"Pandemic increases violence against women"


What are the consequences of Corona for women in Africa? Jan Ruebel asked Léa Rouanet - the economist works at the Africa Gender Innovation Lab of the World Bank.


Together against discrimination: Participants of  a support group in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt
Together against discrimination: Participants of a support group in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt

Léa Rouanet

Léa Rouanet is an Economist working at the World Bank Africa Gender Innovation Lab. Her current research identifies and addresses gender-based constraints to economic activity in sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on agriculture, youth employment, socio-emotional skills, gender-based violence and adolescent girls programming. She is currently involved in several impact evaluations on these topics across Africa. Before joining the World Bank, Rouanet was a PhD candidate and Research Fellow at the Paris School of Economics, where her research focused on nutrition, child mortality, fertility and gender preferences in Africa. She holds a PhD from the Paris School of Economics.

The World Bank’s Africa Region Gender Innovation Lab (GIL) conducts impact evaluations which assess the outcome of development interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa, to generate evidence on how to close the gender gap in earnings, productivity, assets, and agency. GIL focuses on five thematic areas: Agriculture, Private Sector Development, Property Rights, Social Norms, and Youth Employment.



Does any data already show what effect Corona is having on gender inequalities in African countries?

It is still a bit too soon for strong data. One of the reasons is that with the lockdowns, development agencies have stopped doing interviews and collecting data. Hence, a lot of planned surveys haven’t happened yet. Instead, we moved to telephone surveys. But speaking on the phone about mental health and gender based violence is tricky. And, most women do not own the phones you are calling. It is hard to ensure confidentiality… However, some early findings suggest that the pandemic may indeed be widening the already large gender inequalities in developing countries. We’re working with researchers at Facebook and the OECD to examine COVID’s impact on business closures. Based on a sample of ca. 27,000 business pages on Facebook, we find that about 26% of businesses have closed in the past six months. When we control for the region where a business is located, we find that women entrepreneurs are about 6 percentage points more likely to close their business than men. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 41% of women-owned businesses were shuttered in the past six months, a level that is 7 percentage points higher than that of male-owned firms. This is likely due to women entrepreneurs‘ sector of operations, lower capital base, and higher care responsibilities. The Gender Innovation Lab also surveyed female entrepreneurs in Ethiopia: 64% of female owned firms in the sample have closed; many say it’s temporary; 24% of respondents said they were having trouble paying their loans; and 70% say they could use loans to get through the crisis.


With Covid-19, the vulnerability of women and mothers has increased. Symbolic photo: Christoph Püschner / Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe
With Covid-19, the vulnerability of women and mothers has increased. Symbolic photo: Christoph Püschner / Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe

So, what do you do?

As much as possible, we are moving to phone surveys to follow up with our existing sample and understand what is happening to them. For instance, we are starting data collection for a youth employment project in Ivory Coast, conducting telephone surveys with young men and women of Abidjan and Bassam.


What results do you expect?

The health aspect of the Coronavirus pandemic might be of greater importance for women because they work more as caregivers and health workers. The economic impact on them is also expected to be worse, since women are more likely to be in informal sectors, spend more time on household and care activities, and have fewer assets to cushion them from shocks.


Corona strengthens social structures that have been around for generations. Does this destroy prior achievements for women’s rights?

A lot of achievements from the last decades are threatened by lockdowns, school closures and reductions in health services. Take female farmers, for instance. They are mainly responsible for domestic chores and caretaking duties. Even before Covid-19, they had less time for their farms and had lower productivity compared to men. Now, with all these measures in place, it is more likely that they will have to shoulder more domestic responsibilities.


What happens when adolescent girls are affected by lockdowns, closed schools and reduced job chances?

We have good informative evidence from Sierra Leone during the Ebola pandemic. It shows that girls spent an additional 1.3 hours per week with men during the Ebola crisis. In areas with high prevalence of Ebola, girls were also twice as likely to become pregnant. Pregnancies are highly linked to the likelihood of leaving school, and they have long-term consequences. Now, with closed schools and a reduction in health services, this means less access to sexual and reproductive health services and contraceptives. Basically, this can interrupt the trajectories of adolescent girls at a point in life so critical for their outcomes.


Female entrepreneurs with less income need social protection via money transfers and graduation programs.


How should health systems respond to gender-based violence, for instance?

The fact that most women don’t have their own smartphones makes it even harder for us to work with them as we don’t know how to reach them. It also makes it difficult for women to reach services when they need help. Although the rigorous evidence on this topic remains limited, UN and WHO recommendations offer several approaches that governments and NGOs can consider. First, they can increase the capacities of existing helplines. If a woman is threatened, she will eventually find a phone to call and we need to make sure that somebody takes these calls. Second, in the current crisis we need to think about the mental health consequences of gender-based violence and start to think about how to address it. For sure, we need to train community healthworkers and give them the skills to respond to this violence – not only as an intermediate response, but also for the mental health problems that will arise as a result. This will be very crucial when we enter the recovery phase of the Covid19 crisis.


During the lockdown, where can women go when they have been attacked at home?

