The Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 on Economic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to further exacerbate existing gender inequalities and economic opportunities worldwide, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is in addition to its immediate, adverse impacts on women and girls’ health and education.

A McKinsey Global Institute report titled “COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects” noted that women comprise close to two-fifths of the global labour force yet have experienced more than half of the total job losses resulting from the pandemic.

The pandemic spurred a prolonged dip in women’s incomes and labour force participation, and significant long-term effects are expected thanks to the decline in women’s economic empowerment.

Compared to men, women are less likely to have significant savings put away for retirement, putting them at a greater risk of being unemployed or lower-income down the line.

As a region, Sub-Saharan Africa faces many challenges. At the start of the pandemic, governments acted quickly to contain the spread of COVID-19, resulting in mobility restrictions. The lockdowns that were put in place affected around 740 million women worldwide, most of whom work in low-paying sectors of employment. This is in addition to the numerous women who remain underrepresented in formal employment, especially at the senior levels. In Sub-Saharan Africa, around 92% of women who are employed are in the informal sector, compared to men who are 86%.

Economic hardship due to COVID-19 is greater for women as they comprise over 90% of the informal work force in the region, putting them at a higher risk during any pandemic. They are represented in the informal economy through sectors like small-scale trade (usually in open-air markets as well as paid domestic work. This increases women’s vulnerability to poverty, particularly for women-led households.

The threat of food insecurity is evident all over Africa. For example, in Kenya, it was reported that people skipped meals due to COVID-19, with the rate higher for women than men. Making this situation worse was the fact that government policy and restrictions on movement across Kenya closed indoor and outdoor markets, where the majority of food is distributed to begin with.

Supply shortages resulted, and prices increased—making it hard for families to access food, especially for those who could not afford the higher food prices after losing their jobs.

Women bear the brunt of food insecurity, resulting in both long- and short-term implications for their well-being. As food losses are exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19, women will be on the frontline in preventing a “food pandemic,” making their role critical.

Getting Back on Track

Before COVID-19, Sub-Saharan Africa was progressing well. Economies were growing at a good pace—including notable advancements in primary education and higher-level education and greater attention to women’s concerns—and this created optimism for a better future.

Aid programs, some of them providing microloans to women entrepreneurs, were popular and effective. The World Bank, for one, launched a program in partnership with USAID, called the Women’s Leadership in Small and Medium Enterprises, operating from 2011 to 2016 with some notable successes.

In Nigeria, for example, data showed that these grants helped women entrepreneurs start businesses, as they helped to reduce the gender gap in getting a business going. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, this progress was halted; by July 2020, the pandemic had overwhelmed these businesses, with public health overshadowing the economy as the government’s principal concern. Additionally, economic growth plans were largely abandoned by the development community (and most governments) in response to COVID-19.

The consequences for women in Sub-Saharan Africa go far beyond this, despite the already-existing gender concerns embedded in these societies. We should then ask: how resilient are African economies when it comes to not only this pandemic, but future pandemics, and how will women fare when economies return to normalcy?

Africa’s resilience largely depends on its women, which is its strength and could potentially be the answer. What is needed is a level playing field across the continent to ensure that women are treated equally and have access to economic assistance.

The World Economic Forum’s Global “Gender Gap Report 2020” shows that reducing gender inequality boosts an economy’s growth, competitiveness, and readiness for the future. The erosion of female employment and poverty reduction programmes threaten not only progress toward implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but also the development agenda in countries across the world. It is therefore important to recognize women as equal partners and key actors in the economy, and in the process increase the odds of a quicker socio-economic recovery.

COVID-19 has exposed and intensified gender inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Women have been forced to work harder than before while earning less than they usually would.

Local women’s organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa should be leading the response to the pandemic worldwide. The leaders in those women’s organizations should ensure a more inclusive response to the crisis, and promote an inclusive recovery that helps them bridge the gender gap for women in Africa and around the world.

With economic hardships, most governments had to slash funding, which in turn has reduced the amount directed to women’s needs. Many women’s rights or women-led organizations are at a risk of vanishing. Gender-responsive budgeting should be adopted, informed by gender impact assessments to ensure that recovery from the pandemic fosters a gender-inclusive workforce. Equal representation of women at all levels of decision-making platforms is essential, as is the development of action plans that promote the participation of women in entrepreneurship. Equally essential are innovation systems designed for digital economy start-ups.

The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to build “forward and better.” We must ensure that women have a seat at the table to design economic recovery efforts and interventions, while ensuring that the needs and demands of women and girls are at the centre of these efforts. It is crucial to integrate women into pandemic response decisions—not only in Sub-Saharan Africa but worldwide.

What Canada Can Do

Canada is a wealthy country, presented with the challenge of addressing the economic and health crises at home while supporting the global response to COVID-19. The federal government has an opportunity, however, to lead a truly global response that could address the gender-specific implications of the pandemic while ensuring that women’s voices are heard. For Canada’s overall development assistance efforts, Sub-Saharan Africa is a very important region.

In 2017, Canada introduced its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), focusing mainly on international development. Canada implemented FIAP after wide-ranging consultations, the goal of which was to move more broadly to a full-blown feminist foreign policy. Before the pandemic, FIAP was a tool used to help Canada work towards achieving gender equality and the United Nations’ SDGs. The policy is now even more important for focusing development assistance efforts so that past progress is not completely lost.

The FIAP can address the gendered impacts of the pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa. Because Canada has the right tools in place, it is important for the country to exercise good leadership and stay the course to ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind.

A feminist foreign policy offers huge potential to address some of the major injustices of our world. The COVID-19 pandemic is a critical juncture; it is a chance for these policies to reassert themselves, and to ensure the gendered imbalances COVID-19 inflicts do not become permanent. Yet the uneven implementation of feminist foreign policy so far, as well as its domestic blind spots, means that it still has a long way to go to live up to this potential.

Governments and international organizations (IOs) must treat gender considerations as a priority in dealing with COVID-19, or else the future will be even more devastating. Now more than ever, Canada’s leadership on gender equality is needed for Sub-Saharan Africa. This should be in conjunction with increased funding for gender equality initiatives from NGOs both at home and abroad, as well as IOs.


Elphine Onsongo is an associate editor at iAffairs Canada and a recent graduate from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She completed her Bachelor of Law at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Her research interests include conflict analysis, gender issues, federal governance and international development with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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