A summary of Pacific Women’s Webinar on Women’s Economic Empowerment and COVID-19

The Pacific Women webinar on Women’s Economic Empowerment and COVID-19 explored measures for a gender-aware and feminist response to the impacts of the pandemic. Panellists discussed women’s economic empowerment and efforts to assist women, particularly those in the informal economy, affected by the impacts of COVID-19.

The booked-out event was hosted on 22 July 2020 at the Pacific Women Support Unit in Suva, Fiji, attracting online participants from around the Pacific and the world. It was Pacific Women’s first webinar on Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) − usually it hosts a quarterly regional WEE Roundtable gathering with this now shifting to the public webinar series during the COVID-19 period.

Key issues discussed during the webinar

During the webinar, the following key points about women’s economic empowerment raised the most questions and discussion:

  • Women’s economic status is disproportionately affected by the impacts of COVID-19: women are more likely than men to work in low-paying, informal and precarious work, without safety nets, job security, paid leave or insurance for economic shocks.
  • Small island countries (or ‘big ocean countries’) have been particularly affected by challenges with food security during COVID-19 due to their reliance on food imports and remittances. Changes to global transport and food supply chains and drops in the overseas employment income of relatives, have posed significant challenges for many Pacific families, with major implications for women who are usually responsible for sourcing and preparing meals for their families and communities. Women also make up the majority of market vendors, many of whom have lost income due to the closure of markets, increased competition in food sales and increased cost of many foods.
  • Pacific women are taking on the increased childcare and domestic labour responsibilities, known as the burden of unpaid work. This is arising from the closure of many schools and workplaces, and the movement of people back to rural areas, adding to their existing unpaid work load. Increased care work is also reducing the time women have available for money making activities.
  • There are actions Pacific governments can take to ensure responses to the economic impacts of COVID-19 respond to, and support women who are most affected. Important measures include ensuring basic incomes, insurance scheme for the unemployed and those in the informal economy, financial and in-kind relief to rural women bearing the burden of increased domestic labour and cash transfers for immediate needs, focusing on women. These actions can support women as they deal with the dual crisis of COVID-19 and the aftermath of Cyclone Harold in Fiji and Cyclone Tino in Tuvalu.
  • Actions to support women’s economic empowerment during COVID-19 must also take into account women’s safety and protection given the increasing rate of men’s violence against women.

Panel of specialists from the Pacific

The webinar was facilitated by Tara Chetty, Pacific Women Support Unit Partnerships Lead, with an introduction from Isabelle Gurney, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Adviser with the Support Unit. Ms Gurney provided background context on how women in the Pacific, and globally, are disproportionately affected by the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. She highlighted that women are performing more domestic labour and childcare work, that rates of men’s violence against women has increased and that women are over-represented in low-paid, informal work without job security or paid leave, placing them in a more precarious economic position. The scale of women’s financial loss during economic downturn often remains unmeasured and unrecognised.

The panel consisted of three highly experience specialists from the Pacific, who discussed WEE issues including women’s unpaid labour and increased care burden, as well as systemic inequalities faced by women.

Maureen Penjueli, Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), discussed how COVID-19 could be an opportunity to re-define the economic system to be based on values of environmental sustainability and equitability rather than accumulation and exploitation. She made a case for stronger social safety nets to respond to lost incomes as a result of the pandemic’s impacts. These include basic safety precautions such as systems to protect basic income and an insurance scheme for the unemployed; more emphasis on wealth and corporate taxes in the taxation system; and positive subsidies for farmers to ensure food pricing is at a critical level. Ms Penjueli noted that direct budget support to governments from development partners can also help, if they include ‘positive conditionality’ that targets social safety nets and systems.

Brenda Andrias, Programme Manager of UN Women’s Safe and Prosperous Districts Programme, spoke about the experience of market vendors. In Papua New Guinea, 80–90 per cent of vendors are women. When markets were shut down as part of the government’s response to COVID-19, they experienced a huge reduction in income. Like Ms Penjueli, Ms Andrias supported the need for more social protection and insurance measures for workers in the informal economy, while expanding ways women can access finance. She outlined how her project is working to make markets operational − in line with new government guidelines − and safe for the women who work there. She noted when there are economic shocks that stop vendors from trading, development programming can support women to diversify their income streams. They can also work with vendors’ families to promote women’s rights to make decisions about the way they spend the money they earn.

Asita Molotii, Director of the Gender Affairs Department, Government of Tuvalu, discussed how women’s care work and unpaid domestic labour has increased, despite there being no recorded cases of COVID-19 in Tuvalu. The pandemic’s global impact on trade raised concerns about the ability of boats to deliver food to the capital city, Funafuti, so the government encouraged people to relocate to outer islands for food security. This has resulted in women’s increased unpaid domestic work, according to a rapid assessment of the effect of COVID-19 on Tuvaluan women, conducted by Ms Molotii’s department and supported by Pacific Women. The assessment found 81 per cent of women interviewed were experiencing a greater burden from care work, with increased carer duties for elderly family members and children not attending school. Increased care work is also reducing the time women have available for money making activities, such as producing handicrafts. The Tuvaluan Government is looking at how to assist women producing handicrafts. Read more about the findings in the assessment summary and leaflet.

You can watch a recording of the webinar here:

The Webinar on Women’s Economic Empowerment and COVID-19 in the Pacific was hosted by Pacific Women, as a forum for its WEE Roundtable meeting it convenes quarterly.
Through a 10-year commitment, Pacific Women connects more than 170 gender equality initiatives supported by Australia and implemented by over 160 partners across 14 Pacific Island countries. Providing technical, knowledge sharing and convening support to the portfolio of partners is Pacific Women’s Support Unit, working to improve the long-term impact of gender equality projects in the Pacific.