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A rapid assessment of pandemic experiences, adaptation, and aspirations across 10 countries
Given the rapidly unfolding pandemic situation, and our concern for the gendered impacts of the pandemic, we partnered with the South Asian Women Development Forum in a rapid impact assessment of women entrepreneurs across our 8 RMCs, and in Maldives and Sri Lanka. The study focused on the tourism, agriculture, handicraft, health/beauty, and service sectors.
Among the 750 respondents, 75% were running small businesses, 24% running medium sized businesses and 1% were running large businesses. The majority (78%) were associated with a network, either hosted primarily by non-governmental organizations but also including government-sponsored networks, professional associations or a combination thereof. 157 were involved in cross-border trade.
All the respondents indicated that they were worried about the financial sustainability of their businesses, noting negative impacts in the form of loss of sales, cancellation of orders, suspended tourist arrivals, damage to stock and raw materials, restricted ability to import or export, restrictions in getting products to market, being forced to lay off staff, increases in costs of raw materials, and losing event sponsorship. Health and safety concerns also impacted staffing. In the agriculture sector, many experienced labour shortages during harvesting time.
Just as the challenges were varied, the adaptive measures that women entrepreneurs took ranged from making personal sacrifices to climbing the steep learning curve of e-commerce and online marketing. A majority reported taking personal loans or using personal savings to tide over the difficulties, while some reported receiving subsidies from government or NGOs. Entrepreneurs in Bhutan and Sri Lanka reported the easiest access to this support, whereas it was more difficult for women entrepreneurs in Nepal and Pakistan to access this support. The women who did receive support noted that it was not specifically designed to support small and medium enterprises.
In terms of deepening the resilience of their businesses, a large majority were interested in going online, in enhancing their knowledge of financial management and risk planning, diversifying their businesses, or potentially exploring new products and services. Based on this, the study recommends targeted and immediate relief packages in the form of subsidized loans or credit; tax breaks, including reduction or lifting of export levies; short-term government purchase of excess supply; facilitating access to digital platforms; targeted policies and coordination among regional entities such as SAARC and BIMSTEC to facilitate regional trade; and targeted capacity building of women entrepreneurs.
Pre-existing gender and other inequalities across the HKH region set the stage for unequal diffusion of negative impacts for women and men in general, and particularly more on poor and marginalized women and men.
(Paraphrased from ICIMOD 2020, COVID-19 impact and policy responses in the Hindu Kush Himalaya)