Learning from Colombian mothers’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Mothers of school-age children in Colombia were essential actors in the education system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without their support most children would not have been able to continue their education. However, education policies developed during this crisis had several limitations in considering mothers or female caregivers. This blog focuses on the experiences of mothers in Colombia during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The education systems in Latin America experience several challenges, such as displacement and natural disasters, as illustrated in Figure 1. Moreover, in Colombia, the OECD’s report for 2016 reveals a tremendous learning gap between rural and urban areas; 80% of children in urban areas finish high school, while less than 50% of children in rural areas have this opportunity.  

Figure 1: Latin American Constant Emergencies. Source: UNICEF, LATAM 2020
Figure 1: Latin American Constant Emergencies. Source: UNICEF, LATAM 2020

These learning gaps were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The main policies that were implemented by the Colombian Ministry of Education to face the Covid crisis are illustrated in Figure 2.

COVID-19 Policies and Impact on Women

Education Policies during COVID-19.png
Figure 2: Covid-19 Education Policies.  Source: Author’s creation based on information published by the Colombian Ministry of Education & the Andean Parliament

Like in many places across the globe, women in Colombia were the first workers to lose their jobs, and they experienced increased rates of domestic violence as unemployment and stress levels rose, and as families were forced to spend more time together at home. Despite the fact that the United Nations advised that “gender equality and the empowerment of women needs to be at the core of the [COVID-19] response”, education policies in Colombia had immediate and negative impacts on female members of families. 

School closures led to teachers and school personnel - mostly women - losing their jobs and incomes while in-person classes were suspended. Additionally, school feeding programs were significantly reduced, leaving families who were dependent on this assistance in difficulty to provide nourishment for their children. Furthermore, eventual online and hybrid classes placed additional burdens on the shoulders of caretakers —mostly women — with little or no technology assistance or remuneration for their time spent assisting in this new form of education.

The sacrifices made mostly by women for the sake of their children’s education were taken for granted by the system, and little support was offered to them.

In view of this situation, I decided to find a way to raise their voices and learn from their experiences. For this, I interviewed 15 teachers and mothers in Medellin, Colombia. The interviews were semi-structured, with open-ended questions. In our conversations, mothers reported feeling disoriented, overwhelmed, frustrated, stressed, helpless, disconnected, depressed, sad, anxious. These were combined with precarity, lack of support, work overload, domestic violence, technological problems.  

Survival Strategies and Actions

While government support was limited, mothers were able to form networks with parents associations, neighbors, support groups, NGOs, employers, co-workers, clients, and friends. Through these networks, they received emotional, financial, technological, and educational support. Their projects and strategies to survive a global emergency and education crisis included forms of mutual support, connections for sharing and work in solidarity across households, in neighborhoods, through friendship networks, and in communities. Some of the survival actions developed by mothers included: 

  • Sharing: resources, cash, responsibilities, living spaces
  • Networking: group communication, developing negotiation skills
  • Collaborating: with neighbors, asking and providing help, learning from each other
  • Establishing routines: assigning weekly responsibilities to each member of the family and establishing schedules for activities inside the house
  • Starting new activities: yoga, learning about technology for educational purposes, gardening
  • Planning projects with their children

In their words:

“... we sent alerts for anything that happened to anyone, or homeworks, if the children didn't understand, then somebody would explain to the others, the moms would give warnings to the teachers, it was a whole network.”

“...  my boss gave a PC to us because she had two ... she asked me how the children would study if there was just one cell phone in the house. Then, she told me, "I'll give you one pc, take it home, and then you will only have to figure out the internet connection.” That made it a bit easier for us to manage the education of our four children…”

“[children] came to my house, they did their homework with me... [used] the Internet, they got the information... where I lived, which was a very small alley, we helped each other ...”

Gender-based Complements to Education Policies

From these mothers, we can learn the value of networking, sharing and collaborating in delivering education in emergencies, to complement the measurements of the government. Collaboration in the education system means including various perspectives in our practices, with reciprocity and a horizontal distribution of responsibilities, questioning our positions in relation to others’. This is a way to generate situated knowledge, learning from our everyday battles, to listen to each others’ experiences, to care for the most vulnerable, to learn from the marginalized populations, and to embody education. In the context of an education disruption, situated knowledge would allow education policies to be designed taking into account families’ perspectives. Furthermore, learning opportunities spaces can be used for mind liberation and self-understanding, reflecting on ourselves rather than complying with standards. This type of reflection is a tool to deal with the high levels of stress and domestic violence evidenced during the COVID-19 crisis. 

To conclude, mothers’ challenges during the pandemic came from receiving low levels of support from the State, and high levels of demands in regards to their children. In their experiences, what helped them better navigate the difficult times was working together and helping each other. In this sense, for future emergencies in education, policymakers should take more into account the important role of mothers in the education system in order to design policies that better cover their needs, which would be in turn beneficial for the students themselves. 

This blog is based on a presentation by the author on “Women’s Needs and Experiences Connected to their school-age Children Education during the Covid-19 Emergency in Colombia” at the CIES 2023 Annual Conference. 

About the author

Headshot authorPatricia Grillet has recently engaged in the world of research about education policies. In 2016, she finished a master's degree on teaching and learning foreign languages in Colombia, when her work was focused on decolonizing classroom evaluation practices. She is currently interested in the role that the education system plays in the reproduction of gender inequalities, and in how that affects the response to disruptive emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic or forced migration. She is now based at the University of Hawaii, starting the second year of the education PhD program, following the Global and International track.