COVID-19 pandemic: Women’s entrepreneurship on thin ice

BFPE Office

06. July 2020

COVID-19 pandemic: Women’s entrepreneurship on thin ice

Economic insecurity in the coronavirus pandemic is a burning issue for women in Serbia and Kosovo.  Despite the regular problems facing women, the pandemic has made their economic situation and efforts towards empowerment particularly difficult.

Report by Anamari Repic, BFPE associate; translated by Radomir Aleksic, BFPE intern

Small and medium enterprises suffer the biggest consequences of coronavirus pandemic, and even more if they are run by women. Women’s entrepreneurship, from the pastries production, service activities, craft businesses, all the way to software companies, is becoming more and more endangered due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Like many jobs  run by women are back to square one. This is how the women entrepreneurs representatives from Kragujevac and Pristina assessed how the coronavirus pandemic affects women’s entrepreneurship and their position in society.

Representatives of women’s associations, during an online discussion on the position of women’s entrepreneurship in Serbia and Kosovo, organized by the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE), stated that the problems of women’s businesses in both societies are the same for almost the same reasons. They assess that women’s entrepreneurship is endangered because it is mainly about small and family businesses, which are without financial reserves and capacity to develop long-term planning strategies. Although digital business, especially during the pandemic, brings a new chance, it still raises questions of business readiness, finding new markets and education.

Women’s entrepreneurship has been particularly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Jasmina Savić from the Filigran Association from Kragujevac, a city where new measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus have recently been introduced. As she said, many women are engaged in the jobs that have suffered the most, such as tourism, catering, and especially trade. That is why the problems are spreading day by day.

The fear for health and life overcame the fear for work, and that increases the feeling of insecurity for the family, work, so we are all waiting for what the next day will bring,” Savic said.

Citing the example that women in tourism, as the most endangered activity during the pandemic, began to return to work after the first opening, Savić points out that the new increase in the number of infected people is not encouraging, because tourist visits are canceled.

“Even though we hope that the situation will normalize in a year, it will take several years for the level of business to return to level we can live and invest from”, Savic said.

In Kosovo the pandemic has also further aggravated the socio-economic situation of women, warns Sanija Murati, director of the Balkan Women’s Association. She points out that there have been changes in the form of closing the business for a definite or indefinite period of time, reduction of salaries, abolition of income, but also forced change of the way of doing business.

“Support is important and it is important to work on motivation because women are now demotivated”, she said.

“When there is no income for months, then you start rewriting household budgets and changing plans”, she added.

After the opening and after withdrawal of the state of emergency, many businesses felt relief. However, shortly after there is a new increase in the number of infected, which has raised the question of whether businesses will be closed or will take advantage of a new opportunity – the transition to online stores.

The uncertain situation has led to the gradual change and adjustment of production and services, which is a chance for women’s entrepreneurship. Both Savić and Murati point out that the women have temporarily found a solution, especially those in the catering business, pastry production, so they turned to online business and started delivery.

“This situation brought changes, there were no more trips to offices, changes to production facilities, and you still had to finish the job”, said Murati, adding that online space is an important part of the solution.

“Women learned that part of the job very quickly”, she said.

According to Savić, the pandemic has led to a turning point in business, which will be a challenge, especially for women’s entrepreneurship.

“Thinking about online trade, different basics can be installed”, Savic said, adding that the hope is in Europe, as it is the largest market, and that only women united can take a step towards a new chapter in business.

The support of the competent institutions is crucial, as well as the development of new market strategies, but also education in the use of digital opportunities. Savic reminded that the Serbian Government within the measures of assistance to entrepreneurs, granted three minimum incomes as well as a package of support measures in the form of favorable loans. She believes that with this help, women entrepreneurs can be better prepared to enter the next period.

“In order to start production, that is the only way out for most women, because most of them do not have a financial reserve and many women also pay rent”, she said.

Institutional support for women entrepreneurs in Kosovo is announced. According to Murati, the Ministry of Economy in Pristina announced that it would promulgate an open call for business support.

“It’s a chance for women to, even by little, make up for what was lost,” Murati said.

During the discussion, Ljinda Shala, the owner of two trading companies from Pristina, shared her experience during the pandemic. As she stated, the pandemic and total closure have left big consequences, which is why, as she believes, it will take a long time to return to the previous condition. Shala pointed out that in this situation, it is more necessary than ever to reorient oneself in business.

“It’s time for women entrepreneurs to understand that the world will no longer be the same and that it is necessary to think about future ways of running a business”, she points out.

Shala says that as someone who is responsible for the two companies, she believes that new markets and the use of digital technologies are the key to overcoming the crisis. She therefore believes that one  of the ways is to turn to other larger markets, such as Europe.

“With the pandemic, Europe may be our chance”, she said, adding that the Western Balkans region is a small market with little economic potential, which needs new ideas.

“The possibility is new redirects, which seem to be coming much faster than we expect”, believes Ljinda Shala.

Representatives of women entrepreneurs from Kosovo and Serbia assessed that in addition to the fact that women supplement their household budgets with their businesses, it is also a way to their empowerment, success and thus influence in society. They believe that women, through business success, can contribute to development and change.

That the participation of women in economic life is crucial is pointed out due to the data which say that women participate in 2/3 of jobs worldwide and in profit with only 10%.

You can imagine what it’s like in the Balkans,” Savic asked. “Women, regardless of the quality of their work, have much lower paid jobs”, she added

The position of women is identical in the region, which is why Sanija and Jasmina came up with the idea of regional action. They have started an initiative that works on the economic empowerment of women, as a step towards the development and better position of women in society, breaking down barriers and stereotypes.

Participants in this debate estimated that women in business will have to prepare for a new era of the economy. It was especially emphasized that business women cannot be victims of policies and restrictions, but find a new path to development through cooperation and new ways of doing business.

The discussion on the position of women’s entrepreneurship was held within the project of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence “Changing minds: trust through innovation”, which is being implemented with the support of the EU.

BFPE President Sonja Licht stated that the idea of this way of connecting prominent professionals from Kosovo and Serbia is to create opportunities for connection and cooperation.

Speaking about the position of women in society, Licht pointed out that she feels pleasure mixed with concern.

“Pleasure that an increasing number of women still decide to take their destiny into their own hands, and on the other hand concern about the fact that we are still very far from something that is the ugly face of patriarchal culture” she said, adding that in such a society, the possibility of women to make society better and more developed is marginalized.

“The support that women give to each other is actually what makes them more resilient, which can draw creative energy that they are not aware they carry with them,” Licht said, believing that the battle for a better position for women will continue for a long time.

“If we don’t fight then we will never get it, the alternative is clear”, Licht said.