#CuarentenaSinTransfobia: COVID-19 and the gender binary in Latin America

#CuarentenaSinTransfobia: COVID-19 and the gender binary in Latin America

Image by Philippe Beliveau on Unsplash

In April 2020, certain Latin American countries implemented an unnecessary and highly restrictive measure that assigned women- and men-only mobility days as a response to COVID-19. This restriction excludes and fosters discrimination against trangender and gender non-conforming people, promotes dangerous situations and violates their human rights. Five months later and despite the many cases of abuse that have been recorded since its implementation, the Republic of Panama is the only one to remain with this discriminatory policy in place.


Ever since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, governments have been implementing different responses with the hopes to contain the spread of the virus. A few governments in the Latin American region have implemented some of the most restrictive and peculiar coronavirus response measures, which raise concerns for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals’ safety and well-being.

On 1 April 2020, about a week after the introduction of confinement measures and with only around 1200 confirmed cases and 30 deaths as a consequence to the virus, Panama’s government was the first to issue a novel confinement restriction that would segregate citizens’ mobility by gender; specifically the gender written on their documentation. This strict measure, initially imposed for a 30-day period, assigned women-only circulation days for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays were allocated exclusively for men’s mobility; on Sundays circulation was prohibited for everyone. Government representatives claimed that this measure, along with additional restrictions that would only authorise circulation for two-hour timeslots corresponding to the last digit of individuals’ national identification cards, aimed to decrease the amount of people present on the streets at any given time, thus helping to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Just a day later, Peruvian president Martin Vizcarra announced similar restrictions. Thus, on 2 April, having seen about 1400 cases and 55 deaths from coronavirus, Peru became the second Latin American country to introduce gender-segregated mobility laws as part of the state of emergency measures taken to address the global pandemic. Like Panama, the southern country authorised each of its citizens to go to supermarkets, banks and pharmacies on only three days of the week; but unlike Panama, this was to be in accordance with their self-identified gender rather than their documentation. However, Peru’s gendered response did not last long; after the initial few days of implementation, the measure was suspended on 10 April.

Although no other country has adopted a nationwide gendered covid response, individuals living in Colombia’s capital, Bogota, as well as in the city of Cartagena, also endured restrictive gender-based mobility measures. From 13 April to 11 May, even days of the month were reserved for women and odd days for men. The decree explicitly stated that transgender people or those with diverse gender identities would be able to circulate on the days corresponding to their self-identified gender. It also mentioned that authorities would respect different gender identities and that police officers would not be allowed to ask for individuals’ national identification cards to identify gender.

These clarifications were made after noting the increase in transgender rights violations and police brutality towards gender minorities which occurred in neighbouring countries as a direct consequence of their populations’ division into strict binary gender groups for authorised movement. However, given Latin America’s alarming records of discrimination and violence towards transgender people – often perpetrated by police officers – it is easy to comprehend why this explicit mention in Colombia’s decree did not protect gender minorities nor prevent rights violations from occurring. In fact, by 5 May, the human rights group Red Comunitaria Trans had received 18 discrimination complaints due to gender-segregated mobility. This included a trans woman in Bogota who reported being stabbed by a man who said she had gone out on the wrong day. On another occasion, a trans man was misgendered, insulted and violently ousted from a supermarket. Another reported incident involved a non-binary person who was detained at the entrance of a grocery store and asked for their identification by a police officer. Clearly, despite efforts by authorities to include gender minorities in the measures implemented, the restriction enabled aggression, intolerance and injustice towards queer individuals. It is worth mentioning that Bogota’s mayor, Claudia López, the first ever lesbian mayor to be elected in Latin America, defended and promoted the gendered response, regardless of the consequences that it had in LGBT+ people’s lives.

Much like the mayor of Bogota, the Peruvian government argued that its decree prohibited discrimination towards transgender people and that police forces had received instructions and were prepared to protect LGBT+ people in any situation that might arise from the gendered policy. However, trans rights violations and several cases of police brutality began to emerge soon after the measure went into effect. For instance, on 4 April, a video was leaked which showed police officers detaining trans women and demanding their documentation. And days after confinement measures began, another video started to circulate on social media platforms which showed Peruvian police officials forcing trans women to perform degrading exercises while repeating the phrase “I want to be a man”.

Although transgender people endured many human rights violations during that short but difficult week, those acts were far from being the reason for the early termination of the gendered response. Besides facilitating underlying transphobia and police brutality, these measures which aimed to decrease human mobility turned out to have the opposite effect. The gender segregation policy highlighted existing and problematic norms pertaining to gender roles within society. Women-only days saw a spike in circulation; grocery stores and local markets became significantly more crowded. Meanwhile, men-only days saw far fewer people going out to buy essential goods. This disparity, clearly linked to the gendered division of household chores which sees women doing most, if not all, of the work in the home, was subjecting women to a higher potential exposure to the virus, and thereby putting their health at greater risk. Women have additionally been at the frontline of the fight against coronavirus, as they comprise the majority of health workers, which again puts them at higher risk. These factors led Flora Tristán, a local feminist organisation, to express its concerns by addressing a letter to the government which demanded that measures be implemented with a gender perspective. A couple of days after the feminist notice, the government recognised its mistake and revoked the gendered mobility segregation.

