“We need to encourage women to believe in themselves and that it is possible for them to come out of poverty.” – Dr. Julian Adyeri Omalla, CEO Delight Uganda LTD, one of Africa’s fastest-growing woman-owned businesses.
The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has laid bare many of the deep gender inequalities in Uganda. Before the pandemic, women already spent about 3.5 times more hours than men each week on domestic labor. With school closures, these care burdens have only gotten heavier, giving women less time to devote to economic activities. Some have left the labor market altogether, and women’s businesses, which already were smaller and less profitable than men’s, were the first to close as the economy contracted. Across the Sub-Saharan region, 43% of woman-owned businesses were closed in the early months of the pandemic, compared to 34% of those owned by men.
Many women rely on agriculture or informal trade for their livelihood, both of which have been adversely affected by the lockdown; and field studies of rural areas show a serious decline in household income, a drop in informal cross-border trade, and rising food insecurity. Refugees, 80% of whom are female and who primarily work in informal and agricultural sectors, feel these impacts acutely.
Women have always played key roles in Uganda’s economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the barriers they face to reaching their full potential, and there is an opportunity to remove those barriers as Uganda builds back its economy.
What do women see as the way forward? With this question in mind, the World Bank and Ugandan government have hosted an inter-ministerial dialogue and webinar convening people from across Ugandan society to share visions for women’s economic empowerment. These conversations have highlighted three main opportunities:
- Support women entrepreneurs as they grow their businesses and move into more profitable sectors. One in three businesses in Uganda is owned by a woman—the highest rate in the Middle East and Africa region. Yet women’s businesses tend to be smaller and mostly informal, with profits that are on average 30% less than those for male-owned businesses. Moving forward, there is a need to provide skills training and to support women’s innovation potential, access to credit and markets by targeting women who have the potential to grow their business.
- Train up young women for success in the labor market. An increasing number of young women are likely to leave school without joining the labor market. In 2016, about 25–30% of female youth between the ages of 20 and 24 were neither working nor in school, compared with 10–15% of male youth. These numbers had doubled already since 2012,and the pandemic threatens to worsen them more still. And in the labor market, according to 2018 figures, women earn about half of what men earn. Evidence from previous programs in Uganda shows that offering safe spaces for girls to gain life skills, learn trades, and financial literacy can boost income long after the program’s end.
- Alleviate care burdens through quality childcare options. Emerging evidence from the indicates that providing child care options can boost women’s economic activity while also increasing profits. The World Bank has begun supporting some community child care projects, helping women stay employed. Other Bank projects have included childcare as part of skills training and employment programs, provided transport and stipends to babysitters who accompany trainees, or offered financial incentives to mothers of young children who complete the training programs, are other options. There is also a need to engage men in equalizing care responsibilities; evidence from microcredit and entrepreneurship programs in Uganda show that couples training can improve household power dynamics and increase economic wellbeing.
The recovery from COVID-19 is the perfect opportunity to build back better by enabling entrepreneurship, addressing care barriers, supporting women’s and girls’ professional development. Listening to Ugandan women, we’ve heard what’s needed. It’s time to act.