Hana Bacaj
Grazeta March 10, 2022

Pandemics for all, equality for some?

This article was originally published in Albanian on Grazeta. 

Although women are part of the workforce, gender is often a factor ignored during policy making and especially during emeregency crisis. During these crises, the most effective policies are expected to be those that address in time the challenges of all without discrimination. When a country is facing a health crisis, the leaders of that country need to adapt quickly and take action. But, in certain cases, the last factor they consider is gender.

The response to the pandemic and the measures taken by the Kosovo government serve as a good reflection of how much gender has been taken into account in planning anti-COVID policies and measures.

The impact of the pandemic on women-led businesses

COVID-19 has posed fundamental challenges even to the world's most developed countries; however, the threat to developing countries like Kosovo is even more severe. Kosovo has adopted different policy measures in response to COVID-19, focused on social well-being, business support, and grant supervision.

Supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses by creating opportunities for them to grow is essential for an increase in productivity, creating jobs and boosting our economy in general but also in times of crisis. When I talk about small businesses I also mean women-led businesses in Kosovo, of which 4/5 are individual businesses. As universal as the difficulties for businesses have been, the challenges have been even greater for women-owned small businesses. This is because historically, women-led businesses have been associated with lower average profits, smaller size, fewer employees, and greater difficulty in borrowing.

Another reason why women-led businesses experienced difficulties during this crisis is the fact that 31 percent of these businesses are in the service sector, which has suffered the most due to reduced human contact and policies that mitigate exposure during the pandemic. Moreover, the closure of schools and kindergardens during the pandemic has increased the burden of family care on the shoulders of women entrepreneurs, making it difficult for them to work towards their business in difficult economic times.

Based on findings from the American Chamber of Commerce with women businesses in various sectors across Kosovo, the majority (67%) of businesses considered the pandemic to have had a very negative impact on their businesses, with 70 percent of businesses surveyed saying there has been a decreace in demand for products and services during the first half of 2020. In addition, according to the UNDP Rapid Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA), it turns out that far fewer women-led businesses were able to to cope with the current situation for a period longer than six months, compared to businesses owned by men.

What happened during this time of crisis and how were women entrepreneurs helped?

Unfortunately, it still remains a challenge to create a clear picture of the real impact that measures taken by Kosovo institutions had on women-led businesses. This is because nevigating through what public policies were taken is like a ‘puzzle’ of which we have lost many parts. First of all, inadequate information on the work done during this time as well as lack of data and monitoring are the factors that make it impossible to properly assess whether appropriate measures have been taken for women entrepreneurs.

The Government of Kosovo took steps to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic since March 2020 with the initiation of the Emergency Fiscal Package. Part of this was forseen the support for private sector including businesses managed by women and self-employed women. This was done in the form of wage and rent subsidies, as well as through cash transfer payments. According to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce, the number of women who have benefited from the Emergency Fiscal Package was not high and only 10% said that this package has addressed their needs. The question therefore arises as to whether one time cash transfers were sufficient and well thought to withstand the pandemic shocks and improve business viability for several months, until the next package was created?

However, the Economic Recovery Package designed by the Government of Kosovo envisaged covering as many areas of society as possible, supporting, among other things, business development and combating inequality. Women in business were part of this package directly and indirectly. Specifically, a ‘window’ was created dedicated to women in business under the Law on Economic Recovery and the Kosovo Credit Guarantee Fund (KCGF). According to KCGF data for 2021, almost 13 percent of guaranteed loans are for women entrepreneurs in the trade, services, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction sectors. The ‘window’ created for women in business during the pandemic compared to the loans guaranteed over the past years without this window, was higher by 8.5%. Based on these data, it can be seen that this ‘window’ has had a positive impact and has shown that such support is essential even after this crisis is over.

The Government of Kosovo has allocated EUR 2 million to the The Agency for Gender Equality (AGE) of the Republic of Kosovo in support of women. AGE has supported 115 private kindergartens and public-private partnerships in the amount of 1 Million Euros, most of which are run by women. The other part of the allocated money was used to support 24 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), as well as 273 small businesses directly managed by women.

Besides the support mentioned above, other initiatives supported women-led businesses, including support from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (totaling 470,000 euros), as well as the support from donors, development banks, civil society, NGOs. to etc.

What has been the real effect of these measures?

Although these initiatives / measures were welcomed by many women in business; neverthless, there have been concerns that during the designing of the measures anti-COVID-19 many of the aspects and challanges that women in business face were overlooked. Thus, considerable shortcomings have emerged due to this misreading of the situation and problems that women-led businesses face. As a result, many women entrepreneurs continue to find themselves unsupported and / or may not see these measures designed to help them.

If we look at the other side of the coin, the pandemic has positively impacted some of the small businesses led by women, making them adapt to distance work, focus on new models, and try new ways to keep their doors open. In particular, the pandemic opened a new door for women entrepreneurs in terms of technological opportunities to scale-up their businesses. According to World Bank findings in Kosovo, women-led businesses increased the use of digital platforms to assist their businesses more compared to businesses led by men.

Despite all these measures, of which women in business were a part, there is still a lack of detailed and clear data to assess the impac they had on improving and enhancing the viability of women-led businesses. Therefore, policymakers need to develop initiatives that include women's contribution to recovery. Institutions should help women have equal pay and opportunities, social schemes, access to financial services, and promote appropriate solutions to scale-up their businesses.

During similar crisis like COVID-19, findings analyzing the impact of the pandemic over time are needed to help design appropriate measures, and to determine the need for additional mechanisms. All policies, whether short-term or long-term, should be designed looking at a gender lens. This situation should serve to make us as societies and institutions aware of the need to take continuous actions in terms of building more support frameworks and comprehensive gender plans for better management of similar situations.

This article is part of a research project produced within the framework of the Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship, supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.