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Culture of Encounter and Today's Poor: Where Is Your Sister?

By: Sylvia Cáceres Pizarro

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter as an Engine of Solidarity

For Latin America, the twenty-first century has been marked by inequality. The economic and social gaps have widened sharply due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plunging millions of people into extreme poverty due to the loss of jobs and income. Although the health and economic crises we are going through have an impact on all kinds of things, it is of particular interest to present the situation of exclusion that affects women in the workplace in Latin America. Their condition is incompatible with the ideal of society from the perspective of human development and faith. The active participation of women will be critically important to the realization of new forms of solidarity and a culture of encounter on a global scale.

In Latin America, inequality is a phenomenon with historical roots and structural dimensions that has been reinforced, among other factors, by the culture of privilege and the denial of the other.

One of the manifestations of the culture of privilege in the workplace is the normalization of employment and wage gaps due to gender. On one hand, work done by men is assigned greater economic and social value, and on the other hand, the predominant health care system almost exclusively assigns unpaid family responsibilities to women. As a consequence, the opportunity for women to exercise their economic, social, and political rights on equal terms with men has been reduced, and they have an uphill struggle to achieve conditions for economic and social empowerment that guarantee a life in accordance with human dignity.

The United Nations agencies (UN Women and the International Labour Organization) are emphatic in pointing out that the pandemic and its effects threaten the meager progress achieved up until 2019, calling on governments and economic agents to emphasize the creation of formal employment and the promotion of comprehensive people-centered policies. This is because, according to the 2021 Labor Overview study on Latin America and the Caribbean, "Latin America experienced the greatest reduction in women's jobs as a result of the pandemic," with 49 million jobs lost between the end of 2019 and mid-2020. Although a significant recovery is noted towards the end of 2021, pre-pandemic levels have not yet been reached. In the disaggregation by gender, the study reveals that unlike the jobs held by men, which have reached pre-pandemic levels, there is still a gap of four million in jobs held by women. This greater impact is explained by greater restrictions on economic activities generally carried out by women–for example local commerce and services–as well as the feminization of informality, primarily in domestic work. With regards to income distribution, the disparities are consistent with the evolution of employment. Monetary poverty levels have increased ostensibly so that, at the end of 2021, the percentage of households without labor income has increased, exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

Reading the signs of these times of pandemic and the evidence noted reveal to us that the poor of this time have a woman's face, predominantly. Some have had to take on high-risk jobs during the pandemic, for example nursing, cleaning, and care for relatives, some of it voluntary. Others, due to the force of the facts or by the will of those who hold positions of power and deliberately transgress the principles of equity, are thrown into conditions of depravity, plunged into situations of poverty, exclusion, and sometimes violence and death.

This situation of sin that Gustavo Gutiérrez defines as “egoistic withdrawal of oneself… refusing to love others and, therefore, the Lord himself” should lead to questioning one’s conscience insofar as it breaks the fraternal coexistence to which we are called as creatures of God the Father. In light of the situation of women today we might paraphrase the searching question the Lord addressed to Cain in the Book of Genesis as “Where is your sister?”

From an ethical and faith perspective, we must build an ethic responsible, personally and collectively, to the situation of women, motivated by solidarity–one that makes it possible to remove sin, based on attentive listening, understanding the heterogeneity of the causes of inequality that affect women in the workplace, and building new codes that guarantee awareness on a global scale.

We are called to banish the culture of denial of the other and build a culture of encounter in dialogue with economic elites, governments, and multilateral organizations, motivated by common interest. Pope Francis reminds us in the encyclical Laudato Si that "Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life” (n. 189).

Reversing the exclusion and poverty that affect women in Latin America is an action that cannot be postponed in light of the empirical evidence of tens of millions who have lost their jobs and of households that find themselves in extreme poverty. This situation represents a situation of sin that constitutes a denial of love for God and for the poor of today (Matthew 25). For this reason, it is up to us to correct Cain's response – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – and to take responsibility for promoting transformative actions, inclusion, and the full participation of women, creating a culture of encounter that recognizes women’s contributions as workers and mainly as human beings, to the development of our peoples with equity and justice. There are no possibilities for real encounter without valuing the dignity of women and their role in our society.