Latin America: Violence Against Young Women Worsened During COVID-19

By Carina Cione*

Young women gathering together in Cali, Colombia / Universidad del Valle / Creative Commons license

A research and practice-oriented initiative coordinated by la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) of Costa Rica has confirmed that the harmful impact of systemic violence and marginalization on the lives of vulnerable women in Latin American cities has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vidas Sitiadas (Besieged Lives) project corroborated widespread anecdotes about the depth of the vulnerability of young women and mothers to gender-based violence, intimidation, and discrimination – in both public and private spaces – in the region. Women are targeted by gangs in their communities, and by masculine family members or partners behind closed doors in their homes. Often merely because of the neighborhoods in which they live, they suffer from systemic exclusion – shunned by society and excluded from much of their countries’ economic, social, and political lives.

  • The Vidas Sitiadas project found that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems. State-imposed quarantine measures confined families to close living quarters, and the burdens on mothers and sisters to keep the home running and to care for the ill multiplied. Loss of family income brought stress and conflict more deeply into homes, worsening already-unstable family dynamics.
  • The pandemic also reduced women’s economic independence. In 2020 and 2021, opportunities to earn money on the formal and informal market evaporated. Neighborhoods are less safe, and traveling through gang-controlled areas in Latin America poses increasing dangers for young women. Of 21 young mothers interviewed by FLACSO-Argentina, only 10 had remained employed during the first years of the pandemic. Most had low incomes and were unable to work remotely, which led them to financially depend upon others to make ends meet. That dependence on male family members, partners, and exes led to greater manipulation and exploitation than before 2020.

Through hundreds of interviews and survey responses, project researchers documented that violence, more than any other underlying factor, is what causes the sensation of living a vida sitiada – a life under siege. Across all five country reports, the majority of young women reported being witnesses or victims of abuse in the home as children, which they said had a “very radical impact” on their daily lives. Many were cared for by mothers or grandmothers who were abused and then, in turn, engaged in physical or psychological abuse of them. A large portion of participants’ fathers were absent. Sexual abuse was common, and some women had even witnessed gang-related homicides of family members.

  • Robbery and sexual violence, including harassment, aggressive touching, and rape, in public spaces are frequent phenomena for women. These crimes often force them to avoid certain parts of their own neighborhoods, to forgo essential travel outside the home, and to severely curtail social contact, thus hindering their ability to develop support networks. The Vidas Sitiadas studies reveal even tougher circumstances during COVID-19. In a survey by Universidad del Valle, half of low-income young women said that their communities in Cali, Colombia, have become more violent since 2020. They avoid spending time outside of their homes, especially in the early morning hours, but 15-20 percent still feel “very unsafe” on the street in the afternoons and early evenings. This limits their ability to cultivate personal connections and impedes their financial independence.
  • Traveling to work is also a risk. Espacio Público, a think tank, and Arbusta, an information technology company in Santiago, Chile, found that 30 percent of young women who commuted in the first years of the pandemic had experienced intimidation or abuse on their way to work. A third of these women face travel times of 60-90 minutes each way – a long time, especially in a vehicle in which passengers do not feel safe. Women who cannot reach their jobs safely either decide to quit or learn a trade they can master in the safety of their homes.

In addition to death, disease, and economic challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed and even reversed progress some Latin American societies had been making, if haltingly, toward updating gender roles and reducing stigmas pertaining to women’s place in society. In some sectors, it has contributed to the re-normalization of violence in the daily lives of women and girls by making many neighborhoods less safe and putting extraordinary stress on families. Women’s exclusion has deepened as COVID-19 has erased their access to jobs and the stigma of being from dangerous neighborhoods further reduces their prospects.

  • The Vidas Sitiadas project, coordinated by La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, examines several efforts launched in recent years to begin addressing the underlying systemic causes of the challenges facing young women in these societies. They focus on giving them a chance to get a job, to learn work and personal skills, and to build the personal confidence to improve their lot. Advocates face the usual obstacles to calls for resources to address the big problems, including systemic economic inequity, the epidemic of social violence, and the residual culture of gender discrimination. But the Vidas Sitiadas initiatives have demonstrated that at least modest steps can be made to help women overcome the violent and manipulative environments in which they live.

August 4, 2022

*Carina Cione is Program Coordinator at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies. For additional information about the project undertaken by FLACSO-Costa Rica and its partners, please consult the Vidas Sitiadas website.

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