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Promoting equitable COVID-19 recovery in the informal sector


Nearly a year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the widespread socio-economic impacts of the virus are still unfolding. Growing evidence shows that the pandemic is reinforcing inequalities, especially between men and women.

From the outset, the pandemic and its social isolation measures have compounded women’s economic insecurity and increased their risk of gender-based violence. As governments struggle to respond to the far-reaching implications of COVID-19 and build a more equitable recovery from the pandemic, evidence is needed to shed light on the deepening, gender-based vulnerabilities that are emerging.

Early findings from IDRC’s three-year, CA$25 million COVID-19 Responses for Equity initiative contribute to the growing body of evidence on the impacts of the pandemic on women, and provide locally and nationally relevant knowledge for more inclusive pandemic responses.

More time spent on unpaid care work

Evidence emerging from this rapid-response initiative suggests the pandemic is reinforcing the disparities in the amount of time women and men spend on unpaid care work, such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare. In a 12-city study, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) investigated the impact of the pandemic on informal workers — for example, domestic workers, street and market vendors, and waste pickers. The study revealed how COVID-19 has increased women’s care responsibilities among this already vulnerable segment of the population.

During lockdowns in Durban, South Africa, women in the informal sector reported increases in unpaid household responsibilities more often than men. In Lima, Peru, women’s household chores increased, as did the expectation that they would do the caregiving in homes with children. The extra work impacted their ability to do paid work. In Delhi, India, a similar trend is emerging. While all informal workers reported spending more time on care responsibilities, women reported higher increases in time dedicated to cooking, cleaning, childcare, and care of elderly dependents

Likewise in Accra, Ghana, the evidence points to an overall increase in care responsibilities with a greater rise in women’s unpaid care burden that exacerbates an already unequal distribution of these responsibilities.

Before the pandemic, women in low-income households in many parts of the world were already responsible for the bulk of unpaid work. Research by the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women initiative demonstrated that women’s added burden of care work undermined their health and well-being, reinforced harmful gender norms, and affected both the quality and quantity of the paid work they undertook. With the compounding impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns, these disparities in unpaid care work are deepening. Unless it is reflected in both short-term responses and long-term recovery efforts, this reality will have long-term negative impacts on women’s economic empowerment and the wellbeing of their communities. 

Ndeye Ba, a waste picker in Dakar, Senegal, says buyers are making smaller and later payments for recovered materials, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marta Moreiras
Ndeye Ba, a waste picker in Dakar, Senegal, says buyers are making smaller and later payments for recovered materials, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impacts to livelihoods and wellbeing

Across the four continents included in WIEGO’s study, the pandemic resulted in “a sudden and massive drop in earnings” for informal workers across sectors. Average earnings fell by more than half at the peak of COVID-19 restrictions in 11 of the 12 cities studied, compared to pre-lockdown earnings. For certain sectors, such as waste pickers in Delhi, women responding to the study experienced greater decreases in their earnings than men.

Informal workers have resorted to a range of coping strategies to mitigate these losses, including dipping into savings, borrowing money, or pawning off assets to pay rent, utilities, phone bills, and other essential expenses. These strategies may provide some short-term relief but will have significant negative impacts on long-term financial resilience. Women may have a more limited ability to draw on these coping strategies than men. In Delhi, for example, fewer home-based workers and domestic workers report dipping into savings than workers in other sectors, likely because they are predominantly women who lack savings to fall back on.

“All of this was a surprise,” said one respondent to the WIEGO study. “We feel scared and worried because we didn’t have any savings to survive that whole time [during the lockdown] and we couldn’t work. We stayed at home to protect our health, but now we are worried about what we’ll live on.” 

WIEGO’s research continues to delve into these trends and explore how the workers’ vulnerabilities intersect. For example, a worker’s employment status, place of work, race, ethnicity, caste, migration status, and gender may increase or decrease the pandemic’s impact on their livelihoods and wellbeing. The organization will develop policy recommendations based on the findings to advocate for the needs of the most affected populations lacking social protection during global crises.

In Kenya, women informal workers have found their livelihoods impacted in ways that compound existing gender disparities.
In Kenya, women informal workers have found their livelihoods impacted in ways that compound existing gender disparities.

Policies that reach the most vulnerable

IDRC’s rapid-response initiative also supports research led by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) to understand the impact of the pandemic on women who work in the urban informal economy in India, Kenya, and Uganda. In these three countries, the overwhelming majority of women engaged in paid work are part of the informal economy and have experienced significant disruption to their livelihoods as a result of the pandemic.

The research explores how policy choices to address the health crisis have profound social and economic impacts on vulnerable populations. While governments have established economic relief programs to offset losses to livelihoods due to the pandemic, these measures do not fully meet the needs of informal workers and women in particular.

For example, women informal workers are more likely than other members of society to lack identity documents, and they are less likely to have existing links with governments and financial institutions. These factors limit their ability to benefit from cash payments and other relief measures. Those who do access support may have limited decision-making power within their households on how to use funds. In Kenya, 60% of unlicensed business establishments are solely women-owned, making it difficult from them to access relief measures. 

ICRW research will also explore the effects that lockdowns and other restrictions of movement have on gender-based violence and access to sexual and reproductive health services. The goal is to ensure that policies counteract rather than reinforce these risks, as well as women’s deepening economic precarity, and existing harmful gender norms. 

Like WIEGO, ICRW seeks to understand the resilience strategies adopted by women in these contexts — such as the use of savings, borrowing money, or appealing to civil society groups and other community networks for support. By analyzing these strategies and assessing the impact of policies to mitigate the pandemic’s effects, ICRW seeks to promote gender-responsive interventions and rebuilding measures that truly support vulnerable women workers in the informal economy.

Evidence for more inclusive and sustainable recovery

Four more research projects under this initiative are underway to address the impacts of the pandemic on informal workers:

These studies and many other IDRC-supported projects aim to answer critical questions that will inform more equitable responses to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • What policies are needed to empower all gender identities to participate in inclusive and sustainable recovery?
  • How are marginalized groups exercising resilience?
  • What role can these groups play in the design, implementation, and monitoring of policies to respond to the crisis?

By documenting the gendered impacts of the pandemic, the effects of policy responses, and people’s resilience strategies, IDRC’s partners are contributing evidence needed to ensure that the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic promotes gender equality, rights, and inclusion.