Bogota, Colombia – Elcy Gomez’s monthly rent cheque has turned into a ticking time bomb.
The mother of three was just starting her own herbal medicine business when the coronavirus pandemic hit. As COVID-19 lockdowns in Bogota stretched on, her work evaporated, plunging the family into debt.
With a diabetic husband and children in their early 20s just entering the workforce, the economic burden fell on Gomez. For a year and a half, the family has scraped together small sums of money, just enough to pay for their small apartment in the far reaches of the city and put food on the table.
Gomez’s stress is etched on her 55-year-old face, and her situation hasn’t gotten better as the pandemic wears on.
When her latest rent cheque was due on August 4, she said she didn’t even have the first 100,000 pesos ($25) to put towards it. The apartment costs $200 per month.
“We don’t have anything right now to pay our bills,” Gomez told Al Jazeera. “Until now, we haven’t been able to get anything.”
She begged her landlord to give her more time to pay, just as she’s had to routinely do over the course of the pandemic.
Gomez fell eight months behind on rent payment at her last apartment before moving to this one, which is cheaper — but she is still struggling to scrape together the money.
Gomez is not alone. Low coronavirus vaccination rates — combined with some of the highest infection rates in the world — threaten to prolong the economic crisis caused by the pandemic in Latin America, and push the region into what the International Monetary Fund and other authorities warn could become a “lost decade”.
Structural issues and new risks
Women, who have always suffered more precarious labour conditions, are among the most disproportionately affected by that turmoil.
Experts worry that the pandemic is not only deepening endemic gaps, but also setting women back in years of progress in a region that already lags behind on gender equality.
“With working women, the pandemic not only affected them by worsening structural problems they already faced; it also created new risks,” said Maria Adelaida Palacio, a leader at the Bogota-based feminist research group Sisma Mujer.
The root of the problem comes from structural inequalities that stretch back far before the health crisis, explained Adelaida.
The pay gap between men and women across the region already stood at 17 percent on average for each hour worked pre-COVID, United Nations figures show.
Yet the 30 years leading up to the pandemic were marked by the exponential growth of women entering the workforce in the region.
Gomez was among the women who felt like they were making strides as she launched her new business and began social work projects in other areas of the country.
“We [women] were the ones who were going to lead the orchestra, as I like to say,” she remembered. “But we couldn’t because of the pandemic. It was like an illusion. Like I thought I could do something, but in reality, no.”
It was a far cry from where she had been decades earlier, when she landed in Bogota after being forcibly displaced by armed-group violence in her home in the Cesar region in northern Colombia.
But more than half of the women in Latin America work informal jobs – like selling food on the streets or doing gig work that doesn’t have guaranteed labour conditions or steady pay – and work those jobs at a higher rate than their male counterparts, data from the International Labour Organization shows.
Women also work in sectors – hotels, restaurants and domestic work – disproportionately affected by the pandemic in higher frequencies than men.
Left unemployed, many mothers have been forced to “carry the burdens” of childcare and household duties, effectively returning to the “traditional” roles they had been emerging from, Adelaida said.
In Colombia, levels of unemployment among women were already higher than those of men, pre-pandemic. In January 2020, 10.4 percent of Colombian men were unemployed compared to 16.5 percent of women, according to a report by Sisma Mujer citing Colombian government data.
A year later, that gap had only widened. Unemployment jumped across the board, but while it jumped to 13.4 percent for men in January 2021, it jumped to 22.7 percent for women, the report found.
Gomez’s 21-year-old daughter is among the women who have felt those effects. Pre-pandemic, Mariela Alfaro Serna worked as a live-in nanny for 500,000 pesos ($125) a month, working at least six days a week.
She didn’t like the work and it paid poorly, but it kept her afloat while she was studying to get a certificate in systems engineering.
She left the job after earning the certificate at the end of 2019, hopeful it would mean she could enter the formal workforce.
When the pandemic hit, she was left without employment in the sector she studied or the domestic work she once depended on.
A year after she left, the family that had hired her as a nanny called her again, offering her work to care for their child as they reopened their restaurant.
But there was a catch: they were only going to pay her what she considered “slave” pay.
“I went back, but it was even worse. I would earn only whatever they wanted to give me, 100,000 ($25) a month, or maybe 150,000 ($38)” she described. “Eventually I said ‘no.’”
She took the job to help her family, as her mom struggled to find small social-work jobs to pay rent and the debt from her failed herbal medicine business, and as her older brother would take periodic work as a motorcycle taxi driver.
Now, she bakes desserts and sells them to neighbours to help chip away at the bills.
“I try to earn as much as I can a month so I can give my mom at least half or a bit more,” she said.
Still, the family has had to move to a lower-priced apartment and the internet and power periodically get shut off, depending on how the month has been.
Cycles of violence
The phenomenon is not just happening in Colombia. Arussi Unda, a well-known leader in the Mexican feminist group Las Brujas del Mar, said women in Mexico face similar challenges.
She noted that her organisation, based in Veracruz, Mexico, has seen more women who are unable to find work resorting to prostitution and survival sex. Unda also worries the economic hit will continue to fuel domestic violence, which has increased in Colombia — and globally — since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Women have less resources to get out of cycles of violence,” Unda explained.
Sisma Mujer and other women’s organisations in Colombia have raised similar concerns.
Even as Colombia’s economy recovers, the fallout poses a long-term risk for women, warned Adelaida of Sisma Mujer, noting that it could easily push women into more precarious working conditions and leave jobless women behind as men return to work.
“The risk is that the equality gap only deepens, and we have a society where every day, women become more impoverished,” she said.
‘Great potential for women’?
At the same time, Adelaida also views this as an opportunity.
If regional and international entities act intentionally, economic recovery could hold “great potential for women”, she said.
“Now with the economic reactivation, what we have to think about is: ‘How do we formalise women’s contracts? How do we guarantee that women don’t return to the same precarious working conditions?’” she said.
But 52-year-old house cleaner Rosa Beltran believes it’s more complicated than that.
Beltran began working as a house cleaner in Bogota, Colombia in 2008 after her husband left her and she had to care for three children.
For years, she applied for office jobs, but never got calls back, so she cleaned homes without formal contracts.
It was only when all of Beltran’s work evaporated and the people she’d worked with for years didn’t pay her during lockdowns that she began to learn she had legal rights to things like severance pay and access to social security.
When lockdowns ended and her six longtime clients began to call her again, she asked to receive those benefits.
Half of the families stopped calling. Another told her she needed to drop her 50,000-peso ($13) weekly fee to 30,000 ($7.50) because they “found someone who could do the work for less”.
“It could be an opportunity, but at the same time, there are lots of women that are scared to fight for ourselves, to say we have rights,” Beltran told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes I think society looks at you as if you’re below them.”