The private sector must play a proactive role in leveling the playing field for women so they can fully participate in the economy amid the ongoing financial downturn caused by the pandemic, according to Liz Pechan, IFC’s Country Officer for Vanuatu.

Speaking after a webinar on addressing gendered impacts of COVID-19, Pechan said the pandemic continued to disproportionately affect women and had exacerbated the risks they face. While many women are already burdened by unpaid childcare responsibilities, an increased incidence of domestic and workplace violence had further limited their ability to fully participate in the workforce, in turn increasing absenteeism and reducing productivity.

“Businesses can attract, retain and promote the best person for the job by supporting their employees with childcare responsibilities, building respectful workplaces for all genders and supporting employees’ mental health and well-being,” she said.

Women in Vanuatu account for 49.5 percent of producers in the informal and traditional economy, and are responsible for 63.6 percent of unpaid care duties, according to an ADB analysis. Women account for 90 percent of open-air vendors, who have been significantly impacted by COVID-related restrictions. “Companies that make good choices to ensure that women and men have equal opportunities can lay the groundwork for a quicker recovery, and a more resilient future after the crisis ends,” Pechan said.

Pechan’s address at the Pacific Governance Series: Addressing Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 to Create Safe and Resilient Businesses marked her first official engagement as IFC Country Officer for Vanuatu. Pechan brings a wealth of private sector experience, including extensive knowledge of business operations in the context of development in small island nations. For the past decade she has successfully co-founded and run a multi-award-winning sustainable tourism resort while serving in an advisory capacity on numerous national and industry boards.

Prior to taking up her position with the IFC, Pechan served as a tourism councilor and industry representative to the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and as a board director for the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Authority. She provided advisory input to the Vanuatu Government’s national economic recovery programs established in response to the pandemic and was instrumental in developing the national COVID-19 Safe Business Operations Guidelines and Tamtam Travel Bubble concept.

“The private sector should champion the cause of gender equality, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes good business sense as studies have consistently shown,” said Pechan. “As well as physical, mental and emotional tolls, gender-based violence directly impacts businesses, affecting employee safety, attendance, and productivity, and damaging companies’ financial performance, reputation and overall resilience,” she said.

IFC research in Fiji shows high rates of domestic and sexual violence led to lost staff time and reduced productivity equivalent to almost 10 days of work per employee each year.

Globally, the number of gender-based violence cases has jumped during the pandemic, Pechan said. “In Papua New Guinea, a nation where more than two thirds of women experience rape or assault in their lifetimes, there was a 31 percent decrease in the number of those accessing gender-based violence services at the time of the COVID-19-related state of emergency.”

“The argument is clear: the private sector can boost their bottom-line by promoting greater gender equality in the workplace, including online, as many jobs move to a virtual setup in response to the pandemic,” said Pechan.