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Impact of COVID-19 on women workers in the urban informal economy in Uganda and Kenya



Globally, 2 billion of the world’s employed population aged 15 and older work informally, representing 61.2 percent of global employment, with the vast majority of employment in Africa (85.8 percent) being informal (ILO, 2018). In Uganda, nearly 14 million or 98 percent of Uganda’s total working-age population is engaged in the informal sector; of these, 87 percent are women workers. The informal sector has, for the last decade, consistently contributed more than 55 percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Kenya, the informal sector by 2019 provided a livelihood to approximately 15 million people and absorbed up to 88 percent of the women workers, according to the International Labour Organization.

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is implementing REBUILD, a research project that seeks to understand how the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis and policy response affected informal women workers of Kenya and Uganda. ICRW undertook a review of secondary data on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on informal women workers in Kenya and Uganda. This report presents summary findings and recommendations from our study, we conducted an analytical review of data from institutional reports, published articles, journal papers, policy reports, and secondary data analysis. What follows is a summary of our findings.


In addition to straining global health systems beyond capacity, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a major economic crisis exemplified in job losses, wage cuts, majorly shuttering the informal enterprises, and informal workforce, the majority of whom are women. Almost 1.6 billion workers in the informal sector were significantly impacted by lockdown measures. In low-income countries, 28 percent of women were working in high-risk sectors, compared to only 17 percent of men. A FinMark Trust survey found that 41 percent of women-owned businesses in SubSaharan Africa closed during the pandemic, compared to 34 percent for businesses owned by men. In Uganda, informal women account owners in the hospitality and trading and services sectors would be significantly affected by the crisis at 79 percent and 54 percent, respectively. In Kenya, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) household survey found that 51.2 percent of women had been rendered jobless due to the pandemic. More young women had to close a business (28 percent) than young men (21 percent) (PMA Gender, 2020).

Pre-COVID, the gender gap in unpaid care work closely mirrored that of work for pay or profit, where women spent three times more than men in unpaid care work; however, the pandemic further accelerated the care burden. In June 2020, a CGD report indicated that 23 percent of women business owners surveyed across the globe reported spending six or more hours per day on care work compared to 11 percent of men. A UN Gender report of January 2021 in Kenya ascertained that a higher proportion of women than men spent more time in unpaid care work. This may have led many women to permanently exit the labor market and/or increased women’s stress levels and took a toll on their mental health outcomes.

The pandemic affected food security. The COVID-19 gender assessment in Kenya found that more women than men had to either eat less or skip a meal (33 percent and 31 percent, respectively) or go hungry without food (12 percent and 10 percent, respectively). A report by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) on the consumer price index for April 2020 indicated that food prices increased by 4.8 percent. Most families had to implement multiple coping strategies during the pandemic. Some households relied on savings and more on reducing consumption, selling off assets, borrowing money from different sources, credit purchases. Others engaged in additional income activities, and received assistance from family, friends, government, and CSOs.

The World Bank reaffirms that the shift in resources towards addressing a public health emergency can disrupt key health services for women and girls, including reproductive and sexual health services. COVID-19 affected the access and utilization of SRH services. Data from the national DHIS systems indicates that overall, there was a decrease in pregnant women accessing ANC and maternal counseling services a decrease in post-natal attendance for new mothers. Fewer people used modern family planning during the initial months of the pandemic, including shortterm and long-term acting contraceptives.

A 2020 UN Women report noted that in the previous 12 months, 243 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 across the world had been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner. COVID-19 containment measures exacerbated women’s and girls’ exposure to gender-based violence. The national GBV-hotline-1195 of Kenya received an increase of 25 percent cases in September 2020 compared to the month prior. Recent studies suggest that many cases went unreported to authorities because of restrictive measures that curtailed the victims’ movements.


There is still a statistical gap on the extent of the impact of the pandemic on informal women workers in the urban economies of Kenya and Uganda. Therefore, researchers and other multilevel stakeholders should engage in providing gendered statistics on the effects of the pandemic on the informal sector that will guide policy actors in making gendered policies supporting the recovery of the informal sector, which has proved to be crucial to the economy.