Interview with Gwen K. Young: Gender Impacts of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa

Gwen K. Young, President of Balance Up Leadership, talks to COVID-19 Africa Watch about COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on women and what governments and others can do to develop response plans that promote women’s economic and social wellbeing.


For more from Gwen K. Young on this topic, see her previous piece for COVID-19 Africa Watch: “COVID-19, Gender, and a More Equitable Response for Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Key Takeaways

The following are a few of the main takeaways from COVID-19 Africa Watch’s conversation with Gwen K. Young, President of Balance Up Leadership and Vice President of Business Development & Global Consulting at Perch Perspectives:

  • In Africa, women represent about 60 to 70 percent of the labor force involved in food supply chains as well as about 70 percent of health workers.
  • Lockdowns have important impact on girls, including exposing them to abuse and increased risk of pregnancy. Girls education also suffers, which has long-term impacts on employment and income prospects.
  • Economic stimulus plans and other policy responses should be designed with women in mind, and this means women need to be part of the leadership teams making decisions.
  • Around the world, women have led successful response to COVID-19 because they have practice exemplary crisis communication defined by clarity, empathy, and inclusivity.

The interview was conducted by the Fatoumata Sanyang from the Office of the President of The Gambia, who is also an IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market Scholar. A transcript is available below.



Hello, I am Fatoumata Sanyang, a scholar at the IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market program. I’m happy to be joined by Ms. Gwen K. Young. Welcome Ms. Young. She will be sharing her perspective on how COVID-19 is impacting women in Africa. Ms. Young has over 25 years of experience in international relief and development, working for organizations like Africare and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, to name a few. You are also a Distinguished Fellow in Women’s Leadership and the former Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative and Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center.

Let’s jump right into it. COVID-19 has, with alarming speed, delivered a global economic shock. Per capita income in the vast majority of the emerging markets is expected to shrink this year, which is going to push many millions back into poverty. Why should we consider the impact of the COVID-19 on women as a distinct issue separate from the rest of the population?

Gwen K. Young

The impact on COVID-19 on women is important to consider. First we’ll start with a statistic, which is women are about 50% of the population globally. In Africa, women are 60-70% of the food production. There are close to 70% of the frontline healthcare workers, and they’re not just in healthcare. They’re in a lot of the other industries, as you know, education, retail, tourism, the industries that are taking the hardest shock in terms of the economic recession and the hardest hit in future.

“A lot of the services, the bail-out packages, the disruption in the supply chains, these are felt by women in a way that’s different than men and is disproportionate.”

And further, I don’t want us to forget this, women’s time burden is significantly impacted by COVID-19. They do most of the unpaid care work for the family. They take care of children. They take care of elder care, and 32% of the households in Africa are headed by single women. So there’s an enormous increase in the time burden on women’s time. They’re at risk in terms of health. They’re at risk economically. A lot of these women, as you know, were in the informal sector. A lot of the services, the bail-out packages, the disruption in the supply chains, these are felt by women in a way that’s different than men, and is disproportionate.


A lot of resources have been invested in securing access to education and schooling for girls, which triggered a massive improvement in recent years. Are you concerned this pandemic can reverse the problem and what would that reversal look like?

Gwen K. Young

I am very concerned by the fact that education is been disrupted during this time.

As people stay home, face health risks, and lose jobs, young girls, and especially those from low-income households, are subject to increased demands on their time, and potentially forced labor. They’re at risk of childhood marriage, early pregnancies. They could be at risk of increased violence. You know, schools are often the safe places where girls not only learn, but learn about their rights, learn about sexual and reproductive healthcare. And I think if you look at other pandemic such as Ebola and so forth— during Ebola, the Malala Fund closed about 10,000 schools across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. That put 5 million children out of school. And then UNESCO reported a 65% increase in pregnancies in Sierra Leone during Ebola. So this is a huge issue.

“It’s not just impacting the education of today, the next six to eight months, but future pathways, if you will, because we know education is a pathway to employment and income.”

