On April 19, the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) and the Center for Global Development (CGD) co-hosted a panel discussion between African policymakers, gender experts, and private sector representatives on the need for gender equality to be at the center of the economic and political responses to COVID-19.
CGD Senior Policy Fellow Gyude Moore and ACET Executive Vice President Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi moderated. Panelists included Bineta Diop, the President of Femmes Africa Solidarité and the African Union Special Envoy on Women Peace and Security; Venge Nyirongo, the Thematic Lead on Economic Justice and Rights at the Action Coalition at UN Women; and Yavi Madurai, the Executive Director of the Pan African Business Women’s Association.
Megan O’Donnell, CGD Senior Policy Analyst and Gender Program Assistant Director, presented research from CGD’s COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative. The initiative has the dual aims of raising the importance of gender equality in the COVID-19 response and recovery decision-making and generating research and evidence to help inform these decisions. Three thematic focus areas guide the program: women’s economic empowerment, social protection, and the indirect health impacts of the crisis.
Initial findings indicate that, as with previous crises, women are particularly vulnerable to the health and economic fallout of the current crisis. Moreover, the pandemic has hit sectors that are predominantly staffed by women – including hospitality, retail and other services – much harder than in previous crises, which have tended to impact male-dominated spaces more significantly. Women-owned firms have also been hit harder across the board, and in the agricultural sector women are slower to rebound from initial losses.
Research has shown that women-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises have felt a dramatic impact, with approximately 80% shut down because of the pandemic. Yavi Madurai signaled the importance of taking gender in the economic production space into account by creating tailored support for women with small and micro businesses and in the informal sector. Aside from the cash disbursement initiatives that have been launched in many countries, debt relief and investments in human capital and skills development should provide further avenues for economic recovery, she said.
According to the World Social Protection report for 2017-19, only 17.8% of the African population receives at least one social protection benefit, with most schemes only covering workers in the formal private sector while the informal economy – where 89% of African women are employed – remains largely ignored. To address this, Venge Nyirongo reiterated the Action Coalition call to design and implement macroeconomic reforms and stimulus packages with public social protection floors.
Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi remarked that the pandemic has shown the critical importance of paid and unpaid care work. She flagged the issue of poor pay in care work in the gig economy and the economic insecurity that young and elderly women in the sector in particular face as a result.
Panelists agreed that the pandemic has also made the impact of underinvestment in public health and care systems very clear. While demands for care works at home have intensified with school closings and health care demands, 73% of domestic workers – the bulk of whom are women – lost their jobs during the pandemic. Gender discrimination means care work is undervalued, with African women spending 3.4 times more hours on unpaid care work than African men.
Venge Nyirongo identified the care economy as a critical focus area for the Economic Justice and Rights Action Coalition at UN Women. Action needs to be taken to ensure better social protection and an economic response that takes unpaid work into account, he said, adding that reducing and redistributing care work would result in immediate, positive impacts on education, labor and social protection.
The lockdowns and economic fallout of the crisis have contributed to a sharp spike in gender-based violence across Africa and the rest of the world. Surveys and interviews of the victims of gender-based violence have shown that economic stress and lockdowns have caused a 73% increase in intimate partner violence and a 51% rise in sexual violence among displaced women. Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi referred to this development as a “shadow pandemic” for women and girls that needs to be urgently addressed.
Bineta Diop pointed out that there were positive developments across the continent prior to the pandemic, including initiatives such as one-stop centers providing trauma counseling, legal support and economic empowerment. However, she added, more needs to be done – particularly in terms of bringing perpetrators to justice and in addressing economic consequences of gender-based violence. She also called for a convention on violence against women that will go beyond the Maputo Protocol by addressing issues of justice, reconciliation and economic empowerment for women that have experienced violence.
Throughout the panel discussion, many participants hit on the challenge presented by a lack of actionable and gender-segregated data. With 200 million fewer women than men having access to a mobile phone, for example, Africa’s digital gender divide has been a major contributor to data gaps. As a result, panelists discussed, the gendered impacts of the crisis are likely underestimated. Bineta Diop emphasized the need for AU member states to have tools to collect gender-disaggregated data and ensure gender integration and gender budgeting in response programs.
Yavi Madurai highlighted the added challenge of a large proportion of women being entirely invisible to African governments. Many women in the informal sector – making up an estimated 70% of the total population employed in the informal sector in Africa – have no bank accounts, proof of residence, or business registration. While some UN agencies and civil society organizations have started to help close this “identity gap”, the issue has complicated the ability of governments to implement gender-sensitive responses to the crisis.
In her closing round of questions, Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi asked the panelists what should be done to ensure that gender equality is at the heart of the recovery. Panelists concluded that leadership, accountability, and responsibility by both men and women are essential. Yavi Madurai also urged that leaders be held responsible for delivering on the targets of the Decade of Women’s Financial and Economic inclusion by creating an index that tracks the progress year-on-year.
Watch the recorded event below