Caribbean Women Fight Through the Challenge of COVID-19

March 28, 2021
  • Even before the pandemic, only 52% of women participated in the labor market, compared with 77% men.
  • Caribbean women business leaders say gender issues are linked to other challenges, such as lack of clean water.
  • IFC’s gender goals in the region include promoting financial inclusion for women entrepreneurs.

By Tirna Ray

Women have suffered a disproportionate share of the impact from COVID-19. From uneven job losses to unpaid care work, the pandemic has worsened gender inequalities, threatening a major setback to gains in women’s empowerment.

The Caribbean is no exception. Even before the pandemic, only 52 percent of women participated in the region’s labor market, versus 77 percent of men. While the numbers are sobering— globally, women have lost jobs at about 1.8 times the rate of men—women in the Caribbean are determined to fight through adversity, turning an unprecedented crisis into an opportunity.

The pandemic has prompted many women to push boundaries and redefine themselves. The World Bank and IFC hosted an online event commemorating International Women’s Day entitled “Caribbean Women in Leadership: Achieving An Equal Future in a COVID-19 World,” where women in leadership roles within the Caribbean discussed how they are innovating to navigate the pandemic, and what strategies they are putting in place to promote a resilient recovery. As trendsetters across sectors, they shared their experiences while underlining the link between gender equality and inclusive growth.

Even before the pandemic, Kenia Mattis, CEO of ListenMi, an award-winning animation and design studio in Jamaica, moved the company’s operations to a virtual setting. The company also noticed a clear shift among clients—a focus on reaching clients virtually. This made Mattis rethink and take a bold decision of turning the business into a “digital storytelling firm.”

The firm has been trying to connect with potential American clients to reach a global audience through animated TV series and shows. Distance was always an issue. With the pandemic, the flattening of distance presented an opportunity, helping Kenia and her team meet new and prospective collaborators virtually, helping spread Caribbean stories to the world.

IFC’s gender goals in the region include promoting financial inclusion for women entrepreneurs, and working with the private and public sector to improve infrastructure and public services. IFC’s initiatives in the region include increasing productivity and striving for gender equality in Haiti’s garment sector, where between 65 and 70 percent of workers are women.

As tourism faltered in Jamaica, farmers lost their main market—hotels. Louise Lawrence, Head of the Watt Town Greenhouse Farmers Group, was at her tether’s end, trying to help her group of women navigate the crisis. Because of the pandemic, the women would leave their children in the care of a family member to go to work and quickly return home to stay with them. Louis supported these women farmers in exploring other options like selling phone cards, rearing chicken and selling them, and making and selling coconut drops to earn an income while being able to stay with their families and make sure their children participate in virtual classes.

Similarly, Guyana’s construction sector was hit hard by the mandatory lockdown in that country. Zorina Gafoor-Chin, Project Engineer for the Guyana Secondary Education Improvement Project, said the industry encountered a range of operational challenges, like the implementation of social distancing and safety protocols on construction sites. The project had less women on sites and more in businesses supporting the construction industry, including design firms, consultancies, and businesses that supply materials. In the face of the pandemic, they used their creativity and found alternative means of income through catering, gardening or mask making.

In a similar spirit, staff at Caribbean Bottling Company (CBC) in Haiti never stopped work, while taking measures to keep safe. Though sales dipped in the short term, the company quickly bounced back. “We ensured workers had quality internet access at home and reduced the number of staff working on site,” said Tamara Guerin Barrau, VP of Finance for CBC.

But for Barrau, her main concern has been the lack of clean water, at a moment when lives depend on it. Three-fourths of the households in Haiti lack running water and many families have to travel half an hour or more to access this resource, which mostly affects young women and girls. “Apart from being the primary caretakers of their families, they have to spend a lot of time traveling to collect water, hindering their opportunities to enter the formal workforce.”

As the growing inequalities are also negatively impacting the private sector, panelists shared their vision on a future roadmap that would help women recover economically from the current crisis.

“When I look at my sector, more access to running water will definitely help women and girls. Public-private partnerships that encourage and improve access to critical services can be effective in these challenging times, and we’ve seen it work for other countries with similar conditions,” said Barrau.

Mercedes Canalda de Beras-Goico, Executive President of Banco ADOPEM—the leading microfinance institution in the Dominican Republic—feels a variety of new approaches, including flexibility in microfinance solutions, while maintaining COVID-19 protocols, could help women-owned microbusinesses recover. Seventy percent of Banco Adopem’s clients are women. It therefore has been vital for the bank to not only provide microcredits with flexible repayment terms, but also provide training for women clients to help them reactive their business and adapt to the pandemic.

Gender equality is not just a male-female issue, but a socio-economic imperative, according to Ozan Sevimli, World Bank Resident Representative for Jamaica and Guyana. “The cost of exclusion is immense for economies and societies. Men have the unique opportunity to be allies, and I believe, a responsibility to do what they can to accelerate change,” he added.

For Judith Green, IFC’s Regional Manager for the Caribbean, the answer is to continue working with the public and private sectors to prioritize gender balance, “increasing financial inclusion for female enterprises, promoting women in business leadership positions, and supporting gender-smart solutions.”