Good stories amid the devastation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic are both rare and important to document. So when I heard from colleagues at Technoserve in Mozambique about a success story involving young urban women neither at school nor in the workforce, and therefore highly vulnerable to the negative effects of the pandemic, I wanted to learn more to help inform CGD’s ongoing COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative.
I then got in touch with Rose, who has been researching this program—called MUVA—for her PhD, to analyze how it’s supporting young women’s resilience during such an acute crisis. In this blog Rose and I outline the lessons this program can teach us about young women’s resilience in the pandemic, and what should come next.
MUVA is a UKAid funded program, implemented by Oxford Policy Management, which has worked to empower young women economically in Mozambique’s poorest urban areas since 2015. Seventy three percent of the households participating in MUVA projects fall below the poverty line. MUVA is a program made up of individual projects, which are designed to test innovative, context-responsive approaches to supporting women’s economic empowerment (WEE). Since 2015, MUVA has implemented 17 such projects and five remain in operation today.
How young women in two MUVA projects were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak
This blog focuses on two MUVA projects still in operation at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. These two projects for urban young women, a business accelerator and a teacher assistants’ internship and mentorship program, were severely affected by the pandemic triggered lockdown. When the COVID-19 outbreak struck in early 2020, many of the young women involved in MUVA were affected. In MUVA’s PAM project, which acts as a business accelerator for young female entrepreneurs in the urban informal sector, 16 of the 20 participants’ businesses were negatively affected by the crisis, with 30 percent claiming that it had “major negative impacts.” Participants in its Assistentes project, which provides individual mentorship, training, bank accounts and paid 12-month long internships for young women as teaching assistants in Mozambique’s over-crowded primary classrooms, were also affected. As schools closed down and economic activities were restricted, 88 of the 115 of the assistants who had been conducting an income-generating activity claimed to have suffered income or activity losses.
How MUVA has encouraged resilience
While the evidence from MUVA on how women have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis is still emerging, observational data from the two projects indicates that young women can be resilient in the face of a combined economic and public health crisis. We attribute this resilience to MUVA’s multifaceted approach to women’s economic empowerment (WEE). In addition, a careful selection process ensured that the young women were motivated and able to take full advantage of the training offered.
Using a multifaceted approach
MUVA has been able to enhance young women’s sense of self-efficacy and self-awareness by combining traditional skills development with soft skills, together with improved access to cash stipends and bank accounts. An important feature of the MUVA’s approach is the importance it places on the psychosocial dimensions of economic empowerment. For example, in one MUVA project which tracked effects on agency, young women’s autonomous decision making increased 21 percentage points as result of the soft skills training.
Fostering a sense of agency among participants
In the business accelerator project, all of the young women entrepreneurs affected by the pandemic were expecting to be able to continue operating, despite the challenging impact on their businesses. Some made more frequent deliveries, others introduced new hygiene measures, others lowered the prices of their products or switched to online orders.
In the teachers’ assistants project, interviews with 45 participants at the end of 2020 indicated that the young women had been able to draw on their growing self-confidence and efficacy during the crisis to take action in support of their communities. They shared messages around hygiene measures and health practices with neighbors, friends and families. These young women reported that their relationship with their mentors, whose involvement in their lives continued throughout the pandemic, helped sustain their growing self-confidence.
Implementing gender "good practices" supported by rigorous evidence
The increased sense of agency the young women reported was likely the result of a combination of skills development, soft skills training and stipends (and the relationships with mentors in the case of the teachers’ assistants). Rigorous evidence from RCTs shows that this combination of hard and soft skills training interventions works especially well, increasing women’s incomes and changing their mindsets. One example is a soft skills training in Lomé, Togo that promoted a proactive, entrepreneurial mindset, and increased the firm profits of businesswomen significantly in two different studies. Another example is a large cash transfer government program in Niger which found that the combination of entrepreneurial training and coaching, group savings promotion, and soft skills training (plus community sensitization on social norms), empowered very poor women and increased their income significantly, and was more cost-effective than a version of the program that replaced this soft skills training with cash grants.
MUVA’s selection process prioritized motivated young women with skills that would be supported by the program’s interventions. MUVA has a rigorous selection processes, and identified young women most likely to have the skills and motivation to succeed in the businesses and classroom internships. The businesswomen in the PAM project all had small businesses that were offering more than simple sales (had value added) but had not benefitted from grants or training prior to MUVA. The classroom assistants all had completed a minimum 10th grade education, had passed a functional literacy and numeracy test, and had obtained a satisfactory score in a two-week classroom assistance training.
Addressing objective and subjective dimensions of economic empowerment
Young women can participate best in, and benefit from, economic recovery if interventions address and monitor objective and subjective dimensions of economic empowerment. Future recovery programs can benefit from the lesson from both MUVA and existing research that addressing the financial and job skills constraints and enhancing women’s economic autonomy and self-worth go hand-in-hand to improve their economic outcomes. Cash helps overcome basic resource and credit constraints; training responds to a skills constraint; and soft skills training and mentoring change young women’s mindsets from one of subordination to independence and “can do” attitudes. In addition, and critically, motivated young women with basic competencies for either entrepreneurship or the workforce are more likely to profit from the interventions and succeed economically, reinforcing agency and empowerment.
A challenging road ahead
The structural barriers that young women in Mozambique face in accessing formal employment, including the social norms that prescribe gendered economic roles, cannot be addressed by enhancing their individual capabilities alone. This is a potential limitation of MUVA’s approach to WEE even in the best of times. In the context of COVID-19, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas, there is real risk of Mozambicans falling back into poverty as a result of the combined impact of various economic shocks, including the debt crisis and the destruction caused by recent cyclones. Faced with such profound structural challenges, enhancing the individual capabilities of vulnerable young urban women can only achieve so much. Only sustained inclusive economic recovery that prioritizes expanding economic opportunities for the poor, including young women, will help build prosperity for them.
No program is a silver bullet for fostering young women’s resilience in the face of COVID-19 induced economic shocks. But the lessons from MUVA of implementing gender practices supported by rigorous evidence, using a multifaceted approach, fostering a sense of agency, combining hard and soft skills with resources, purposefully selecting candidates, and addressing objective and subjective measures of empowerment, however, are ones that can scale. We hope to see more programs that take account of these lessons in the future, so more women can achieve resilience as the world recovers from the pandemic.
Rose Pinnington is Doctoral Candidate in Politics, Oxford University, who has been researching the MUVA program for her PhD on donor efforts to provide more context-sensitive and locally led development assistance in the fields of gender equality and inclusive governance.