Covid-19 and the economic plight of women in Senegal

Fatou Sow Sarr analyses the economic effects of measures to combat the pandemic on women and calls for women to be put at the centre of economic and social reconstruction.

Bild: von Jasmin Hartmann Female vendors and processors of local products are seeing a drastic reduction in their activities.

Covid-19 has had an immeasurable impact on women in Senegal, both socially and economically. Indeed, 75% of Senegalese women work in the informal sector, according to the 2015/2016 UN Women Status Report, and the lockdown measures have led to a partial and sometimes total drop in their income, even though they do not benefit from any risk insurance.

The diagnostic study of the informal economy in Senegal, conducted by the International Labour Office in 2020, reveals that 85.7% of women in this sector have a turnover of less than FCFA 100,000 (US$ 171) per month, and 77.9% of women employed in informal enterprises earn less than FCFA 37,000 (US$ 63) per month.

As a result of the lockdown, these women have been deprived of income: waitresses, restaurateurs, hairdressers, make-up artists. Domestic workers have lost their jobs, such as Penda, who with two small children to cater for is compelled to return regularly home to her family, while no boss wants to take such risk with her. As for Aïssatou, who was responsible for cleaning her neighbourhood school for a sum of FCFA 35,000 (US$ 60) per month, she lost a source of income that allowed her to buy products to sell at the market, after her service hours. She is forced to solicit others to provide one meal per day for her children. In rural areas, the situation is no better: those involved in cashew processing are now technically unemployed with the departure of their Indian employers.

The women who sell and process local products are seeing their activities drastically reduced. Aminata, who used to leave the suburbs every evening to sell four gourds of couscous in Dakar, can no longer even sell a quarter of her product in her neighbourhood. The small market vendors, who take loans from the factory owners to buy fish and vegetables that they try to sell, to pay back the loans at the end of the day with a daily interest rate of 10%, end up with unsold goods due to the new regulations in place. The ruthless creditors do not grant them any favours. The clampdown on family ceremonies has also deprived the caterers of lucrative markets, while the female orators and other female artists who used to offer their services on the occasion of such traditional ceremonies feel lost.

The majority of women are engaged in the informal sector, however, the money raised by the Covid-19 Fund, the Senegalese government's main financial instrument for assistance to the population and businesses, has been targeted mostly at the private sector. The food distribution programme was designed to support women, but many households have received nothing. The Government and its partners have organized ceremonies for the handing-over of food and mask donations, but these symbolic acts fell far short of meeting the women's needs. For instance, during the violent reaction of the population to the lockdown measures on the night of 3-4 June, in a bid to regain their means of livelihood, many young women joined the men to demonstrate their frustration on the quest to regain their freedom of enterprise.

Overall, few women in the informal sector have been able to adapt to the new situation. Designers have started to make masks, female traders have switched to digital technology to sell their goods including home deliveries, but this is not within the reach of the majority of illiterate women.

The women's workloads are increasing, with the closure of schools, as the lockdown had not broken the traditional pattern of male and female roles within the household, while social distancing, the watchword which has disrupted the logic of social solidarity, deprives them of support from the other family members. Those who have lost their husbands are left alone in their bereavement without any assistance from the family. The level of poverty has worsened among women, whose spouses are affected and can no longer contribute to household expenses and responsibilities.

In the long term, the Senegalese society will be devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Should women continue to be ignored economically and socially, there will be increased family instability. The most venerable women will find it difficult to get back on their feet. For example, the burnt tables in city markets where there have been demonstrations generally belong to women who cannot afford canteens. They will practically have to start all over again. Their recent vulnerabilities expose them to risks that can lead to more violence, prostitution and other forms of deviance. A strategic plan tagged "Femme Covid-19” must be drawn up.

This strategic plan should be an opportunity for the State to address three major problems facing poor women:

Firstly, access to food is the primary issue facing women: whereby the need for food security. Secondly, financial autonomy being the major problem of the poor, the State with its "rapid entrepreneurship development" programme can free female vendors from market usurers. Finally, the establishment of day nurseries in all local communities and in work spaces such as markets could alleviate the women’s plight and allow them to carry out their activities in peace.

Fatou Sow Sarr is a sociologist. She is a professor at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal and Director of the Gender and Family Institute.


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