In just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our world, creating an array of new challenges on every continent while reminding us of persistent inequalities. In many places, the pandemic threatens to reverse recent gains made to advance women’s economic empowerment.
To understand why, meet Olivia Massarula. Olivia owns a small grocery shop called Gemeos Falsos in Maputo, Mozambique, and is a mobile banking agent. When she first started, she often lacked the capital she needed to properly stock her shop and the business skills training to successfully manage it. As a result, the business was floundering.
But Olivia was determined to fix that, so she enrolled in the Business Women Connect program, a partnership between TechnoServe and the ExxonMobil Foundation, where she learned key entrepreneurship skills and increased her average daily sales by 240%. “Now that I see my shop as a sustainable business and career path, I am dreaming big,” she commented at the time.
But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, life became more difficult for her, just as it did for many other micro-retailers, who are primarily women. Travel restrictions made it more costly and time-consuming to stock her shop, as she has had to bring in products from wholesalers outside her neighborhood. Social distancing measures have also reduced the number of customers that visited, reducing her sales and banking commissions. Her sales fell by more than 50%.
Olivia is not alone in facing difficulties at the moment. Three broad sets of challenges have specific implications for women’s economic empowerment during and after the crisis:
- Disruptions to women’s economic participation: Different factors push and pull women into the economy. Women are disproportionately present in sectors that are particularly susceptible to disruptions caused by the pandemic like micro-retail and trade—for example, women make up approximately three-quarters of cross-border traders in southern Africa and the Great Lakes region. This, combined with the increased household and childcare responsibilities, which women are typically expected to carry out, during the crisis make it harder to participate in economic activities.
- Threats to women’s access to assets and resources: Dating back prior to the pandemic, there have been significant gaps between women’s and men’s access to productive resources like land, capital, and labor, as well as necessary tools like information technology, that are needed to run farms and businesses during the crisis and the recovery.
- Impacts on physical and emotional health: Women’s caregiving responsibilities have increased during the pandemic, exposing them to the virus or leaving them little time to take care of themselves. The economic pressures and quarantine measures are also increasing their vulnerability to gender-based violence during the crisis, with reports of such violence increasing 48% in India and 70% in Chile.
How can nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders address these issues and ensure that we sustain the gains we’ve achieved in advancing women’s economic empowerment?
Based on the experiences of TechnoServe’s projects across Africa, Latin America, and India, we’ve identified three interrelated principles to protect women’s economic empowerment during the coronavirus pandemic.
1 Protect and secure women’s income and assets
Women’s ability to earn an income is critically important to their economic empowerment and to the well-being of their family and community, and it hinges on access to financial and business tools. Even though TechnoServe is committed to ensuring that women are able to access these tools through our programs, we realized we had to be more creative as projects move to remote support during the COVID-19 crisis.
While women’s access to mobile and digital technology has increased in recent years, gaps still remain—for example, men are 33% more likely to have access to the internet in Africa. This has meant that we have needed to work harder to ensure support reaches both women and men entrepreneurs, farmers, and workers. In programs like Business Women Connect, we’ve found that it’s important to use multiple avenues to ensure that you can communicate with both men and women participants, including radio, WhatsApp, and 1:1 coaching phone calls. This accommodates the schedules and other responsibilities of participants, just as we tried to do before the pandemic.
It is also important to engage men on the issue of women’s economic empowerment. In the Business Women Connect program in northern Nigeria, for example, we are working with women farmers who don’t have access to phones. However, men in the community do have access to phones, so the program is working with a group of men who serve as gender champions in the community to convey information to the women farmers.
2 Promote self-care and stress management
Stress from the current crisis can have negative emotional and psychological impacts, making it hard for women farmers and entrepreneurs to assess the situation and take decisions that are required at times like this. We have found that now more than ever, our clients need trusted partners with whom they can connect.
In the course of providing agronomic advice and business management training, our staff are practicing empathy, sharpening their listening skills, and reaffirming our shared values. Our business advisors are creating support groups for entrepreneurs to discuss common challenges, share solutions, and build connections to alleviate the isolation that many feel.
This work extends to our staff as well. In our individual lockdown environments, we’re virtually coming together more often to problem-solve, learn from each other, and share resources. In Chile, for example, we’ve created “critical case clinics” to support advisors in their recommendations and prevent staff from shouldering these burdens alone.
3 Mitigate and respond to gender-based violence
There is overwhelming evidence that crises typically lead to higher rates of violence against women and vulnerable groups, and that is being borne out during the current pandemic. As a result, we are improving our understanding of gender-based violence, forging connections to the wider community, and making resources available to clients and staff to seek support and assistance.
In Maputo, Olivia has used the tools she learned in the Business Women Connect program to keep her business afloat during the crisis. With good financial recordkeeping to track cash flow, she’s able to ensure the business has the working capital it needs. She adjusted her product mix to stock only the basic essentials that community members need now. And she is proactively keeping touch with her clients, demonstrating strong customer service skills. As a result, unlike many small shopkeepers around the world in similar situations, she has been able to keep her business alive—and even turn a profit.
Olivia is not alone: when the program surveyed participants at the outset of the crisis, more than 40% percent of the women entrepreneurs had either closed their businesses or planned to do so. But a month later, nearly 90% of the businesses were up and running, without fear of shutting down.
We still don’t know the full scope or length of this crisis. But by taking a few deliberate steps to integrate a gender lens into how we understand the impacts of the pandemic and respond to them, we can help ensure that the crisis does not derail the economic empowerment of women like Olivia.
For more information about the impacts of COVID-19 on women and men entrepreneurs and farmers, please see TechnoServe’s guides COVID-19 and Entrepreneurs in the Developing World: Supporting Business Survival and Recovery and Smallholder Farmers and COVID-19: From Response to Recovery and Resilience.