And the other thing I don’t want people to forget as well is that as these young girls are home, they face what’s called a tech or a digital divide, as you know. They don’t have the same access to even a cell phone, much less the internet, that the boys do. They’re lacking access to information, the notion of online learning. And this is huge as well as, as they are home. It’s going to take a long time to recover from this. And it’s not just impacting the education of today, the next six to eight months, but future pathways, if you will, because we know education is a pathway to employment and income.


COVID-19 has also triggered a global crisis, which is putting the word economy into the deepest recession since the Second World War. How can this, in particular, affect women’s economic wellbeing and their social wellbeing in Africa?

Gwen K. Young

There’s a couple of things. The statistics I mentioned earlier, that we know that women are about 60-70% of the food supply chain in Africa. So that impacts not only jobs, but food security as well. And that will be on the rise as well as they’re losing jobs in the retail, tourism, food and beverage industry, and the informal economy, as money is just not running through the system as it should. These women are going to be losing large sources of income. And social safety nets, bailout packages often do not target informal employment, they don’t target things like small salons and women-owned business.

Globally, women receive only 1 to 2-3% of capital or investment anyway. So this will really impact women’s access to income and the ability to grow their income and have independence. This is really going to pull communities back into poverty and the most vulnerable are the women. And they are the drivers of many of these businesses, as you know. So this makes it very difficult, and women often lack not just access to finance, but the access to information, the same type of networks that it would take to be able to rebuild your business and put yourself back onto a path of economic independence.


Now that we’ve laid down a good picture of how COVID-19 is impacting women in Africa, and it has proven not to be gender neutral, can you give us a broad overview of how governments and institutions can respond to some of these concerns that you just raised here?

Gwen K. Young

The first thing we need to remember is that we need to respond to the immediate needs of food, shelter, and housing, and that’s with a gender lens in mind. But while addressing some of these structural inequalities of the vulnerabilities that you pointed out, we need to have a gender lens in all of the programming that governments do. We need to hear the women’s voices and include them in the conversation to understand what types of services they need, what the realities are, because these are going to be very different in Sierra Leone, South Africa, Kenya, and Madagascar, right?

The other thing is we need to ensure that we are getting sexual and reproductive health education for girls in a way that they can access, even if they’re not in school. We have to make sure that if schools open or if learning is made available, that the government and community-based services are tracking girls.

“We need women in leadership positions. When you’re at these decision-making tables, at a community level, at a national level, on a taskforce, you need women sitting in those positions.”

We need to invest in women along the food chain. So we need to look at how we’re investing. And I say this in the United States as well. You have to look at the types of business where the bailout packages are going. Look at childcare, look at all sorts of aspects of the system of what it would take to put a woman back to work. And the thing that I’m always talking about is we need women in leadership positions. When you’re at these decision-making tables, at a community level, at a national level, on a taskforce, you need women sitting in those positions who can understand and insert the discussions of how transportation, education, childcare, etc. fit together and how women experience these four things.


We have seen headlines that women leaders across the globe have made positive strides in terms of the control of the spread of the pandemic. How important is women’s leadership in governance during some time of the crisis?

Gwen K. Young

We’ve learned from other crises that not having women at the table, whether that’s Ebola or a time of peace and security, is incredibly important to being able to have lasting peace and so forth. But I think it’s important as well because now you will see that these women who are leading countries are practicing what’s taught in standard leadership curriculums: great crisis communication, clarity, discussing the scenarios, really being empathetic with the population, and really hearing and understanding all voices. This clarity of communication and this true leadership that is empathetic is the thing that’s setting these women apart from some of the other leaders of countries across the globe.


These are great insights. The Milken Institute and I thank you again for this. Please keep up with the great work. Goodbye, stay safe and healthy.

Gwen K. Young

Thank you. Stay safe and healthy.

More analysis from COVID-19 Africa Watch:

COVID-19 Africa Watch tracks major developments and policy announcements from across the continent and also offers a curated selection of analysis on how the pandemic will impact African economies and development efforts. The site is a project of the Milken Institute’s Global Market Development Practice.

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via COVID-19 Africa Watch