#StoriesofWONDER: Women-led Businesses and Manufacturers Thrive Amid COVID-19
The Philippines, along with the rest of the world, continues to face the economic and health impacts of COVID-19. Poverty rates have risen for the first time since 1988 and business from all over the country were pushed to halt their operations, taking away the livelihood of many Filipinos.
In the midst of all this, the pandemic has also had disproportionate impacts on women because of existing gender inequalities both at work and at home. A UN Women report notes that some of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic are feminized sectors characterized by the lack of social protection, low pay and poor working conditions.
In the country, micro-enterprises in the garments sector—a field that is predominantly feminized—had to shift to manufacturing other products like community face coverings (CFCs) and personal protective equipment (PPEs) just to survive.
The government mandate for the wearing of PPEs and CFCs provided an opportunity for micro-entrepreneurs to manufacture them as a way to generate additional income. In the beginning, however, they started producing them without closely following the government-approved specifications. This is due to limited access to raw materials that the government standards require. Because of this, gaps remained in the production of PPEs and even in the provision of other essential health supplies especially to the most vulnerable sectors.
In response to these challenges, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines—through the generous support of Citi—launched WONDER or Women Organizations and Networks Delivering Assistance for COVID-19 Response. The initiative aimed to empower women and women-led groups to take an active role in the country’s recovery from the economic and health crises caused by the pandemic.
One of the ways that WONDER helped empower women is by enabling them and other women-led businesses to produce the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and UNDP-approved CFCs. They were trained using the technical specifications developed by DTI and UNDP for EMPOWER PH, or Enhanced Manufacturing of Protective Wear and Equipment for COVID-19 Response in the Philippines—a collaborative online platform that connects manufacturers and stakeholders to produce and distribute PPEs.
Through this initiative, participants were trained with the right tools to produce quality masks based on government’s standards. This is to ensure that the quality of the CFCs that they produce hereon are at par with what the market demands. An alternative form of livelihood to help these women sewers adapt in the ‘new normal’.
But what made this initiative even more meaningful for these seamstresses is the bigger purpose behind the CFC production; the face masks that they made were meant to be distributed along with hygiene kits and relief goods to 2,980 women in vulnerable communities – among which are areas that have been severely affected by the recent typhoons in the Philippines and have been experiencing multiple burdens amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through this cycle of paying forward kindness, WONDER aims to show that the way to recovery is paved with both determination to build forward better and goodwill for others who might have even less.
Sewing to Survive
Businesses and citizens continue to bear the brunt of COVID-19’s impact. They not only began to worry for their own health, but also for the welfare of their families and their livelihood. For instance, WONDER’s seamstresses and women-led enterprises that we have worked with in Metro Manila and Rizal Province faced tremendous challenges to prevent the spread of the virus while making a living out of sewing.
Beth Sagun, a senior lead seamstresses in West Avenue, Quezon City recalls,“COVID-19 turned my life around. I never experienced such a crisis before—let alone a pandemic in my 30 years in the company. We stopped operations because of the lack of demand brought about by the lockdown. To say we were struggling would be an understatement. I even began to sell random items like non-perishable food and canned items. I even became as a reseller of face masks and personal protective equipment (PPEs) just to sustain our needs.”
Mabel Federizon, the owner of Seerose, a manufacturing site in Fairview, Quezon City, has not received new orders since the beginning of the lockdown and was forced to slow down their operations.
“Only 10% of our manpower was available. Therefore, our workers had to work other jobs. Some of them wanted to go to work, but transportation was not available — we couldn’t even help them. We also needed to sell and make profit out of the remaining orders we received before the quarantine. We did not get any orders from March 2020 until the end of the year. Our orders here have been stuck, as you can see,” she said.
As a self-employed seamstresses in the municipality of Tanay in Rizal, Camille Quiogue’s only source of income pushed her and her family to their limits.
“Before the lockdown, almost every month, someone would call me and request for gowns or dresses. They will sometimes use them for photoshoots. COVID-19 took a toll especially on my income and day-to-day expenses. My shop has been closed since then. The months from March to December 2020 were the worst, as I didn’t receive any order at all," she notes.
“These days, there is almost nothing I could go on with. I got pushed to my limits. Our electricity was almost cut just days before I was supposed to finish these masks. I even took another job just to get by. I was a data encoder while my sewing business was put on hold. When Project WONDER offered me this opportunity, I said yes in a heartbeat. I didn’t think twice,” said Camille.
Learning and Adapting in the New Normal
Camille, Mabel, and Beth are some of the women whose livelihoods have been greatly affected by COVID-19. For the already-poor, the struggle has worsened. For small businesses, opportunities have been elusive.
Beth said, “With WONDER, I got back to sewing and led a team of 7 in accomplishing these masks. I am very happy to be part of this project. It’s fulfilling that we finished them in time, too. This is really an entirely new experience for me; I did not know how to make these masks before, but now I have an added skill.”
While COVID-19 is not yet over, and the world fights against the spread of the virus, women sewers and micro-entrepreneurs promised themselves to learn and adapt in the new normal.
Marge Sayson—the new owner of her late parents’ 56-year-old garment company in Kamuning, Quezon City—even shared that “the pandemic teaches us the meaning of “walang iwanan” (we’re in this together). We need each other or else the business will shut down; shutting down means I will lose my sewers. These women in our compound are my extended family members. They are dear to me. I just cannot give up. At the same time, we learned to innovate! We learned how to make a proper mask. We have been in the knitwear business for so long and producing these masks helped balance out our expenses. Plus, it’s a new skill.”
WONDER is one of the many UNDP-led projects that are aiming to aid in the recovery of women-led micro-enterprises and provide relief for communities and families who suffered from the pandemic.
“We don’t know when COVID-19 will end. Being part of WONDER is a blessing already. We are ready to accept any type of order. From knitwear to bonnets and masks, we are more than skilled and ready to make them. This project is an added experience for us—and we will never forget how these CFCs will benefit others, too,” Marge added.
Throughout the month of February, WONDER distributed the CFCs, hygiene kits, and basic goods to women beneficiaries in Metro Manila, Rizal, Aurora, and Cagayan provinces.
For Camille, "the ability to help and be of purpose for others made me agree to participate in WONDER. Knowing that these masks will be distributed to women all over the Philippines brings me pride. Who would have thought that a seamstress like me here in the province of Rizal would be able to make CFCs for places and communities that I myself haven’t visited yet? That is the greatest reward for me.”