Because of pervasive inequalities, women are vulnerable to the lasting economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article highlights some of the ways we can strengthen the resilience of women farmers and entrepreneurs during the crisis and aid their post-pandemic recovery.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginie Adounon faced significant challenges with her business. In 2017, the 30-year-old mother of five decided to open a beauty salon in Bohicon, a city in southern Benin. Her shop was constructed out of bamboo, and during the rainy season, water would pour in from the ceiling. “I had no savings...I spent my money as I earned it and did work on credit,” she said. “I lacked materials and organization, and I feared that my business would collapse because of my mismanagement.” She was working hard to keep her business running, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, her customers started to disappear, and she questioned whether she would be able to keep her business afloat.
Virginie was not alone in her struggles. While both women and men have had their livelihoods disrupted by COVID-19 , the existence of longstanding gender inequalities means that women are more likely to see their quality of life and long-term economic prospects impacted by the crisis. For that reason, it’s essential that we work to strengthen women’s economic resilience and ability to respond to the crisis.
Challenges during COVID-19
Around the world, women tend to have fewer productive assets than men and are more likely to lose those assets in times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these existing inequalities. According to a recent report, by next year, 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day, including an additional 47 million pushed into poverty due to the pandemic.
Access to savings is crucial at any time, but particularly during a global economic crisis. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many women experienced unemployment and a significant decrease in monthly income. With little to no savings to fall back on, the impacts were even more severe. “During this period, my clients were reluctant to come to the shop, and my sales started to drop,” Virginie said. Women also faced similar challenges on the farm. According to a recent survey of farmers in TechnoServe programs, 55% of women reported not being able to raise emergency funds, compared to only 44% of men. This data was consistent across multiple countries and survey rounds.
Historically, women have also had less access to physical assets such as land and livestock. Land is one of the most important assets for agricultural productivity, food security, and nutrition. However, women make up only 15% of agricultural landholders in sub-Saharan Africa and 20% in Latin America. These inequalities don’t just impact women, but rather harm entire households: research has shown that when women have more secure access to land, families experience increased incomes and improved economic wellbeing.
In addition to having fewer productive assets, women are also less likely to be able to invest in their farms and businesses. In a recent TechnoServe survey, women were 13% more likely to report having trouble accessing inputs for their farms. In many countries, the cost of farm supplies such as fertilizer and seeds increased at the beginning of the pandemic due to supply chain disruptions, making these essential farm inputs cost-prohibitive for many women who were already struggling to cover basic expenses.
Studies have shown that women and children are more likely than men to experience food insecurity and malnutrition during times of crisis. Families cope with these stressors and a loss of income in various ways, including purchasing less food or less nutritious food and reducing the number of meals they consume per day. In a survey of farmers participating in TechnoServe programs, 18% of women reported going to bed hungry because of lack of food, compared to 14% of men.
The impacts of COVID-19 are gendered. Even in normal times, women face significant constraints when acquiring productive assets, investing in their farms and businesses, and accessing necessities such as nutritious food. Given these challenges, how can we help women build resilience to current and future threats?
Strategies for building women’s resilience in times of crisis
Women farmers and entrepreneurs often find it more difficult than their male counterparts to access funds from commercial lenders or open a bank account, so one way women can increase their resilience is by participating in community-based savings groups. In Peru, small, self-organized savings organizations called UNICAs (Uniónes de Crédito y Ahorro) offer women financial support by pooling resources and providing loans. The Coffee Alliance for Excellence (CAFE) program -- a public-private partnership with TechnoServe, the U.S. Agency for International Development, global coffee roaster JDE, and coffee exporter Perhusa -- is helping women in rural Peru establish and access these crucial savings groups. The program provides people with training and technical assistance on how to form UNICAS, and follows up, reinforces knowledge, and develops the administrative and financial capacities of group members.
Diversifying their farms and businesses is another way women can increase their resilience in times of crisis. For example, when cases of COVID-19 started to rise in Benin, TechnoServe’s BeniBiz program – a collaboration with the Dutch nonprofit Bopinc, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development, and the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) – taught Virginie how to adapt her business strategy by offering new, high-demand products and implementing increased hygiene practices at her shop. “I installed the hand washing device, bought washable masks from my apprentices, and had masks made for my clients,” Virginie said. “I have also developed a side activity, which is the production of liquid soap.” For entrepreneurs like Virginie, selling high-demand products like soap, hand sanitizer, and masks has been a way to continue earning a living, even when other revenue streams have been less reliable.
Helping families improve their food security is another way to increase overall resilience. In India, TechnoServe is supporting women to establish organic kitchen gardens in their backyards. Kitchen gardens have helped smallholder farmers like N. Mangamma save money, reduce trips to the market, and access healthy, nutritious food during this challenging time. “Thankfully, I can depend on my kitchen garden to provide vegetables for the family,” Mangamma said. “I can also save between $10.70 and $16.05 every month because I don’t need to purchase these vegetables from the market anymore.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges that women in the developing world face every day, threatening their ability to earn a living and support their families. This will have lasting impacts on the gender gaps in income and poverty rates, as women will have fallen farther behind men due to the crisis. Helping women build resilience in times of crisis requires a gender-sensitive approach to programming. With the right support, however, women can overcome tremendous barriers and protect their farms, businesses, and households from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and other crises.
You can also read the first article in this series here.