Weighing the Impact of COVID-19 on Women

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Chiemelie Ezeobi who was part of a recent webinar writes that the focus was on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid

For women who comprise 1.5 billion of the world’s low-wage workforce and twice as many of its carers, it is perhaps ironical to state that are the most vulnerable to the economic and health crises that unfold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s an unfortunate reality.

Before the pandemic, a majority of women worked as low-wage workers in the manufacturing, service and informal sectors. Unfortunately, these low-wage employments lack a social safety net such as paid sick leave, parental leave, or retirement contributions to cope with the economic shocks of the ongoing pandemic. As a result, girls are now vulnerable to early marriages in order to relieve the family of another mouth to feed; women are facing greater financial barriers and sexual violence has become rampant.

According to experts, to ensure that women do not slip further into poverty and marginalisation, efforts taken by public and private stakeholders must take into consideration these seen and unseen costs. This is backed by reports by global research which suggests that women’s financial inclusion and empowerment has positive benefits for the family and society at large.

Widespread Effect of COVID-19

The widespread regression in almost all sectors has been one of the most notable effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. The world has experienced unprecedented social and economic shocks during this pandemic and most entities are only now activating plans of action to facilitate relief. This has led regions across the globe to join in on communal efforts to alleviate the suffering of millions of people.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) showed evidence that the economic impact has been felt more intensely, in the lower-middle-income and upper-middle-income countries. Its published numbers reflect a 22 per cent and 24 per cent average loss respectively, in the Index of Industrial Production (IIP) across countries. The social impact of the pandemic has also stunted positive moving curves, most especially among women. These numbers were only just beginning to gain positive momentum and now, there is an indication that a lot of progress will be undone in the post-pandemic era.

Elderly and children age groups in need of higher amounts of care have been served predominantly by women and a large part of this care is met with little to no wage compensation. Lockdown measures that have spanned across the globe have necessitated a spike in this kind of labour. A large number of women have been forced to take up the mantle of caring for the young and elderly. This includes women who are gainfully employed and women who aren’t.

Women at a Disadvantage

Projections predict that a large part of the women workforce will not smoothly return to work. This is especially worrisome because presently, only 65 per cent of women aged 25-54 are in the labour force, compared to 94 per cent of men. Coupled with the fact that women currently work three times more hours of unpaid care work than men(including pre-COVID), women already in the labour force are disadvantaged in productive work hours. There is now a valid argument for the assertion that women are more significantly edged towards the poverty line.

In Nigeria, the wage gap and the financial situation of women are not outside the norm. A significant number of women in this region are still financially excluded. They generally earn less than men and as a result, are closer to the poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exasperated the situation. Recent reports show that 70 per cent of women in developing economies find themselves in the informal economic sector. The situation has resulted in little protection against dismissal, a lack of paid sick leave, parental leave, and retirement contributions, and overall limited access to social protection. Packages which are the crux of global social protection relief in response to COVID 19.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Enhancing Financial Innovation & Access (EFInA) released a report in 2019, highlighting some of the factors responsible for the financial exclusion of women. The level of income, education, and trust in financial services were the main factors pointed out. These factors among others have limited women’s access to financial products and services. The World Bank reported that only 27 per cent of females in Nigeria owned a transaction account as of 2017. A lack of regular income and the unaffordability of financial services costs are strong characteristics of the COVID-19 era for a lot of women and these characteristics mirror the ones responsible for the reported low numbers.

Focus on COVID-19 Impact on Women

A number of entities, who are conscious of this looming situation are putting in efforts to increase widespread awareness, as well as bring possible solutions to light. Recently, a media parley on “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women at the Bottom of The Pyramid”, was held as an excellent example of these efforts. The initiative sought to provide innovative solutions to the problems of women. The discussion focused on a number of angles to enhance the understanding of all parties involved, including the media.

The discussion sought to explore more innovative solutions to the problems women at the bottom of the pyramid are facing including- how can the government and private sector stakeholders enable low-income women to thrive amidst, and in a post-pandemic Nigeria; what role does financial inclusion play in alleviating the adverse effects of government measures on low-income women; and what learnings can we take from this to enhance women’s empowerment in our society?

Thus, the objective of the webinar was to educate the media on the challenges faced by women amidst COVID-19; outline the work and activities that need to be undertaken by multiple stakeholders to overcome these challenges; outline the prospects of empowering low- income women and its impact on the broader economic stability of Nigeria; discuss the approach that various participants have taken in their own organisations and spheres of influence, and the effects as a result; build capacity and share a nuanced understanding that can be reflected in the media’s reporting, in order to amplify awareness about the pertinent issues faced by these key contributors to the economy.

Providing real-world context, four experts participated- Godwin Ehigiamusoe, the founder and former Managing Director of Lift Above Poverty Organisation (LAPO) Microfinance Bank Limited; Saudatu Mahdi, Women’s Rights Advocate and the Secretary-General of Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), and Dr Eleanor Nwadinobi, medical doctor, Women Health Activist, and the first Nigerian elected as president of the Medical Women International Association. The discussion was moderated by Tosin Oluwaseinde, founder of The Money Africa and was hosted by Onyebuchi Ajufo.

Helping Low-income Women Thrive

Firstly, the discussion sought to illuminate how the government and private sector may enable low-income women to survive and thrive amid and subsequent to the pandemic. It also looked to dissect the role of financial inclusion in alleviating the adverse effects of government measures on low-income women. Additionally, the discussion looked to provide knowledge on how to enhance women’s empowerment in society.

While speaking, Ehigiamusoe highlighted the fact that a restructuring of loan facilities with an emphasis on disadvantaged women was needed. He cited mid-term loans offered to small business owners. This financial product had been used by LAPO microfinance bank to help low scale business owners with cash flow problems. He also touched on the need for open conversations between government agencies and the most vulnerable women, to help them understand the specific challenges faced by these women.

Generating National Database for Women

Mahdi in turn reiterated the fact that women and young girls have been generally more vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. She pointed out the need for a national database of women in the lowest economic strata. She made known that this database would give financial agencies a clearer understanding of where these services are needed most and how they could be made available. She explained that the accounts of violence against women have increased due to the pandemic, and subsequently called for responders to women abuse to be listed as essential services, citing the difficulties agencies like WRAPA have had, trying to get to women who have suffered abuse.

Creating Unfettered Access to Credit

Nwadinobi called for “unfettered access to decent credit” for women. She remarked that the majority of macro loans were given to men and that women were inadvertently nudged towards owning and running small scale businesses predominantly. She also called for more attention to be paid to violence against women, citing that violence aggravates health issues and costs.

Essential Services Targeted at Women

At the end, all parties involved in the conversation agreed that there is now an increased need for essential services to be directed towards women and young girls. Services such as learning facilities for young girls now that schools are closed and increased health and security facilities for women and mothers. These services would significantly reduce incidents of violence and reduce the chances of young girls dropping out of school, which is a loss to the economy. Another major consensus for rectifying this burgeoning situation is that all decisions and plans must present equal representation of women. This demands a consultation from stakeholders on women’s issues and a call for more women’s voices in response efforts.

There was also a call for reorientation in society, calling on more men to take up increased roles in domestic and informal care work. With these efforts properly put in place, there are strong indications that there would be a greater percentage of financially included women and reduced health risks among women and young girls.