In Brazil, moms are bearing the brunt of pandemic's blow

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Actress Kelly Regina da Silva looks out from the window of her room in a building occupied by squatters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit da Silva had made it out of her working-class favela and landed a leading role in a play showing right across from Ipanema beach. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO – When Sao Paulo city officials put out a call last month for 4,500 public school cleaning jobs, targeting Brazilian mothers affected by the raging pandemic, they were unprepared for the ensuing tsunami. More than 90,000 women applied in just two days.

“It exceeded our expectations, by far,” said Armando Junior, who helped create the initiative, aimed at trying to alleviate skyrocketing unemployment among women and helping schools comply with new COVID-19 protocols for keeping classrooms hygienic and taking students' temperatures.

The overwhelming response offers a glimpse at how Brazilian women — particularly mothers — have been disproportionally sidelined by the crisis. Worldwide, as schools remain closed, many mothers juggle fewer work hours with homeschooling and household duties. Others put their careers on hold entirely, or were laid off.

Brazil is battling a brutal resurgence in COVID-19 cases, making it one of the hardest-hit countries in the world. Latin America’s largest nation accounts for less than 3% of the global population, but with an average of 2,400 deaths each day, it accounts for a quarter of daily COVID-19 fatalities worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Economists say the nation's worsening health and economic crises are further delaying the return of women to the workforce.

“This job fell from the sky for me," said Marilene Paixão, one of the mothers selected for the cleaning jobs. But just a month after Sao Paulo hired the women in mid-February, the city closed its schools again on March 15.

Starting in the 1950s, the participation of women in Brazil's workforce increased exponentially, but the pace began to slow in the early 2000s and plateaued from 2010 onwards. Even before the pandemic hit, only 53% of women were in the labor market, compared to 71% of men.

This is partly due to Brazilian women facing worse labor choices or requiring flexible hours to raise their children, particularly since public schools provide only half days of classes. As a result, a greater proportion of women work in Brazil’s large informal sector or perform low-paying manual work like housemaids, according to Solange Gonçalves, an economist and professor at the Federal University of Sao Paulo.

“All these pre-existing inequalities only got stronger during the pandemic,” said Gonçalves. “In a recession, lower-skilled employees are the first to be made redundant.”