The polemic and unique restriction, seen exclusively in these three countries, was rapidly cancelled by two thirds of its legislators. However, Panama, the pioneer, the instigator of this measure, still has the restriction in effect at the time of writing, in mid-August. The initially 30-day-long measure introduced on 1 April was suspended on the first day of June, only to be reintroduced in the provinces of Panama and Panama West (where most of the population is concentrated) a week later on 8 June, due to rising covid cases. Still in force, it has no known end date. How is it that a measure which barely lasted a week in another Latin American country can continue to be in place five months after its implementation in Panama? Why is this small country the only one in the entire world to keep this highly restrictive and discriminatory policy? How are women coping with highly congested shopping runs and what are the consequences of this for gender inequality? How are transgender people surviving in this hostile and dangerous context? It is fundamental to raise such questions considering that the current epicentre of the sanitary crisis is precisely the Latin American region.

Back in April, on the very first day of the policy, Bárbara Delgado, a trans woman, experienced the first discriminatory action as a result of the covid response when she was detained by police officers who argued that she was outside on the wrong day. At the police station a justice of the peace kept telling her that she was not a woman, and endorsed her arrest. After three long and degrading hours, and after paying 50 dollars for the violation of confinement measures, Bárbara was finally released. The days that followed saw many other instances of discrimination; thus, after only the first month of the restriction, the Asociación Panameña de Personas Trans had received over 40 complaints related to issues such as entering grocery stores or making an in-person bank transaction.

As a response to the trans rights violations that were taking place, on 23 April Human Rights Watch issued a letter directed to Panama’s president Laurentino Cortizo. The letter mentioned that Peru’s and Colombia’s gendered response decrees contained measures to prevent discrimination for people’s gender identity and expression, and called for action to protect the dignity of transgender people in Panama.

On 11 May, Panama’s government shared that it had ordered officers to avoid all discrimination towards LGBT+ people. However, despite this non-specific statement, officers continued to target and discriminate against transgender people. In light of the continued rights violations, on 13 July Human Rights Watch appealed to the government to either act with greater determination in order to avoid future discrimination, or to eliminate the gendered measure altogether. In response, on 16 July the government issued an additional brief statement affirming their rejection of any hostility, violence and/or discrimination directed towards the transgender community. The statement further called on essential workers, public office employees, public security officers and private security agents to comply with the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and shared phone numbers for anyone experiencing human rights violations, with a promise of investigation and appropriate sanctions for those found guilty of violating human rights.

Despite these belated announcements, it is clear that the gendered model for confinement is already rotten at its roots. The assignment of alternate days for women’s and men’s movement enables the exclusion and erasure of people who do not fall within those two categories. The division exacerbates the focus on binary gender; therefore, it inherently discriminates against trans people and contributes to the invisibility of gender minorities. Even if transgender individuals are no longer subjected to detentions and are allowed to enter supermarkets and other essential businesses, the psychological stressors remain.

The Panamanian government argues that assigning confinement days by gender is the easiest means to reduce the number of people in the streets and to monitor compliance. Yet, there is no need to separate the population by gender to contain the coronavirus; and Peru and Colombia have demonstrated how negative and counterproductive the gendered approach can be. For over 145 days, Panama’s transgender population has suffered through a confinement and a policy which was not designed with them in mind and which does not recognise their existence nor protect their rights. No matter which day trans people choose to go out, no matter how many messages are issued by government officials, the problem and the discrimination will likely continue until this restrictive and unnecessary measure is lifted.

As recently as last year, the CEDAW Committee’s Concluding Observations on the ninth periodic report of Colombia expressed concern over the high prevalence of aggression and discrimination directed at LBT women in the country. The Committee also recommended that the State ensure effective protection of LBT women from violence and discrimination, guarantee access to justice, and implement measures to stop hate crimes. However, exactly a year after these recommendations, Colombia did exactly the opposite and, amidst an international health crisis, implemented measures that promoted and intensified the violence and discrimination already widely present in the country towards sexual and gender minorities.

Even further back, in 2014, the CEDAW Committee had already expressed concerns over discrimination and violence faced by LBT women in Peru, recommending that the State focus on the needs of minority women and guarantee their access to justice and basic services. Yet, much like its neighbour, the State did exactly the opposite in 2020: exacerbating pre-existing discrimination, moving further away from providing them justice, and making access to basic services even more difficult.

Moreover, the CEDAW Guidance Note on COVID-19 asked States to undertake specific measures to address the pandemic’s impact on LBT women. However, these three countries imposed measures that did exactly the opposite. While Peru and Colombia have since eliminated such damaging measures, the Republic of Panama has yet to follow. As a ratified member of the Convention, Panama must suspend the gendered response to coronavirus, comply with the CEDAW recommendations, and implement measures that address the discrimination and violence.


Natalie Russo, a grad student from Panama, recently joined IWRAW Asia Pacific as an intern. She has previous academic background in Psychology and is currently getting a Masters in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action with Gender Studies from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Paris).


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