Washington, D.C. July 31, 2020. – In celebration of the International Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women’s Day on July 25, women activists working to promote and defend the rights of Afro-descendants in Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia gathered in a webinar to discuss key issues faced by Afro-descendant women during the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion highlighted the multiple forms of violence and discrimination on the basis of race, socioeconomic class, and gender faced by these women.
The webinar entitled “Racism and Afrodescendant Women: Post-pandemic Projections” was moderated by Elvia Duque, Program Officer at the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality). The webinar was well-attended by the public, through the Zoom platform (70 participants) and through Facebook Live on Race and Equality’s page (76 shares, 35 comments from different parts of the region.) As of Friday, the Facebook stream had reached 6,396 people, according to the platform’s statistics.
An adverse environment
Echoing the words of Brazilian professor Joana dos Passos, Dr. Elia Avendaño – a PhD in Law and researcher at the Cultural Diversity Studies Program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) – said “Racism is a permanent pandemic” and pointed out that Mexico is facing the COVID-19 pandemic under many disadvantageous situations. At the beginning of the year, the President abolished Seguro Popular, a public health insurance program which covers 52.8% of Mexico’s Afro-descendant population. Dr. Avendaño explained that the repeal was done to make way for the new Institute for Health and Well-being (INSABI), but it won’t be fully operational until the end of the year.
According to Dr. Avendaño, structural inequalities in Mexico place economically-deprived populations and those with limited access to health services at a greater risk of contracting the disease. This includes indigenous persons and Afro-descendants. “To date, we have recorded 42,645 deaths related to the pandemic, but we do not know how many of those who have died were Afro-descendants. Our health care system is supposed to treat everyone who needs help, even if they do not have a health plan. However, preference is being given to those who have a greater probability to survive, and in this case, those with a history of having suffered from inequality, marginalization, exclusion, and poverty are not included,” she said.
Sagrario Cruz Carretero, an anthropologist and investigative professor at the Universidad Veracruzana (University of Veracruz), focused her remarks on the evidence of the rich African heritage found in Mexico to counter the denial of this reality by many sectors of society today, which result in a lack of adequate policies for Afro-descendant communities. “Why is there a denial of Afro-descendant or Black identities in Mexico? This is because of racism and for fear of losing white privilege, which are tools that allow others to obtain better opportunities in life,” according to Prof. Cruz Carretero.
Meanwhile, Astrid Cuero – an Afro-Colombian leader of feminist and anti-racism movements at the Grupo Lationamericano de Estudio, Formación y Acción Feminista (Latin-American Group of Feminist Study, Training, and Action – GLEFAS in Spanish) stated that “the pandemic is racialized.” In the case of Colombia, the pandemic has given way to a resurgence of violence in rural areas, and an increase of murders of Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders, thus showing the State’s shortcomings when it comes to protecting fundamental rights.
“Many Afrodescendants don’t have stable jobs and have to live off of the informal economy. The state has not provided dignified and humane ways to allow this population to isolate themselves during the pandemic. How can you expect a poor, Black person to self-quarantine if they have no other option but to go out and work? This is how they are exposed,” says Cuero, who also emphasized that Afrodescendant populations not only are vulnerable to COVID-19 but are also susceptible to violence from paramilitary groups.
Tanya Duarte, who is Afro-Mexican and is the director of the Proyecto Afrodescendencia México (Afro-descendant Mexico Project), assessed that “being able to survive self-quarantine is a matter of privilege and social class.” For example, many families are having to withdraw their children from school because they cannot afford the cost of online classes. She also indicated that racism is strongly affecting migrant Afro-descendant populations that reside or pass through Mexico. These populations are marginalized as a result of the COVID-19 response or end up exposed to organized crime.
Urgent policy action is needed
Joanna Wheterborn, an Afro-Guatemalan member of the Advisory Council of the Network of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, and of the Diaspora Women (RMAAD in Spanish), indicated that isolation due to the pandemic has correlated with a disproportionate increase in levels of gender-based violence within homes. Wheterborn called attention to the need to update the statistics on the Afro-descendant population in Guatemala and in other parts of the region – “if they do not count us, they do not see us; and if they do not see us, they will not care for us.”
The panelists concluded that racism is a pandemic that plagues Afro-descendant populations, and that the responses to COVID-19 should be addressed with the understanding that Afro-descendant women are one of the priority groups to be included in the programs and plans of the State. In addition, they highlighted the need for accurate disaggregated data by population, including race/ethnicity and gender, to present adequate solutions for Afro-descendant populations.
At the end of the conversation, Elvia Duque urged the public to continue making use of regional and international mechanisms such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Afro-descendants & Against Racial Discrimination, as tools that amplify the voice of Afro-descendant women outside national dialogue – where often their voices are ignored and silenced.
Watch the webinar again here: