Across Europe and Central Asia, women take on the economic impacts of the pandemic

Date: Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Nearly a year into the pandemic, we now have research on the economic impacts of the COVID-19 for women and men in Europe and Central Asia, as well as promising stories of how women are confronting the challenges.

According to the International Labour Organization, there was a 14 per cent drop in working hours in Europe and Central Asia during the second quarter of 2020 and, globally, the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs have been lost – with women disproportionately affected.

Moreover, research commissioned by UN Women and UNDP shows that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls.

Rapid gender assessments reveal deeper impacts

On the heels of the pandemic, the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia conducted a rapid gender assessment to evaluate the impacts of COVID-19, in collaboration with partners. The survey, conducted in 16 countries between April and June 2020, revealed that women’s paid working hours had declined across all countries/territories[1] – ranging from 31 per cent in Georgia to 65 per cent in Kosovo[2] – while decreased earnings for women ranged from 15 per cent in North Macedonia to 52 per cent in Turkey. An alarming 60 per cent of women reported that it would be difficult to cover basic expenses, such as rent and utilities, if restrictive measures continued.

According to a more recent rapid gender assessment in North Macedonia, one in three women have found it difficult to cover basic living expenses such as food, hygiene products, rent and utilities. However, there is a wide gap between those facing such difficulty in rural versus urban areas (42 versus 27 per cent). Although both women and men from rural areas experienced a decline in income from agricultural activities, this was more pronounced among rural women.

The assessment in North Macedonia also highlights the key role of gender-responsive budgeting in improving local pandemic responses. Municipalities have been applying the approach to better understand the specific needs of women and other vulnerable groups and to realign their budgets accordingly. UN Women also did a mapping of COVID-19’s impact on women and men in all 21 municipalities as they planned COVID-19 support programmes. With UN Women’s technical support, over the past year, more than 250 gender-specific measures have been budgeted in 21 municipalities across the country.

A new rapid gender assessment in Serbia reveals that women have been much harder hit than men, with 7 per cent of employed women losing their jobs or being forced to take unpaid leave, compared to only 4 per cent of employed men. Women are also far more likely than men to be working from home (56 versus 34 per cent), further increasing their already disproportionate load of care and domestic work.

An earlier UN Women Rapid Gender Assessment in Turkey similarly found that women were more likely than men to lose their jobs (19 versus 14 per cent), and although both reported increased workloads at home, 78 per cent of women reported spending more time on cleaning, versus 47 per cent of men.

Increased care burdens lead women to reduce or abandon paid work

 Daniela Fejzaj, a 40-year-old information technology professional, works from home due to COVID-19 with increased household and family responsibilities. Photo: Private archive
Daniela Fejzaj, a 40-year-old information technology professional, works from home due to COVID-19 with increased household and family responsibilities. Photo: Private archive

“The days got longer; they never ended”, recalls Daniela Fejzaj, a 40-year-old information technology professional and mother of two, remembering the endless chores during the COVID-19 lockdown in Albania. She and her husband worked from home for more than two months, but she carried the burden of unpaid labour, spending around nine hours per day. “It was impossible to stick to the official work schedule; I was on-and-off throughout the day, working until 1 or 2 in the morning,” she says.

An online survey in Albania revealed that although women were less likely than men to lose their jobs, women were more likely to decrease their working hours. Almost half (46 per cent) of self-employed women living with children did so, mainly to care for children and do housework. Confirming the unequal distribution of unpaid work, 46 per cent of women versus 67 per cent of men reported receiving more help with care and domestic chores from their partner.

Similarly, in North Macedonia, an assessment reveals that more women (35 per cent) than men (23 per cent) have been working from home and shouldering the greater share of domestic responsibilities.

Photo courtesy of Ms. Ivana Mitrovska
Photo courtesy of Ms. Ivana Mitrovska

“There is no way to carry out both responsibilities perfectly at the same time unless there is help from the father or grandparents,” says Ivana Mitrovska, who works remotely for the private sector while caring for her 4-year-old daughter. “Parents who can work from home and have children at home face great difficulties since they have additional responsibilities with the online education of their children.”

Global UN Women research reveals that the increased childcare burden has also led a greater number of women to leave the labour market. According to data for 55 high- and middle-income countries, 28 million women aged 25+ abandoned the labour force in the first two quarters of 2020, compared to 24.1 million men aged 25+. Women’s labour force participation is highly influenced by domestic and caregiving responsibilities in ways that men’s is not. European Union data also reveal that absences from work were higher among women than men during the first wave, when schools and childcare centres closed or moved to remote/online formats.

