Building back better for southern Africa’s working women

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In the two years since the deadliest pandemic in over 100 years, nations around the world have learned a lot about the nature of resilience—lessons about both incredible endurance and devastating disadvantage. In addition to a catastrophic toll on human life, the subsequent economic slump has slowed the return to normal. But not everyone suffered the fallout equally: women, for example, have fallen deeper into an ever-widening economic gender gap. The pandemic shut down the service sectors in which many women traditionally work―like hospitality and retail―and many other women who are self-employed workers in the formal sector found themselves with few formal protections, such as paid sick leave, insurance, or furlough schemes. The fact that women earn less than men in general compounds the issue further, as many women simply have fewer savings to fall back on when income dries up.

How we as a civilization choose to recover our global economies depends on making informed choices, including allocating proper resources to more vulnerable demographics―like women in developing nations. In 2020, the World Bank estimated that sub-Saharan Africa would see a significant economic decline as a result of the pandemic, and by 2021 more than 60 percent of the population in some countries across the region had lost their jobs. Much of the pandemic-induced income loss came from the region’s informal sector, largely occupied by women.

As learnings are taken from the world’s response to COVID-19, socioeconomic reports and open letters from prominent leaders strongly suggest that a women-centric shift in policy could greatly help alleviate the disproportionate economic harm to women. Governments can assist by targeting support to typically women-occupied business sectors, covering micro businesses in bailouts (the sector in which most of Africa’s women work), and promoting female access to male-dominated industries. Private-sector industries can better lend their support, too, since relatively few financial institution products or services include women entrepreneurs, making it harder for women to track revenue, protect incomes, and get access to business-building loans.

Research also suggests that a policy-led, gender-equalizing sea change in functioning society will lead to a better, more equitable future. One year into the pandemic, UN Women—the United Nations entity dedicated to building gender equality and empowering women—outlined a feminist road map for a socially just way out of the pandemic and securing a sustainable future. Among other empowerment-focused recommendations, UN Women outlined what moving into a more just economy involves: Prioritizing women’s access to work, pumping support into care systems that are already female dominated, and moving investment into climate change-tackling sectors, where women in local communities, particularly across Africa, are leading the charge in sustainable energy.

In support of their findings, UN Women is continually informing government policies based on sex-disaggregated data that highlights women’s economic needs to help close the widened gender gap. On the ground, UN Women is actively supporting women-owned businesses across all regions through training, grants, and ongoing mentorships. Since 2017, diamond company De Beers has partnered with UN Women and local governments to support this initiative with its AWOME (Accelerating Women-Owned Micro-Enterprises) program. In a bid to help create and nurture a wider range of businesses, AWOME provides business training and mentoring to women in the informal sector—supporting them to manage their enterprises and their revenue for a more secure income. A key priority for the AWOME program is upskilling and equipping local trainers to ensure that the program is sustainably embedded for the long-term, ongoing mentoring is offered, and training and mentoring are delivered by people who know the community, environment, and challenges.

Since its conception, AWOME has been supporting female micro-entrepreneurs across southern Africa in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. As in the rest of the world, COVID-19 presented difficulties, both in delivering programs and for the entrepreneurs involved. “The COVID pandemic has a huge impact on my business,” says Nduva Haivongo from Shakawe village in Botswana, who’s been running her general dealership since 2002. Haivongo built up her business, initially selling simple staples like sugar before expanding to offer more expensive commodities like meat, blankets, and crockery. “There were very few customers, and I wasn’t making a lot of sales,” she adds. Thankfully, as restrictions eased, trainers were able to get back out and help women get their businesses back up and running. “They told me not to be disheartened,” Haivongo says of her mentorship. “They kept encouraging me to keep going.”

Throughout the pandemic’s most severe period (2020-21), AWOME supported nearly 600 women entrepreneurs in enhancing their digital literacy and their ability to market themselves. More than 300 women were able to register their businesses, which allowed them to become eligible for government support. And in 2021—when the program was able to physically reengage with communities—over 100 women received direct mentoring for unique benefits to their businesses. “I feel that Awome has helped us out a lot.” Says Moruledi Jeremiah, who helps run Ngwao Boswa Basketry, a traditional basket weaving business started by her village’s elders in the mid 1980s. “It had become hard to keep the business going for the elders, says Jeremiah of the pandemic period. “Now [AWOME has] helped us remain focused, determined, and not give up too easily.” Jeremiah says of the future of her business. “Having a patient heart has helped us see that, as we move forward, we are going to achieve amazing things.”

De Beers has extended the partnership with UN Women for an additional five years—all part of the company’s “Building Forever” goal to support 10,000 female entrepreneurs by 2030. And to play their part toward bringing UN Women’s road map to fruition, De Beers has joined the UN Women-convened HeForShe Alliance, and made a commitment to increase the number of women in technical roles within the company. This builds on a longstanding relationship with the social enterprise WomEng, to encourage more girls and women to consider studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects and pursue STEM careers. In fact, De Beers aims to attain gender parity across their workforce by 2030 by increasing the number of women in leadership and technical positions.

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis and adjusts to a new normal, a unique opportunity exists to define exactly what “normal” will look like. Working together, people, governments, and organizations have the power to build back better, stronger―and structured in a way that puts genders on an equal footing. Doing this won’t just reduce the disproportionate economic effects of a disaster, it will strengthen global resilience to future challenges.

Find out how De Beers creates positive impacts here.

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