The impact of COVID-19 is not gender impartial
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy has laid bare the many inequalities that exist in our societies. The United Nations estimates that an additional 96 million people are expected to fall into extreme poverty in 2021, and that women will be disproportionately affected by the increase. This is unsurprising, given that women make up a large share of the globally poor – a phenomenon known as the feminisation of poverty.
In Namibia, according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index Report, multidimensional poverty is higher among households headed by women at 46% compare to households headed by men at 41%.
Women’s status in the labour market makes them more susceptible to the impact of COVID-19 for a number of reasons. Firstly, women are overrepresented in industries that have been most hard hit by Covid-19. Most noteworthy is the accommodation and food sector, where women make up 77% of the share of employment in Namibia. This sector was severely affected by the impact of lockdowns, travel restrictions and other regulations needed to slow the spread of the virus, resulting in retrenchments, wage cuts and reduced working hours. The sector continues to contend with knock on effects on tourism from recurring waves both domestically, regionally and globally.
Secondly, women are also more likely to be employed in the informal sector. The National Diagnostic Study of the Informal Sector in Namibia by the UNDP shows that women make up a high proportion of informal employment at 53.6% compared to men at 46.4%. The informal sector is particularly vulnerable as workers are unable to take off from work without losing their income. Workers in this sector do not have the luxury of flexible work schedules and work-from-home arrangements. The informal sector also has fewer social protection systems in place such as sick leave or compassionate leave. As a result, women in the informal sector are forced to continue working, risking exposure to the virus.
Lastly, women bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work in the home which has increased during the pandemic. They tend to do the lion’s share care of home schooling, caring for sick family members, cooking, and cleaning in addition to doing their full-time jobs. This increases what is often called “time poverty”, a phenomenon where women have little to no discretionary time. The impact of unpaid care work is even more acute for women who are not in occupations that allow them to work from home as the care work has a direct bearing on their ability to earn an income.
The lesson learnt from the ongoing pandemic is that the gendered impacts of COVID-19 cannot be ignored as they threaten to derail progress made towards achieving gender equality.
Moving forward, it is important that women’s status in the labour force and economy in general is elevated. This can be achieved through changing attitudes around gender roles, improving the availability of child-care facilities, widening social safety nets and implementing policies that allow women to participate in the formal economy.
Ruusa Nandago is a social scientist with a passion for creating shared meaning and a drive to inspire shared value. An Economist by profession, Ruusa holds an MCom and BCom Honours in Economics (both cum laude) from Stellenbosch University. She is inspired by the potential of women, when afforded the opportunity to live fully.