In response to such uneven domestic and care burdens, a new UN Women and UNFPA campaign called ‘Look Beyond’ seeks to make sure that housework is equally shared by both men and women in the Eastern Partnership[3]. The campaign includes a series of videos, policy initiatives as well as an Instagram filter mini-game that randomly assigns household chores to couples using it together.

Targeted support needed for rural women and women-led businesses

In October, a joint UN assessment on the impacts of COVID-19 on households and businesses in Ukraine revealed that two-thirds of businesses were impacted and that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) operated by women were more likely to experience problems. Meanwhile, women made up 70 per cent of the beneficiaries of in-kind and cash assistance. The report cited Government social assistance and support, such as child assistance for SMEs, but urged more targeted support for women-owned SMEs.

Saudita Marku runs a guest house for tourists and also a bee-keeping business in north Albania. Photo: UN Women Albania
Saudita Marku runs a guest house for tourists and also a bee-keeping business in north Albania. Photo: UN Women Albania

In Albania, although the Government has taken broad measures to provide economic support to different groups, women in rural areas have been left out of these schemes, as almost 90 per cent of rural family businesses are registered in men’s names.

“We have called on local governments to apply gender lenses in the socioeconomic support schemes adopted, including using sex-disaggregated data when preparing beneficiaries’ lists,” says Fabiola Egro, Executive Director of Today for the Future Community Development Centre. “This would mean including in the COVID-19 support schemes those categories that are left behind, such as women who work in and outside their homes.”

Jelena Ruzic, founder of Women’s Association of Kolubara District. Photo courtesy of Women’s Association of Kolubara District
Jelena Ruzic, founder of Women’s Association of Kolubara District. Photo courtesy of Women’s Association of Kolubara District 

similar scenario is playing out in rural Serbia.

“Agriculture is facing enormous consequences and individual producers are now invisible to decision-makers,” says Jelena Ruzic, founder of the Women’s Association of Kolubara District, in western Serbia, which supports women’s economic empowerment through education and networking.

In light of the pandemic, Ruzic and 122 women involved in a UN Women-run, EU-funded project sent a letter to the Serbian Minister of Agriculture, suggesting alternatives for public transport and sales, the withdrawal of sanctions for movement for farmers, as essential workers, and protection for farmers from widespread abuse from buyers.

“We have noticed that some of the measures we suggested have been taken into account, such as the creation of an online platform to connect producers and buyers,” says Ruzic.

Nona Noniashvili proudly stands in the storeroom of the apple chips company, Enkeni. Photo: UN Women/Tara Milutis
Nona Noniashvili proudly stands in the storeroom of the apple chips company, Enkeni. Photo: UN Women/Tara Milutis

In Georgia, 25-year-old entrepreneur Nona Noniashvili agrees that governments need to be more supportive of women-led businesses during the pandemic, especially SMEs. “It would have been so much better if governments supported businesses with equipment and other needs and provided tools for them to quickly adapt to online services,” she says.

She built her company’s factory in a conflict-affected village along the boundary with South Ossetia, to help a community in need and empower local women. She has managed not only to keep her business afloat during the pandemic but to make it prosper by using online sales and social media promotions through an online platform (Soplidan.ge) UN Women connected them with.

“Our sales actually grew, even during the pandemic,” she says, proudly, urging women entrepreneurs not to lose hope and to innovate to overcome challenges.

On another front, UN Women and the Georgian Farmers’ Association have been ramping up their advocacy for agritourism legislation. The legislation was discussed at a meeting in June and the Parliament of Georgia is planning to pass the law on agritourism in the near future.

Grants and training for women entrepreneurs

As part of a new economic empowerment initiative in the Republic of Moldova, 200 women entrepreneurs will be supported to enhance their skills to start-up and run their own businesses, secure jobs and better manage their personal finances. Around 35 young women, especially from underrepresented groups, will receive grants to invest in their own businesses. Additionally, a sustainable network of up to 100 women entrepreneurs will be established to support each other and advocate for their needs with policy and decision-makers. 

Due to the high demand for COVID-19 protection masks, Mammadova managed to fill orders to supply more than 23,000 masks within 10 days.
Due to the high demand for COVID-19 protection masks, Mammadova managed to fill orders to supply more than 23,000 masks within 10 days.

In Tajikistan, women who had received UN Women training and grants prior to the pandemic used the skills they learned to quickly adapt their businesses to meet new demands.

