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Undoing the effects of COVID-19 by advancing gender equity in Africa’s informal sector

Photo of Montasser Kamal

Montasser Kamal

Director, Global Health, IDRC
Photo of Francine Sinzinkayo

Francine Sinzinkayo

Especialista Principal de Programas del IDRC

This article was written with the support of Baobab Consulting.

Pandemics and health emergencies have grave impacts on the health and economic wellbeing of affected populations, and the COVID-19 pandemic was no exception. As Africa deals with the aftermath of the pandemic, where the experience of different populations was shown to be clearly shaped by gender and other socio-economic determinants, the importance of investing in women within Africa’s informal sector becomes more apparent. Not only is it a pressing gender-equity issue, it is also pertinent for the sustained development of the continent’s human capital.

IDRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) are jointly funding the Women RISE initiative that is supporting researchers in Africa to generate evidence of the impact of the pandemic on the health and socio-economic wellbeing of women. The researchers will also identify interventions and make gender-transformative policy recommendations to address the nuanced challenges faced by women. 

The COVID-19 pandemic set off a cascade of challenges across Africa, burdening health-care systems and disrupting education and economic activities. Lockdown measures resulted in reduced employment, job loss, an increased burden of care work for women, interrupted education for children, and restrictions in local and global trade.

These challenges severely impacted the informal sector, and the health of those working in it, including women who make up the majority of workers. The resultant loss of income and livelihoods worsened poverty, food insecurity and access to health services, leaving many in the sector unable to meet basic needs and ultimately hindering progress in human capital development.

Women in Africa’s informal sector contribute significantly to GDP, driving local economies and sustaining livelihoods. According to the ILO, informal employment accounts for more than 90% of total employment and as much as 62% of official GDP in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an indication that women in the sector should not be overlooked but seen as a strategic investment for advancing human capital development in Africa. Yet, women and children in low- and middle- income countries experienced the most significant impacts of the pandemic. 

Informal workers are largely excluded from formal social safety nets and have low incomes and limited access to finance. School closures widened existing gaps in education for children, especially girls, thereby limiting their prospects and perpetuating intergenerational cycles of poverty.

Evidence-informed policies are key to tackling persistent obstacles to achieving inclusive and sustainable development. These include inequalities. Whether based on age, gender, sexuality, economic status or otherwise, inequalities prevent people from accessing services and opportunities, and leaving poverty behind. Locally relevant data to inform acceptable, inclusive and sustainable policies and practices are a must to drive change.

Locked out of opportunities during pandemics

A Women RISE research project in Ghana and Uganda found that COVID-19 mandates, especially lockdown measures, had significant socio-economic impacts on adolescent girls and young women in mining communities. During the lockdown, a survey of this population in Ghana found that 49% did not work (56% for Uganda). Among those who worked, overall, 71% experienced a decline in earnings and about 61% had no alternative work options, making meeting basic needs a challenge. 

In South Africa, economic shocks linked to COVID-19 have drastically lowered the socio-economic and health status of unpaid female caregivers of children and adolescents living with HIV, exposing them to further gender and health Inequities. They are also exposed to high levels of intimate partner violence (IPV), particularly psychological (45%), economic (39%) and physical IPV (23%).

In addition to policy interventions, intersectional approaches are needed to address the unique challenges faced by women in the informal sector. This includes investing in education and skills development, expanding access to financial services and promoting entrepreneurship opportunities. By fostering an enabling environment for women's empowerment, Africa can unlock the full potential of its human capital and pave the way for inclusive prosperity. International development actors can also support women in the informal economy by facilitating access to financial services, which plays an important role in empowering women small-business owners. Conducting in-depth research on women in the informal sector will provide nuanced insights into their needs and challenges and how they might contribute to the economy more meaningfully.

Women RISE is supporting action-oriented research that is gender transformative and evidence-based, which can inform equitable policymaking. A Women RISE project in South Africa is working to evaluate the effectiveness of a cash transfer and gender-transformative economic-empowerment intervention to improve psychological wellbeing and gender equality among female caregivers of children and adolescents living with HIV. The project is conducting a randomized trial to examine the intervention’s feasibility and cost effectiveness. The pilot intervention provided a cash transfer and a gender economic-empowerment program for 24 caregivers. Preliminary findings show that cash transfers, combined with gender-transformative economic-empowerment programs, have the potential to enhance unpaid women’s financial status and reduce women’s experiences of IPV. Several research participants attested to the impact of the funding received via cash transfer on their ability to provide essential items and education for their children and achieve their financial goals. 

Illustration from a gender and economic empowerment workshop in South Africa.
Illustration from a gender and economic empowerment workshop in South Africa.

A study by UN Women in 2022 saw a concerning regression in attitudes toward gender equality and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the lives of women and girls, particularly around gender roles, reinforcing trends of unpaid care responsibilities, gender pay gaps and job segregation. So, women in the informal sector were doubly victimized, while being left to shoulder the multifold increase in care responsibilities. Ultimately, not only did they lose their livelihoods, their already precarious health and wellbeing took a big hit as well.

Can inclusive, human capital-oriented policies help during pandemics? 

The above examples show how unprepared governments were for the pandemic, not only in terms of dealing with medical and non-medical countermeasures for the pandemic, but also in terms of societal attitudinal changes during pandemics.

Therefore, governments across all levels need to develop and implement gender-transformative policies that consider the unique needs of women and young people, as well as support their equal and meaningful participation in the sector. Such policies must consider care work as important and worthy of compensation, providing interventions that support women who are burdened with the responsibility of care work. Investments and cooperation between governments and development actors will also help to address these systemic barriers and empower women and youth. 

Without these concerted efforts to advance gender equity and women’s empowerment in the informal sector, Africa could suffer a drastic reduction in the quality of its human capital, adversely affecting its economic growth prospects.