They can’t escape easily. Shelters need to be expanded. You mentioned health systems, but when we talk about gender-based violence, we need to address behavoural changes, too. We need campaigns, using all the media available. And we need to bring in religious and community leaders. At the World Bank, we have programmes mobilizing community and religious leaders, for instance under the Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend Project, and now we are retailoring them to the current situation.


Psychological help in African countries is not particularly widespread…

The level of psychological counseling and psychosocial support is indeed low. However, you can increase and develop the number of trained people everywhere. I have seen more and more interventions and improvements, and there are promising avenues. I have been working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we are currently doing an impact evaluation of Narrative Exposure Therapy, which can help survivors of gender-based violence suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Congolese healthworkers are trained and, while they are not mental health professionals, they can help. Initial results from this work are encouraging. There is room for improvement on this topic, using the available rigorous evidence.


What is the role of cash transfers for women – and how can this reduce violence against them?

They are important in the context of violence. A recent review found that, out of 14 cash transfer programmes that had been evaluated, 11 of them led to a decrease in intimate partner violence due to the transfers. This is one incentive for providing transfers during the current crisis. Reducing household poverty and stress helps reduce conflict and violence. These transfers are disproportionately important for women for other reasons, too. Before COVID-19, we already knew that women had less savings and lower access to credit and that they worked more in sectors with less of a safety net. Basically, cash transfers are one of the only options for these female business owners to buffer them from the crisis.


Democratic Republic of Congo: Women carry their crops in plastic trays to the market in the next larger village. Photo: Christoph Püschner / Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe
Democratic Republic of Congo: Women carry their crops in plastic trays to the market in the next larger village. Photo: Christoph Püschner / Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe

Female entrepreneurs work more in the informal and operate strongly in less profitable sectors. Does that make it more difficult to reach out to them? What can be done?

The poorer women business owners need social protection through cash transfers and graduation programs. Female enterprises are strongly affected by shocks, so that they need support through the crisis and beyond. For more established firms led by women, impactful financial tools include lines of credit and meso-financing with flexible terms, as well as psychometrics and alternative collateral technologies. Another avenue would be to adapt the mindset entrepreneurship training, that we evaluated in Togo, to the COVID context, using a digital platform. In the agricultural sector, you can provide inputs, seeds, and fertilizers; to women farmers who already have access to mobile technologies, you can provide digital extension services. If we don’t help women farmers now, their productivity will be down next year. Now is the planting season, so it is the right time to act.   


Does the choice of sector matter for women? Is it important that women enter branches where they are typically less likely to operate?

It matters a lot. Sector choice explains a big part of the gender wage gap – that is true everywhere in the world. At the World Bank, we did several studies in Sub-Sahara Africa to examine what happens when women “crossover” into male-dominated sectors. Women who transition into these sectors generate the same profits as men. But now, during COVID-19, sectors matter even more.


Teams at the Worldbank plan to combine programs of money transfer with the delivery of phones.


Do you fear more conflicts? That men are defending their privileges even harder?

Yes, I do fear that. A working paper in April looked at the link between pandemics and violence against women. Based on existing literature, it documents nine direct and indirect pathways, from pandemics to violence.


For example?

First, economic insecurity and poverty-related stress. However, what is very specific for this crisis now, the social isolation, is that women can end up being stuck at home with their perpetrators.


Women are crucial for maintaining the food system. What are the most powerful tools to help them?

Even when women do not work directly in the food industry as vendors or producers, they are responsible for bringing food to the table. If businesses are affected disproportionately, unless there is a reallocation of who is in charge of food expenses in the household, food security might be disproportionately affected by this crisis. This concern is even greater because we know that women work a lot in the food system. In urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, informal food markets are a major source of accessible and affordable food. Most of the street vendors and informal traders are women. Measures being taken now threaten both the flow of the food trade and the incomes of these female traders. Again, cash transfers are probably their best option.


But how does that work if they don’t own phones?

It’s true that digital payments can be tricky for such population. For that reason, some teams at the World Bank are thinking about matching cash transfer programs with delivering phones. Mobile money still sounds like a promising option in many contexts. The Supporting Women’s Livelihoods component of the World Bank Zambia GEWEL project includes digital payments for women that are quite innovative as the project provides women beneficiaries with a choice between payment service providers, including commercial banks, mobile operators, and the post office. Over 90 percent of beneficiaries choose a mobile money provider. The choice-based, multi-provider system doesn’t just facilitate implementation, but also empowers women by promoting their agency and financial inclusion. There isn’t an explicit COVID component under GEWEL, but the project continues to be implemented during this period, providing economic relief and recovery for extremely poor households in rural areas.


So, providing a mobile phone, money and business skills will aid women’s rights – is it really that easy?

No, this will support women’s productivity and women staying in employment and income. These are key for women’s empowerment. And let us not forget the clear link between poverty and violence.


All this would be needed, too, without Corona? How much more urgent are things now?

Many of these women-led businesses would not necessarily need cash transfers and support if we didn’t have the lockdown and economic crisis, simply because trade would and could continue freely. However, helping women access labor and non-labor inputs, including credit and assets, is always important – there is still a huge gender gap in terms of access. The same applies to human capital and education! We are worried girls won’t come back to school when they reopen. We must make sure they do!

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