Mammadova* had a small sewing workshop when took a UN Women training for women living with HIV in Tajikistan in 2019. Her proposal was one of four approved for a grant, which allowed her to expand and provide new jobs for 10 women in her rural hometown.

“UN Women support is especially important and timely during such difficult and uncertain times,” she says. Amid the high demand for COVID-19 face masks, Mammadova managed to fill orders to supply more than 23,000 within 10 days. She credits the knowledge she gained from the business trainings for allowing her to organize an effective production cycle, calculate capacity, efficiently distribute labour, and encourage workers to ensure quality and the timely execution of orders. 

Digital skills training helps women maintain and find new sources of income amid COVID-19

Berivan Atilgan lives in Şanlıurfa with her husband and three children. Photo: UN Women Tayfun Dalkılıç
Berivan Atilgan lives in Şanlıurfa with her husband and three children. Photo: UN Women Tayfun Dalkılıç

From behind her phone screen, Berivan Atilgan smiles as she receives another order. Her hand-crafted toys, baby blankets and baby socks used to be an important added source of income for her family. Now, they are their only source of income. Her husband, a seasonal agricultural worker, could not work due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Atilgan is among the 2,800 Syrian and Turkish women who enhanced their digital skills and employability through coding, computer literacy and Internet marketing training supported under a UN Women project.

“After the digital skills training course, I started to use [Instagram] differently, to promote my handicrafts. If I didn’t have any digital skills, I couldn’t have continued my sales, which brings the only income we currently have as a family. I market on Instagram and receive online orders from all over Turkey.”

Women in Almaty region, Kazakhstan receiving laptops, routers and annual Internet package. Photo UN Women/Yerbol Sergazin
Women in Almaty region, Kazakhstan receiving laptops, routers and annual Internet package. Photo UN Women/Yerbol Sergazin

In Kazakhstan, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UN Women has implemented an initiative designed to boost digital literacy, economic and business opportunities for women from rural communities who have been particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis. As part of the project, UN Women provided digital training and distributed laptops, routers and annual Internet packages to 68 women in six villages of Almaty and Akmola regions.

“Having a laptop and access to the Internet will allow me to improve my skills and explore all the possibilities and ideas for starting my own business,” said Zhamalbek Duisekhan, one of the beneficiaries from Shyrganak, Kegen District, Almaty Region.

Photo courtesy of Zerina Mandžo
Photo courtesy of Zerina Mandžo

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, UN Women’s IT Girls initiative focuses on increasing girls’ and women’s participation in the ICT sector through skills development, mentorship, economic empowerment and confidence-boosting. Adapting to the COVID-19 crisis, IT Girls shifted online, organizing free webinars on a range of topics for girls and young women whose regular education has been interrupted by the crisis.

“At the end of the day, the messages we received from girls who were inspired by our webinars to pursue careers in STEM are the best indicators of our success,” says Zerina Mandžo, IT Girls Project Officer for UN Women Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We know that access to technology is not the same throughout the country, so we will keep working to reduce this gap through online trainings and school initiatives, and to make sure that no girl is left behind.” 

Twelve free webinars have been hosted so far, which were livestreamed on Facebook, generating over 20,000 views on Facebook with communities all over the country. Over 250 people, mostly women and girls, have actively participated, learning about topics such as graphic design, robotics, project management and cyberbullying.

These are just some of the many stories of how women across Europe and Central Asia have been impacted economically by the pandemic – as well as how their drive, solidarity, innovation, advocacy and resilience are helping them, and others, to withstand the crisis. But such work cannot happen without support. 

Six steps governments and businesses can take

  1. Direct income support to women, including cash transfers.
  2. Support for women-owned and led businesses, including grants, loans and easing tax burdens.
  3. Support for women workers, including access to affordable, quality childcare.
  4. Support for informal workers, including job protection, social security benefits and deferring or exempting taxes.
  5. Reconciliation of paid and unpaid work, including leave or reduced/flexible working arrangements for primary caregivers, and providing childcare to essential workers.
  6. Harness digital solutions to build inclusive responses, leveraging technology to provide accessible online tools and help women access benefits or new business models.

 

This article focuses on the key efforts of UN Women and its partners to confront the economic impacts of the pandemic from June until January 2021. Read more about earlier responses in the early stages of the pandemic here.


*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

[1] Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Montenegro Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

[2] All references to Kosovo on this website should be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).

[3] The Eastern Partnership countries are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.