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Impacts of COVID-19 on women and MSMEs in Zimbabwe

By Samuel Tarinda, Gender Researcher & Deputy Director in the Economic Policy & Research Division, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken all the countries of the world, almost instantaneously within the first quarter of 2020. In Zimbabwe, like in many other countries, we are beginning to observe some channels through which COVID-19 has, and will have, different impacts on women, men, girls and boys.

While the rates of infection and death as a result of this pandemic appear to be higher for men than women so far, it is envisaged that women and girls will bear a disproportionate burden of the primary, concurrent, secondary and tertiary impacts of the disease, in terms of economic, social and health risks.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Zimbabwe and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) embarked on a number of monetary and foreign exchange measures, including those that are gender responsive.

Some of the negative pathways of this virus on gender groups include:

  • Widening Existing Gender Inequalities: Even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, statistical evidence across the world already shows that women are disadvantaged in terms of education, access to resources and opportunities, gender pay gaps, decision making powers, as well as in asserting their human, sexual and reproductive rights. The risk of inequalities is magnified in Zimbabwe, as in many other developing countries with inadequate health and other social infrastructure. According to a 2019 CARE report, Zimbabwe is still recovering from a devastating 2019 drought and the disastrous consequences of Cyclone Idai, that affected women and girls more by  increasing poverty; displacement; loss of dignity and livelihoods; gender based violence; and other inequalities.
  • Women Unemployment, Loss of Income and Decimated Livelihoods: A report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2018 showed that about two billion people are employed in the informal sector, of which 40 percent are women. The report also revealed that up to 70-80 percent of cross border traders in Sub-Saharan Africa are women; and of the 168 million migrant workers in 2017, over 68 million were women, many of whom engaged in domestic and care work. Zimbabwean women are also caught up in these ratios, and suffer significant unemployment, loss of incomes and reduced means of livelihoods due the COVID-19 pandemic. Women in Zimbabwe also face a 19.4 percent gender wage gap tilted to their disadvantage, according to survey results. In addition, about 57 percent of MSMEs in Zimbabwe are owned by women, which further exacerbates their loss of incomes and livelihoods.
  • Spike in Unpaid Care Work: With the outbreak and worsening of the virus, household and community activities performed by women and girls is likely to rise in Zimbabwe and other countries where healthcare and social infrastructure and systems are already either inadequate, compromised or overstretched. A 2018 report by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in Zimbabwe showed that there were an estimated 4.4 million children in early learning, primary and secondary schools in the country. This excludes millions of others in vocational and tertiary institutions such as colleges and universities. With all these children and adolescent girls and boys now at homes, women and girls are more likely to suffer the primary and secondary impacts of the virus, including increased risk of being infected by the virus, given their predominant roles as caregivers within families and communities. This also includes other care responsibilities which will be frequently “downloaded” onto females, such as looking after the sick and the elderly, home learning facilitation for children and siblings, and increased social and household chores.
  • Women Healthcare Workers: Over 70 percent workers in the health and social sector globally are women, according to WHO. Zimbabwe has a significant number of migrant health workers (mostly nurses) in the United Kingdom and other countries, and quite a high number have either died or infected by the disease. The official press in Zimbabwe (The Herald of 24 April 2020) reported that more than 29 Zimbabweans had died of COVID-19 in the UK, mostly female nurses. In many countries, women make up the bulk of frontline health workers, who are exposed to the virus the most, given their closest proximity to patients through testing, observing and treating.

In order to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on MSMEs, RBZ increased its medium-term bank accommodation (MBA) facility from ZWD500 million (USD8.7 million) to ZWD3 billion (USD52.3 million), and reduced the interest rate applicable to this facility from 15 percent to 10 percent per annum.

As part of interventions to compensate for loss of income during the COVID-19 lockdown periods, the Zimbabwe Government unveiled a ZWD600 million (USD10.5 million) facility for MSMEs, youths, women and the elderly.

The Government also rolled out cash transfers to cover one million poor and vulnerable households, many of which are women-headed and offered allowances and other incentives to the front-line health workers, most of whom are women.

Tax refunds were expedited for businesses experiencing COVID-19 related challenges and businesses were granted an extension of time within which tax is payable, without accruing interest and penalties. The Government also suspended import duties for COVID-19 related essential goods, including personal protective equipment (PPE).

A recent blog by the World Bank from April 2020, explains that as COVID-19 is not gender-blind, the responses to it should not be either, and that identifying and understanding the gender dimensions of the pandemic is critical in finding sustainable solutions and responses to the pandemic. Empowering economic measures targeting women and MSME economic should be in place to address and mitigate the loss of income and livelihoods for millions of women. It is important that gender dimensions are taken on board at all stages of policy design to ensure that our COVID-19 recovery leaves no one behind.


The Gender Inclusive Finance workstream is partially financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and other partners.