"Women Mean Business" - Riding out the economic challenges of Covid-19

Sri Lanka's Sharmini Thiyakaran, head of Coir, a factory that processes coconut husks, supported by CARE’s Women in Enterprise Programme (Credit: CARE)

Recent succcess seen by women entrepreneurs in low-income communities are under threat from the economic setbacks of Covid-19, according to a global report Women Mean Business launched by CARE Nederland, this week.

In Sri Lanka, 90% of women entrepreneurs from CARE-supported programmes said their income declined in April and May. In Guatemala, 96% do not have enough money to buy basic food items and 96% say the crisis has increased unemployment in their community. Warns the report:

“Many of these women are now on a precipice, at risk of falling straight back into poverty.”

Sharmini Thiyakaran, a Sri Lankan who runs a small factory processing coconut husks had this to say:

“Coronavirus hit us hard at the start as we are so dependent on the export market. We had to completely stop production, we had no income and I had large amounts of stock I could not sell. I feared that my business would completely collapse and I was worried about not being able to pay my staff. Now we are diversifying and building a more local customer base. We are also developing new products.”

Why is this important? Even before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum had predicted it would take another 257 years to reach economic parity between men and women. However, the 270,000 women entrepreneurs enrolled in CARE projects across seven coutnries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, were advancing much faster, with a reported 91% increase in average daily earnings since 2014. Now those recent gains could be lost . Reintje van Haeringen, International Gender Champion and CEO CARE Nederland:

“We will not stand by and watch decades worth of progress on fighting poverty and gender equality lost through this crisis.”

Haeringen spoke at an online event thisweek organized by The International Gender Champions which has a branch in Geneva. An expert panel discussed next steps to put “gender equality front and center” in economic recovery plans.

Women Mean Business. Since 2014, almost 270 000 women have been supported by CARE’s Women in Enterprise programme operating in Guatemala, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Peru, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Yemen. Despite growing up hungry or with no education, women who accessed funds and training through the programme became astute entrepreneurs, supporting families and sometimes even elevating whole communities out of poverty. Solange Hai, Program Manager at CARE Netherland :

“The biggest lesson of this report is the positive effect women have as role models.”

A few other findings from the report, which assessed the results of rapid surveys from each country’s projects:

  • women’s bank account ownership more than doubled between 2017-2020 and the number of women taking out small business loans increased; 75% of women repaid their loans;

  • 92% of women said training helped improve their businesses, reporting a direct link between training and income increase; many women entrepreneurs also provided employment to other women;

  • 78% of women use their savings for business purposes (up from 53%).

Diana Amini, Global Manager, H&M Foundation, which funds the CARE programme:

“Investing in women is one of the most efficient ways to drive positive change and economic prosperity.”

Five components for success. Women entrepreneurs have already shown tremendous resilience in the face of civil war (Yemen), the Ebola epidemic (Sierra Leone), and natural disasters. They are now looking for ways to adapt and diversify their businesses to get through the pandemic. Says the report:

“With the right support, they can contribute to community resilience and economic recovery during and after this crisis.”

CARE has identified five ingredients for success:

  • Training;

  • Encouraging the power of groups and networks;

  • Improving the business environment;

  • Access to finance and capital:

  • Engaging men and boys: across all countries surveyed, some 72% of women reported getting no help from male family members in their business enterprises; the women also continue to do all the childcare, cooking and other household chores.

The case of Sri Lanka.

There have been some notable progresses, however. In Sri Lanka, for instance, 83% of women in the CARE projects reported getting more support from men and boys as they grew their businesses, and 75% of women said male family members were helping more with domestic chores;

Some 34% of women reported an increase in joint decision-making on how to spend their income. And the number of women owning productive assets in their own name doubled.

Overall, about 50% of the entrepreneurs said that they were now getting help of some kind, either domestic or work-related, from their husbands and sons. Arudselvi Jaicilin, who runs a clothing business:

“My husband gets the children ready for school in the morning and prepares breakfast and lunch. I have also taught him to sew, so he can help me with bulk orders in the business.”