By Sharon Atieno

Martha Ayuya, a resident of Kibera used to make a living by doing house chores in Kilimani, a leafy suburb in Nairobi county. She would earn a decent wage of shs. 1000 (about USD 10) to shs. 1200 (about USD 12) depending on the kind of chores she did on that day.

When the COVID-19 pandemic stroke, her employer could not afford her services anymore, not only for the fear of contracting the virus but also because of hard economic times. Since then, Ayuya has been making trips to her house and calling her on the phone to see if she is in need of her services. But the answer is always the same, she will get in touch when things go back to normal.

Unemployed, she now stays home taking care of her four-year old child because she has no money to pay for a nanny nor to enroll her in kindergarten. “Though sometimes I get laundry jobs within the estate it is not the same as the pay is meagre and occasional,” she said.

Martha Ayuya

Like Ayuya, Esther Wanja has not been so lucky. She used to work at a local restaurant before the containment measures of COVID-19 affected her job.

“During the peak of the pandemic, restaurant closures and shortened working hours led to us working in shifts. But the owner of the restaurant decided to lay some people off because of reduced profit margins,” she said. “I was among those laid off but since then I have not heard from the restaurant owner despite the restrictions being lifted.”

Ayuya and Wanja are among the people who lost their jobs because of the ongoing pandemic. In Kenya, the 2021 Economic Survey found that the number of unemployed people declined from 18.1 million to 17.4 million between 2019 and 2020.

However, globally, the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s policy brief on Building Forward Fairer notes that women have been disproportionately affected compared to their male counterparts.

The brief notes that globally, between 2019 and 2020 women’s employment declined by 4.2% (54 million jobs), while men’s employment declined by 3%.

“This is largely due to the impact of lockdowns that affected sectors, including manufacturing and services where women are overrepresented and where they are often working with informal working arrangements,” the policy reads.

Further, the brief finds that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment in 2021 compared to 2019, while men’s employment will have recovered to pre-pandemic levels.Only 43.2% of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 68.6% of working-age men.

At the onset of the pandemic, Musa Kilonzi, a public service vehicle (PSV) driver in Nairobi’s Eastlands area, lost his job for almost three months and had to depend on his wife, a green grocer to feed them.

“During that period the vehicle was not making money so the owner decided to ground all his vehicles instead of incurring losses. After spending those months at home, bills started accruing,” Kilonzi narrates.

“I pleaded with the owner to give us a chance to go back to work with a promise of meeting a daily target of Kshs. 3000 (about USD 29). The agreement also included taking a paycut and changing the working hours. Though we are not making as much money as during the pre-COVID times, we are thankful for the little that we get. It is better than being unemployed.”

ILO calls for gender-responsive policies, in order to make women’s right to work and their labour rights a central feature of the COVID-19 recovery. 

According to the organization, extraordinary policy efforts are needed to ensure that women return to the labour market with decent work opportunities.

If priority is not given to this goal, there is a risk that women will be left behind in the recovery efforts, further exacerbating existing gender inequalities in terms of access to and quality of employment, ILO cautions.