BUSINESS MAVERICK OP-ED

A survey shows young women are bearing the brunt of Covid-19 unemployment

By Maryana Iskander 12 August 2020

The gendered impact of the Covid-19 crisis highlights the urgent case for investing in young women, says the writer. (Photo: Alet Pretorius / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Of the three million job losses in South Africa as a result of Covid-19, two million were held by women. While the deck has always been stacked against women, Covid-19 exposes the staggering inequalities and barriers that women face in finding, and keeping, work.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, young women shouldered additional burdens from childcare and other household responsibilities. They had less time and money to look for work, and faced a greater threat of harassment even if they could get a job interview. Young women are also less likely to have some of the tangible attributes that significantly boost the chances of finding work, such as a matric or a driver’s licence.

The impact of Covid-19 has exacerbated all of these challenges – with increased gender-based violence, missed educational opportunities and a precarious economic environment where women are hardest hit. Never has it felt truer that women need to work twice as hard to get half as far.

As the economy has started to reopen, young women have struggled more than young men to get back to work. Harambee’s data shows that at the height of South Africa’s lockdown in mid-May 2020, employment rates for young men fell from 30% to 23%, and for women from 23% to 18%. When South Africa eased lockdown regulations, employment for men rose close to pre-lockdown levels while employment for women remained at 18%, further widening the gap. 

Women were disproportionately affected by school closures, increasing their childcare and household responsibilities, and preventing re-entry into the labour market. Women also form a major part of those occupations affected by the lockdown, such as retail, service and the hospitality sectors. 

Women in the informal sector have been the hardest hit during South Africa’s lockdown. Working hours for self-employed women and casual workers decreased disproportionately, with earnings decreasing by nearly 70%.

We need to accelerate solutions that will enable women to quickly regain a foothold in the economy. This includes prioritising the safe reopening of schools, using cash transfers to channel money directly into the hands of young women, and providing cost-effective and accessible childcare facilities that free up women to look for work. 

Lockdown closures of childcare programmes have meant that up to 175,000 early childhood employees have had to stop working, reducing care for up to 1 million young children and significantly impacting their caregivers’ ability to return to work. We need to prioritise the safe reopening of childcare options, while also recognising the need for care options for working parents. By growing the childcare sector, we could catalyse over 100,000 jobs for early learning providers, in addition to unlocking labour market opportunities for the caregivers of children. 

It’s not just about equity – the evidence is clear about investing in women. Greater gender equality leads to better development outcomes, reducing income inequality and supporting economic resilience. Women’s increased economic participation leads to a higher spend on schooling for children, with important implications for growth in the long run.

The gendered impact of the Covid-19 crisis highlights the urgent case for investing in young women. 

As we seek to rebuild our economy, we have a chance to rewire the system around the young woman, reducing her barriers to finding work and creating jobs that actively seek out her contributions while also conveying her real value, and potential. Let us not watch this window close. DM/BM

Maryana Iskander is CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator.

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