In order to alleviate the effects of the new coronavirus, the Georgian government has taken specific measures, most of which were one-off. It is noteworthy that the mentioned one-time assistance scheme did not take into account the gender-sensitive needs of women. Government initiatives have also been insufficiently sensitive to the challenges faced by female entrepreneurs. The restrictions against the spread of the pandemic, the so-called Lockdown introduced during the first wave, the extreme limitation of trade opportunities between closed cities, the weakening of the service sector, etc., were particularly severe for small businesses. In which, according to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, women are frequently employed.
Enclosed with this, it needs to be indicated that, the specific government initiatives, which will be further discussed, were targeted at a wider segment of the population, and therefore concerned women to some extent, albeit without studying their needs and developing tailored mechanisms to stimulate their activities.
The report on measures implemented by Government of Georgia against COVID-19 says nothing about consultations with gender experts, women entrepreneurs, etc. throughout the drafting of the aforementioned anti-crisis policy document, which in turn is problematic and raises legitimate questions about the gender sensitivity of the action plan itself. Paired with this, the state-initiated programs focused on halting the immediate impact of the pandemic for a short period of time, rather than on promoting the long-term economic stability of entrepreneurs. This paper will analyze the government's anti-crisis plan launched in March-April 2020. The mentioned anti-crisis plan aiming to minimize the impact of the pandemic consisted of two parts, "Caring for Citizens" and "Caring for Business". Both of them, in turn, were divided into two stages.
The measures envisaged by the anti-crisis package were implemented in 2 stages. The first of these was aimed at eliminating more immediate consequences, hence providing some sort of urgent social support. According to a report by the Government of Georgia on COVID-19 response strategy, "it became necessary to find additional resources for both business and direct assistance to citizens, as well as to prevent the spread of the epidemic and to treat the sick. The additional costs required for these purposes made up GEL 3 billion”. The same document states that the second phase included larger-scale measures. In addition, anti-crisis plans have been developed for specific fields, such as tourism, agriculture, and construction.
Notwithstanding this backdrop, as claimed in the “COVID-19 global gender response tracker” of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), none of the initiated by the Government of Georgia programs were exclusively focused on women's economic security and strengthening. Obviously, this circumstance, on the one hand, indicates the absence of the practice of employing gender prism in the planning process, and on the other hand, raises questions about what future prospects there are to ensure that undertaken efforts to empower women economically do not vanish in the realm of the pandemics. Consequently, the issue is also relevant in the sense that it threatens the future effectiveness of the efforts directed to the economic empowerment of women, to date.
As already mentioned, the first phase of state support was aimed at mitigating instant impacts, therefore, was not based on specific trends revealed as a result of needs identification and encompassed activities such as funding the utility bills within a certain limit, insuring prices against 9 basic food products caused by exchange rate fluctuations and a three-month credit repayment deferral. For these initiatives stated here, it is impossible to separate the gender aspects due to the specifics and scale of the support itself. It should also be emphasized that there are no statistics on the demographic data of the population supported under these initiatives, which would give us a more or less clear idea of what specific benefits women received from it.
It is also noteworthy that the described programs were aimed at maintaining the individual purchasing power of the population along with the current economic situation and did not cover various areas of entrepreneurship. This means, in the absence of relevant primary survey data, it is impossible to study the impact of this initiative on women entrepreneurs. The question of the individual economic empowerment of women or the maintenance of the status quo, including many new variables such as how much and in what form they consume the financial resources released by the impact of these measures (whether the financial resources saved by the household fall within their disposal), remains unclear. As for the initiative to defer loans, it could be a significant benefit for entrepreneurs, including women, if not for the obligation to pay bank interest during the grace period, which is a difficult condition for business suspension, especially for small and medium, as well as individual entrepreneurs working in regions, in other words in the fields, where women are relatively widely present.
The second phase of the measures planned within the framework of the government anti-crisis plan included: 1. Payment of one-time compensation in the amount of GEL 200 per month to employees for 6 months; 2. Allocation of one-time assistance of 300 GEL for the self-employed. These two initiatives are problematic even without adding a gender dimension, namely, mitigating the impact of rising unemployment due to restrictions on business activities with GEL 200 assistance to citizens, against the backdrop of rising inflation, seems inadequate. It should also be noted that the time allotted for the planning of the second phase in this case was not devoted to the study of gender-specific needs. All of this leaves out the focus on strategically important workers (among whom women are actively represented) who have retained their jobs, but have been particularly vulnerable to pandemic fluctuations due to overtime work and being on the front line of the pandemic.
