Source: World Bank Blogs
As COVID-19 (coronavirus) spreads across the globe, the disease is projected to take an immense human toll on Sub-Saharan Africa, infecting at least 110 million people in the region. The immediate economic consequences of the pandemic for African economies are also estimated to be severe, resulting in the first regional recession in nearly 25 years and pushing an estimated 23 million more people into extreme poverty.
In the face of the human and economic crisis caused by COVID-19, existing gender inequalities in economic opportunities may worsen, as was seen in previous large-scale health shocks such as the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. For example, in Liberia, women experienced worse job losses and remained out of work longer than men, since women worked disproportionately in the hardest-hit sectors. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, school closures and curtailed economic opportunitiesled girls to spend more time with men, increasing their likelihood of becoming pregnant and leaving school.
Policymakers working to address the critical health and economic challenges facing the region can draw on evidence from impact evaluations across the continent. A new brief based on research from the World Bank’s Africa Gender Innovation Lab, provides useful lessons on policy options to build women’s economic resilience.
Protecting women’s livelihoods during the emergency response phase
Cash transfer programs can help households mitigate consumption shocks in times of crisis, and evidence from Nigeria shows that they are just as effective when delivered on a quarterly basis as when they are delivered monthly. Women in Nigeria who received cash transfers were more likely to work and their households became more food secure and invested more in assets, regardless of the frequency of the transfer. This means cash transfers can be delivered at a lower implementation cost, and with fewer person-to-person interactions—helping to limit the spread of the virus—without jeopardizing positive outcomes for women and their households. Cash transfers can also be used as a tool for economic recovery: the women who received them became more engaged in home-based economic activities, like petty trade or rice processing.
Boosting women’s productivity, earnings, and market inclusion to accelerate economic recovery
Women in Africa make up 58% of the continent’s self-employed population. However, women-owned businesses are particularly vulnerable to shocks, as they are disproportionately informal and operate in less-profitable sectors. To protect women-owned firms from the effects of COVID-19, lines of credit and meso-financing can provide much-needed liquidity to women entrepreneurs, who are already less likely than men to access loans. For instance, in Ethiopia the Women Entrepreneurship Development Project (WEDP) issued $23.3 million to women entrepreneurs in just its first calendar year, with 66% of recipients being first-time borrowers. Three years later, participants had increased their profits by an average of 40%.
To support economic recovery in the region, business competitions and soft skills trainings could help women-owned firms bounce back. Business plan competitions, which have proved helpful in addressing capital constraints and encouraging investment in various contexts, could also be implemented during the post-crisis recovery. Personal initiative training, which helps women entrepreneurs to be proactive and demonstrate perseverance, may also help them recover from the crisis. InTogo, this type of training resulted in a 40% increase in profits for female entrepreneurs compared to those who took a traditional business training.
Meanwhile, women farmers contribute roughly 40% of agricultural labor across the African continent, yet they have lower agricultural yields than men. The pandemic risks exacerbating these inequalities. Providing productive inputs directly to women farmers can have positive impacts on their economic outcomes. For instance, in Côte d’Ivoire, preliminary results of an ongoing impact evaluation of the World Bank-funded Agriculture Sector Support Project show that providing oxen to household heads can help households expand their cultivated land, and women in the households to shift their time use patterns towards self-employment.
Previous experience from the Ebola epidemic shows that adolescent girls programs could help expand girls’ economic opportunities and mitigate the effects of future crises. An adolescent girls program implemented in Sierra Leone (preceding the Ebola epidemic) helped young women remain in school and avoid unintended pregnancies following the crises, suggesting that these programs could be implemented in the recovery phase to help buffer girls against future shocks. During the Ebola epidemic, an adolescent girls program implemented by the International Rescue Committee in Liberia increased adolescent girls' transition from primary to secondary school and led to sustained impacts on educational achievement.
Going forward, including gender gaps as a key consideration when designing COVID-19 response and recovery programs will be crucial to protecting women’s lives and livelihoods. This critical juncture in the crisis response presents an opportunity for policymakers to not only lift the binding constraints to women’s economic empowerment by improving women’s access to critical resources, but also spur inclusive economic recovery across Sub-Saharan Africa.