Women being trained under the enterprise development programme at the SABAH Trade Facilitation Center, Kathmandu. Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD
BY CHANDA GURUNG GOODRICH & KOSAR BANO
The lockdowns and other measures introduced to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have had profound impacts on people and the global economy. Countries in South Asia and in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region recorded a sharp economic slowdown. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), which account for 96 percent of all businesses in Asia, were hit hardest, with millions of workers left unemployed. In most countries, the extended lockdown periods have kept economic activities on hold, with lingering impacts on the economy and livelihoods.
Impact of COVID-19 on women
The pandemic further increased difficulties for already vulnerable sections of society, especially women. Women working at home and working from home have found themselves over-burdened with added responsibilities and workload, with shrinking resources and limited financial access. Their sufferings were further aggravated by additional household costs, health insecurities, lack of access to technology, digital illiteracy, and lack of new skills to navigate the new reality.
In addition to the economic and social stress caused by restricted movement and isolation measures, gender-based violence increased exponentially, especially at a time when support services for survivors and women at risk were disrupted. The problem was so widespread that the United Nations described it as a “shadow pandemic” and called for urgent action to combat this worldwide surge in domestic violence.
The resilience of women entrepreneurs
Despite the extreme conditions imposed by the pandemic, the resilience and leadership of women entrepreneurs shone through. Along with South Asian Women Development Forum (SAWDF), we conducted a rapid assessment on the pandemic’s impact on women entrepreneurs in South Asian and the HKH countries using an online questionnaire survey method. A total of 753 women were surveyed from ten countries in South Asia, including in the HKH region (SAWDF and ICIMOD report on “Impact assessment on women entrepreneurs post COVID-19”, in preparation). Our assessment revealed that the major challenge faced by women entrepreneurs in the SME sector was loss of sales, which led to financial difficulties for many, making it difficult to sustain their businesses and pay workers. Some women entrepreneurs were able to receive loans and subsidies from governments and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) but this alone was not enough.
It was in such difficult situations that many women entrepreneurs displayed their innovative spirit, resilience and leadership that needs to be recognized and applauded.
To cope with the financial difficulties created by the pandemic, women entrepreneurs used their personal savings. Support from spouses, family members and friends also played a pivotal role in this process. Women found alternative ways to run and restructure their business. This includes using local resources and technology, starting online platforms to sell products, installing health precautions at workplaces, facilitating employees to work from home, innovating and developing products to meet specific demands, and expanding market channels. Some even reduced product prices to cut losses.
Seeking opportunities amidst the pandemic
Women entrepreneurs saw opportunities to expand their business and incorporate new methods for business development, one of them being online business. Many were excited to enter online platforms and venture into e-commerce, which gave them the potential to reach customers beyond their immediate or niche customer base. Most of them also began utilizing local resources and raw materials, new aspects that entrepreneurs now want to continue incorporating in their businesses.
Many of them responded to the specific demands created by the pandemic and utilized their skillsets to produce and sell masks, sanitizers, personal protective equipment, and other health-related items. With these products being in high demand, many women entrepreneurs were able to remain in business and earn a profit. Some also provided home delivery options to their customers, enabling product sales beyond physical stores, and earning them extra income.
The innovation, resilience and leadership displayed by women entrepreneurs, as well as millions of other working women across the world deserves to be recognized and applauded. Governments, development agencies and the society at large can advance these developments and provide valuable support. Such initiatives can include, but are not limited to, providing relief packages and ways of easier access to finance, and assistance on financial management, particularly risk planning and managing operations during a crisis. In an era of digital transformation, investing in skill enhancement of women entrepreneurs would also be a key area for policy initiatives. These initiatives can strengthen women entrepreneurs’ resilience to unforeseen risks and situations in the future.
Our assessment shows that women entrepreneurs in South Asian countries and the HKH region face similar challenges. Hence, regional cooperation and targeted policies for women entrepreneurs through existing regional and sub-regional organizations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and other such supportive regional and country policies, can help them revive and strengthen their enterprises and contribute to post-pandemic economic recovery. While this is a general observation, we also know that women in South Asia and the HKH region also carry multiple identities depending on their country, geography, region, caste, class, ethnicity and age, which shape their access to resources and opportunities, and therefore their resilience as entrepreneurs. This calls for a more nuanced and deeper analysis of impacts caused by COVID-19.
On this International Women’s Day, we applaud women entrepreneurs who have showcased resilience and leadership during the pandemic! Let us come together as a society to support and encourage them.