violence.

My Office has received disturbing information about the situation in Latin America, a region with high rates of gender-based violence, including femicide.

In El Salvador, the records of the National Civil Police show a 30% increase in the number of phone calls related to violence against women during the quarantine, between March and June.

In Colombia, according to official data, the number of calls to the emergency line #155 increased 118% during the lockdown period.

And, in the province of Buenos Aires in Argentina, calls to a support hotline increased by 60% at the beginning of the quarantine.

My Office has engaged with the authorities and civil society on these issues. We organised a series of webinars in the Americas with the aim of mapping and addressing institutional challenges to respond to cases of violence against women in the context of the pandemic, including through hotlines and call centres.

It is encouraging to see that some important steps have been taken in the region.

In Costa Rica, the Government has led an information campaign, supported by my Office, that tells all women: #You are not alone.

In Haiti, three safe places for victims of gender-based violence have been established.

In Bolivia, the Public Ministry developed a national campaign against violence called Don't Hurt Your Family, Take Care of It and Protect It, which included calls and whatsapp for geo-referencing of possible cases of violence.

In Guatemala, my Office conducted the social media campaign #MujeresyCOVID19", which provided a platform for women from diverse backgrounds to voice reflections and concerns about the impact of the pandemic on different human rights. My Office also organized a number of digital conversations on "Men under confinement," promoting a reflexion on harmful constructions of masculinities.

I welcome these examples, among many others.

On the ongoing 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, I echo the Secretary-General's UNITE campaign messages on the need to fund services for victims of gender-based violence in COVID-19 response plans and fiscal stimulus packages and ensure flexible funding for women's rights organizations providing essential services.

It is also crucial for political leaders to state a policy of zero tolerance for violence and to organize campaigns to shift the blame from victims to perpetrators. We also need to ensure criminal justice services and to collect data toconstantly monitor their adequacy.


And here, I need to be clear one more time: gender equality is essential to peaceful, just and resilient societies.

Ignoring this would not only be unprincipled, betraying the fundamental promises every country has made to its people, but counterproductive.

As I often say, we cannot meet any challenge playing with just half of the team.

But only 48 countries have integrated measures to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls as essential services in COVID-19 response plans.

And according to the recent assessment by UN Women and UNDP, among over 2.5 thousand COVID-19 response measures taken in 206 countries and territories, less than half are gender-sensitive.

For COVID-19 responses to be gender transformative, women need to be meaningfully involved in their design.  However, a survey of 30 countries showed that, on average, only 24% of the members of COVID-19 task forces and committees were women. In conflict-affected countries, the representation of women on these task forces is even lower, at 18 %.


This is even more difficult to understand and accept when evidence shows that women can be extremely effective leaders.

In fact, of the 12 countries that were the most effective at handling COVID-19, seven were led by women. Women who listened to expert advice, took decisive action, and were effective and compassionate in communicating with their people.

In spite of all progress, women in leadership positions still face discrimination, resistance, suspicion and at times hostility, based on hard-to-die stereotypes about their capabilities and their place in society.

I know this from personal experience.

As someone who has been a lot of "firsts" in my own country - first woman Minister of Defence, first woman Head of State - I faced many challenges.

When I questioned myself on how to establish my authority in a still male-dominated environment, my mother gave me precious advice. She told me not to feel pressured to "act like a man".

I am sure my mother's advice can still be very helpful to many of you today

To take gender equality fully into account, there some concrete steps we should take.

One: Invest in universal and gender sensitive social protection, universal health care and public care services.

Two: Protect labour rights of those working in precarious employments and in informal sectors, and support micro, small and middle enterprises.

Three: Recognize and redistribute unpaid domestic and care work, including in the social protection system.

Four: Prioritize services to respond to gender-based violence and make sure women and girls have access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Five: Ensure women and girls' access to education and eliminate the gender stereotyping that often prevent girls from freely choosing their life and career development in diverse areas of occupations. In addition, all children should have access to age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education.

Six: Bridge the digital divide, including gender digital divide, and ensuring safe and equal access to digital technology for all.

Seven: Support the transition to a healthier, resource efficient, green and circular economy.

Eight: Ensure women's full and equal participation in decision making and policy design.

These are crucial steps. In all fronts, as we have been discussing, the pandemic has been eroding the hard-won achievements on gender equality.