It should also be noted that a large proportion of the women who were self-employed prior to the pandemic were mainly engaged in family activities, performing the duties of nannies, servants, family helpers, and so on. The changed agenda (due to the COVID Pandemic), which included the relocation of training and work processes to homes, put women self-employed in this field at risk of long-term unemployment. Naturally, one-time assistance could not stabilize their economic situation.
It is particularly significant that within the same phase of the anti-crisis plan, specific packages were created for different social groups (e.g., vulnerable families, the elderly, and people with disabilities), although the germs of programming tailored to the needs of women are not revealed in this case either. Also noteworthy is the fact that women’s unpaid labor has once again been pushed beyond government policy. A kind of fusion of the work and home spaces conditioned by the pandemic constraints put women in front of a completely new reality. The existence of the latter circumstances is confirmed by the UN Women (UN Women) latest survey, according to which while living in lockdown, women compared to men more often had to perform domestic labor (such as child care, cleaning, preparing dinner etc.). In addition, the increased domestic labor of women as a result of the closure of kindergartens and the relocation of school processes to the online space has been inadequately reflected in government strategies. In this regard, only a government initiative to launch TV lessons can be seen on the horizon, the effectiveness of which has not been measured not only in terms of its impact on mothers but also in terms of meeting the needs of students.
The government plan to minimize the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic also included business incentive strategies under the category "Caring for the economy and supporting entrepreneurs." Although no explicit emphasis was placed on women in this case, specific initiatives also touched on the areas in which they are actively represented. In this regard, the following initiatives are noteworthy: 1. Small hotels were given the opportunity to co-finance a 6-month interest rate on a bank loan; 2. Legal entities that had a problem with bank loan services were given the opportunity to simplify the loan restructuring; 3. A change was made within the framework of the "Enterprise Georgia" program; 4. Changes were made to the Small Entrepreneurship Development Grant component. It is worth to indicate that the impact of the activities, carried out under this direction, on women can be assessed more positively since they cover the fields with a wide representation of them.
In particular, according to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, women are more often represented in the field of tourism and small entrepreneurs. Coupled with this, as per the 2018 data, 45% of the beneficiaries of the "Enterprise Georgia" program were women. Therefore, it is expected that the steps taken by the state in this course will have a positive impact on the activities of women entrepreneurs. However, in this context, it should be noted that the described initiatives were not based on the study of specific barriers faced by women engaged in entrepreneurial activities, which may result in the insufficient presence of important for women barriers in the state programming, planning and implementation processes.
In light of the above, it can be argued that the government`s anti-crisis plan to minimize the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic did not address the specific challenges facing women. In particular, the first part of the initiated anti-crisis action plan was aimed at meeting the immediate needs of the population and was not focused on long-term results. While in the second part, similar ambitions for economic empowerment are evident, however, as the analysis showed, it does not adequately meet the needs not only of women, but also of the wider social groups (employed and self-employed) for whom it was planned.
As for the strategies proposed by the state to support business in a pandemic, this part has a relatively positive trend in terms of having a positive impact on the economic situation of women, as it relates to the areas of the economy where they are most represented. However, in these, as in previous cases, there is a need for an initial study of existing needs (at least as a part of the planning of further interventions). Assessing the needs of women would provide a basis for planning and implementing further programs, and in turn would ensure that the results of the steps already taken to empower women economically were strengthened or sustained. In the absence of such practices, the traces of the programs exclusively supporting women, are read only between the lines of the anti-crisis plan. It should also be noted that after the crisis period is over, it would be interesting to evaluate the achieved outcomes in a gender context as part of the evaluation of the government response plan.
The article was prepared in the framework of the Women's Information Center project "Strengthening Support for Victims of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Crisis", which is supported and funded by the European Union in Georgia and in partnership with Ngo Tanaziari, Kartlosi Friendship Bridge and Fundacja HumanDoc. The positions expressed in the video may not coincide with the positions of the EU.
The author of this analytical paper is a participant in the School of Future Leaders. The project is implemented by the Georgian Policy Institute (GIP) with the financial support of USAID in cooperation with the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC Georgia).