The COVID-19 pandemic showcased women’s importance, but also their vulnerability. For example, in Uganda women were forgotten or excluded from measures providing (economic) assistance and forced out of the labour market to take care of their families. This disempowered them economically, simultaneously negatively impacting the economy. A range of measures targeting unpaid care work and the informal sector is vital to attain gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2030.
A study by the Economic Policy Research Centre notes that “in Uganda, women and girls spend around twenty hours per week on unpaid care work, twice as much time as men and boys”. This disproportion entrenches social gender norms that continue to disempower women and impede them from gaining quality employment. Unpaid care work absorbs a lot of women’s time and energy, reducing their competitiveness in the labour market. Consequently, women are more inclined to accept lower-income and insecure jobs, often in the informal sector. That places women in an economically disempowered position vis-à-vis men. Over and above Uganda’s pledge to pursue gender equality and women’s empowerment, women’s work is also of significant importance to Uganda’s society.
Unpaid care work, including cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children, the elderly and the sick, has long been considered “a woman’s job”, profoundly ingrained due to religious and traditional fundamentalism that continues to see women as second-class citizens. Unpaid care work plays an important role in the livelihoods and well-being of individuals and their families, as well as in the countries and community’s economic activity. In addition, SDG 5, Target 5.4 calls on countries to “recognise and value unpaid care work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate”.
Pushing for care work to be recognised and funded through national and sub-national budgets is vital to creating greater economic equality between men and women. That should go some way to compensating for the current gender gap in unpaid care work that negatively impacts women’s potential for (active) labour market participation and the quality of jobs open to them. To cite the OECD Development Centre: “Every minute more a woman spends on unpaid care work represents one minute less that she could be potentially spending on market-related activities or investing in her educational and vocational skills”. Gender inequality in the context of unpaid care work translates into larger gender gaps in the labour market, exacerbating gender inequality. In Uganda, the informal sector accounts for 50% of GDP and 75% of total employment. Additionally, a disproportionally high percentage of working women (85%) is active in the informal sector e.g., as seamstresses or hawking goods.
Women struggle to reconcile their unpaid care work with paid employment offering proper working and security conditions. There is a risk of “occupational downgrading” for women in Uganda; lack of access to better alternatives means women may accept poor working conditions and employment below their skill level, often in the informal sector, posing extensive risks to their well-being. The ILO notes that the “negative aspects of work in the informal economy far outweigh its positive aspects. Workers in the informal economy are not recognised, registered, regulated, or protected under labour legislation and social protection, for example when their employment status is ambiguous, and are therefore not able to enjoy, exercise or defend their fundamental rights. Since they are normally not organised, they have little or no collective representation vis-à-vis employers or public authorities. Workers in the informal economy may be characterised by varying degrees of dependency and vulnerability”. Moreover, work in the informal economy is often characterised by small or undefined workplaces, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, low levels of skills and productivity, low or irregular incomes, long working hours, and lack of access to information, markets, and finance, training, and technology. In addition, women tend to opt for part-time rather than full-time work, again reducing their economic capacity and power.
The importance of providing support for unpaid care work and the informal sector became increasingly visible during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected all aspects of work, with the strict lockdown amplifying vulnerabilities for many workers. For instance, food prices fell due to lack of access to transportation of goods from farms to markets. While demand was available, access to the end users was extremely hard with the total lockdown and the presidential directive banning travel. This had a disproportionately harsh impact on workers in the informal sector due to scant social protection mechanisms. Government provisions failed to target workers in the informal sector adequately, particularly as these workers had limited scope to negotiate due to the sector’s informal nature; for example, no guidelines on the provision of direct income support were adopted. In addition, gender-specific data was not available to inform decision-making for the support programmes. This had an especially negative impact on women, who make up most workers in the informal sector. The pandemic, and the limited support they received, forced women to use their meagre savings to sustain their families; the ensuing exacerbation of poverty will continue to impact these women in future and diminish their economic power.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed women further out of the labour market as the unpaid care work burden was aggravated. Many women in Uganda spend much of their time doing such unpaid care work, which intensified when lockdown forced children and other members of the (extended) family to stay at home, particularly as women were expected to take care of relatives who fell ill. Failure to perform the tasks expected of them often resulted in violence towards women as an expression of dissatisfaction, further fanned by insecurity and job losses.
Figures for domestic violence soared. For example, The Independent magazine reported that as of April 16th, 2020, police had recorded 328 cases of domestic violence since lockdown began on 31st March 2020. The Annual Crime and Traffic/Road Safety Report for 2020-2021 notes that domestic violence continues to top the list of crimes in Uganda.
Placing women’s agenda at the forefront of budgeting and planning service delivery points can effectively tackle the cycle of female economic disempowerment. Provision of government-assisted low-interest loan schemes will help women in the informal sector to boost their businesses by, for example, expanding the range of goods offered. As women must repay these loans, this will encourage hard work, as well as providing capital options for businesses that would otherwise need to close due to lack of funds. This will also help women evade loan sharks. Such backing by government entities can provide security to their businesses. Tools to support branding and add value will also help women in the informal sector to boost revenues from goods sold, which will gradually foster economic empowerment.
Furthermore, it is time for Uganda to take up the challenge of putting unpaid care work at the top of the agenda and providing publicly accessible alternatives to ensure that women can thrive sustainably. Market funding initiatives, affordable health care access for women working in markets, and better access to health services would allow women to focus on earning a living, for example, by cutting the amount of time spent queuing to access medication. All these measures will enable Uganda to work towards achieving Agenda 2030 and ensuring that no one is left behind.
Tricia Gloria Nabaye is an FES Fellowship Alumni and Resident Research Associate at the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies. She is a guest writer for the Daily Monitor and a co-moderator for The Women’s Show on Civic Space TV. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Development Studies.