Rebuilding Better project: Strong partnerships needed to assist women-owned small businesses in their recovery from COVID-19

To kick-start the launch of the ILO and J.P. Morgan Rebuilding Better project, key stakeholders were invited to launch events across multiple ASEAN countries to discuss how women-owned small businesses in Southeast Asia can build greater resilience and be better supported in their recovery from the pandemic.

News | 22 July 2021
BANGKOK (ILO News) – Held throughout the months of May and June 2021, the events saw the participation of key attendees across multiple sectors – from ministries and government agencies (Thailand’s Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives in Malaysia and the Department of Trade and Industry in the Philippines), employers organizations and trade unions (the Employers Federation of the Philippines and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress) to financial institutions (Bank of Thailand and the Development Bank of the Philippines). Women entrepreneurship associations (National Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Malaysia to the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs Network ), experts from the academia as well as representatives from J.P. Morgan and ILO also weighed in on the specific needs of women-owned small businesses and expanded on the grave impacts COVID-19 has on these businesses in Southeast Asia.

Ms Anya Lim, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Anthill Fabric Gallery, delivering a story of resilience.
Of course, the events would not be possible without the participation of women entrepreneurs themselves. Female entrepreneurs from the three ASEAN countries were present and shared their stories of resilience in coping with the challenges from the pandemic. Ms Anya Lim, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Anthill Fabric Gallery in the Philippines emphasised the importance of growing their online platforms during the pandemic to ensure they could stay operational and support workers and community partners that relied upon them to provide for their families. For Anya and her team, this entailed creating meaningful connections and sharing stories of their journey to move the business online. By being transparent and vulnerable, they were able to connect with advocates and customers who supported them during the crisis. “We survive this pandemic because we are not alone”, Anya reiterated.

Facing COVID-19 challenges
The launch events provided a forum for participants to pinpoint challenges faced by women-owned small businesses during the pandemic – validating findings from a project inception study of the exact same topic. The study further identified the support required by these women entrepreneurs and the current services available to them.

Panellists in the Philippine launch event included Ms Maria Luisa Gatchalian, Miriam College, Jeannie Javellosa, PhilWEN, Maria Lourdes Arcenas, Development Bank of the Philippines and Clarine Tobias, Employers Confederation of the Philippines.
A key challenge discussed in all four events was the financial loss as a result of the pandemic, which has led to serious cash flow issues. Women entrepreneurs, who typically rely on personal or family finances to fund their businesses, a source of funds that in many cases is no longer available, face difficulty in accessing funds during the crisis.

With border closures impacting supply chains and local markets being severely disrupted, women-owned businesses are faced with immense uncertainty while having to adapt their business models quickly to a changing environment. Women entrepreneurs already faced difficulties accessing information and market opportunities compared to their male-owned counterparts. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic while stress and impacts on mental health were also highlighted.

When adapting to the new normal, the pandemic has forced many businesses to pivot towards online activities and increase their digital presence. “COVID-19 has exposed issues related to the digital divide, where businesses unable to adapt to challenges are being left behind”, said Ms Pataraporn Samantarath, Assistant Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Thailand. Supporting business owners to embrace new digital opportunities will be key for MSMEs’ survival in Southeast Asia.

COVID-19 has risked deepening pre-existing gender inequalities for women and women entrepreneurs. This includes considering the added domestic care burden on women, mental health issues and stress caused by the pandemic and barriers for women entrepreneurs in accessing support services. The launch events explored the need for gender-sensitive approaches to building back better and closing crucial gender gaps in the process.

Ways forward for rebuilding back better
The events highlighted the importance of building sustainable and scalable solutions through partnerships with various stakeholders, while being creative and leveraging digital tools to gain large-scale impact.

Group photo with attendees from the Malaysia stakeholder dialogue and launch event, including ILO constituents and other key stakeholders.
Through panel discussions and technical sessions, it was clear that financial relief and business continuity support are priorities for alleviating the crisis in the short-term. This include continued government subsidies and financial support packages, as well as programmes educating women entrepreneurs on how they can pivot their businesses and adapt to new online markets and opportunities.

Looking ahead, participants highlighted the need to improve access to credit and other financial services for women entrepreneurs to survive and become more resilient in the ‘new normal’. Also, through adopting digital solutions, improving skills on financial management and providing trainings on topics such as business continuity planning, women-owned small businesses are able to be better prepared for future shocks.

Women entrepreneurs also expressed the need for a strong community and network so they can support each other during times of crisis and have a platform for knowledge sharing. The holistic aspect of supporting women entrepreneurs is key in providing well-rounded interventions so they are able to recover as businesses and individuals.

The Rebuilding Better project will deliver support to approximately 900 women entrepreneurs. To find out more about project, check out the project page.

Contact details:
Sara Andersson
Project Technical Officer, Rebuilding Better project