Isabel Oriol Llonin
Solo el pueblo ayuda al pueblo
How Chilean women are coping with the pandemic
In October 2019, civil unrest took place in Chile. Initially led by students protesting the rise in the public transportation fare, the social movement grew into demands for structural changes to fix the deep social and economic inequalities that permeate all across the country.
When COVID-19 hit Chile, protests slowly disappeared. But with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the inequality that led to civil unrest is now more present than ever. Just like in many other countries of the world, the crisis has exposed and exacerbated systemic issues, including deep gender inequality.
The gendered impact of the crisis
Like many other Latin American countries, Chile has seen a dramatic increase in gender-based violence since the lockdown began. According to the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, there has been a 63% rise of calls to the Violence Against Women Orientation line during the lockdown and a 119% increase in calls to the police’s special line for family matters.
The government has taken some action to deal with the increase in domestic violence: they created an additional WhatsApp number available 24/7 and enabled an online chat for victims. Additionally, following the initiative of countries like Spain and France, Chile also implemented a code word at pharmacies to help women discretely report domestic violence by asking for a ‘Mask 19’. However, the government is yet to release information about the effectiveness and impact of the measures.
But domestic violence is not the only area where gender inequality has deepened. Unemployment in Chile has increased to 11.9% in May 2020 and the labour participation rate shows a significant setback for women. In January 2020, 53.3% of women were active participants of the country’s workforce, by March it was only 47%. According to statistics, this has set Chile back 10 years in terms of women’s incorporation into the workforce.
However, the issue is not just whether women are employed, but also the type of jobs women occupy. Women are overrepresented in irregular and/or precarious jobs, such as domestic workers or street vendors. These occupations also have a high percentage of migrant women. One in three domestic workers, for example, is a migrant. These occupations have been hardly hit by the crisis: either by the lockdown conditions or the high-risk of contagion.
Additionally, women make up 71% of healthcare workers. Many of them have occupations that require direct contact with COVID-19 patients. Up until September 2020, Chile had over 400,000 confirmed cases, one of the highest numbers of confirmed cases in the region. Between the overrepresentation of women in occupations that require direct contact with others and the rising number of cases in the country, women and migrant workers have a higher risk of contracting the virus while at work.
A government more concerned about optics
While the government has implemented some measures to lessen the impact of the crisis on women, gender inequality persists. For example, police continue to struggle to meet the rise in calls concerning domestic violence. Between COVID management and the rise in cases of gender-based violence, the judicial system is either paralyzed or very slow to respond to reports. Some victims claim that police have advised them to ‘ask help from neighbors’ because they cannot respond to every call.
According to the data of the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, they have received on average 600 calls, 150 WhatsApp messages, and 40 chat messages per day. However, no data has been disclosed on how many cases proceeded to a legal report or how many people received more tangible help after contacting the authorities through these channels. Additionally, activist groups have tested the efficiency of the ‘Mask 19’ initiative by going into pharmacies and requesting a ‘Mask 19’. The result was pharmacy staff replying “we are out [of Mask 19]”.
Critics have pointed out that the government’s inability to respond to this crisis is partly due to a lack of resources, but also to a government that is more concerned about optics rather than efficient measures. This can be true given the political context of a highly-criticized Piñera government and a Ministry of Women and Gender Equality that has been struggling for legitimacy. Between March and June 2020, two ministers resigned from their position due to heavy backlash for their appointment and their subsequent actions as head of the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality.
Women are stepping up to the challenge
Historically, around the world, women take on a higher number of domestic tasks and care work than men. Before COVID-19, in Chile women worked on average 41 hours a week on domestic chores and care work, compared to 19 hours per week on average for men. Just like in many other countries, the lockdown has represented additional work for many women who now have to juggle between working from home, children’s education, domestic chores, and caring for others. But despite the already existing imbalance at home, women in Chile have also turned to care for the community.
The economic consequences of the crisis have been devastating, especially for the already impoverished communities. In many areas of the country, there is a shortage of food, medicines, and other basic necessities. This is not the first time that the Chilean government has failed to guarantee a minimum standard of living to its people. However, just like in the 70s and 80s and more recently with the October social unrest, communities -mainly led by women- are organizing ‘ollas comunes’ (in English ‘communal cooking pots’) to survive the hard times.
Under the motto “solo el pueblo ayuda al pueblo” (“only the people help the people”), women across the country are collecting food donations, gathering to cook, and then distributing it for free to people in their community who cannot afford it. Trying their best to comply with the sanitary measures under COVID, the women organizing ollas comunes have had to endure the harassment of police and health inspectors in order to continue feeding their communities.
Moreover, in different communities women have organized support networks. For example, in the metropolitan area of Santiago, these networks regularly check-in with the elderly in their communities. As one of the high-risk groups, many elderly people cannot leave home and help to get medications, prescriptions, and food. And all across the country, women have also organized the collection and distribution of menstrual hygiene products. In some areas, women networks have been put together to help those who face domestic violence and have not received help from the authorities.
Whether by putting in the work at home, educating children, feeding the community, being each other’s support network, or caring for the elderly, Chilean women in this pandemic are stepping up and fulfilling some of the roles the authorities are either unable or unwilling to fulfil. But rather than falling into the trap of praising women’s selflessness, it is imperative to hold the government accountable and demand better.
 Presidencia del Senado. Agenda Género Covid-19. Covid-19 Gender Committee, Senate. June 2020. pp 16.
 Ibid. Pp 15.
 El mostrador. ‘No levantar sospechas’: organizaciones sociales y de mujeres crean mecanismos de denuncia ante múltiples violencias que sufren las mujeres en contexto Covid-19. 26 June 2020. www.elmostrador.cl