Women's Empowerment in Agriculture is Essential to COVID-19 Survival and Recovery

August 13, 2020


Three women standing beside each other working in agriculture
Photo: Bonita G. Osborn, IESC communications, Tanzania

This blog was originally posted on Agrilinks and was written by Kristen Dayton and Jenn Williamson. 

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a devastating threat to lives and livelihoods around the world. Many development organizations and research institutions are raising their voices and calling for governments, policymakers, donors, and implementers to pay attention to the gender-specific risks and impacts of the outbreak to ensure response efforts are equitable and inclusive. Much attention regarding the gender-specific implications of COVID-19 is focused in the health and education sectors, but it is important to recognize that although the pandemic is obviously a health crisis, it is also a food security and economic crisis that affects men, women, boys, and girls differently. 

Some gender-specific impacts, such as increased care burdens for women and girls and increased gender-based violence, cut across all sectors. In the agriculture sector, the outcomes of the COVID-19 shock will manifest differently, resulting in longer-term economic instability for individuals, households, and the entire market system. For example, in Africa the pandemic has caused trade disruptions as borders are closed or impose stricter sanitary controls and curfews, slowing down or halting the movement of agricultural goods. In West Africa, where fresh produce, meat, and other perishable products are usually transported at night due to a lack of cold transport options, curfews force transporters to move goods during the heat of the day causing spoilage and waste. Increased health checks, transport challenges and travel restrictions are also likely to cause price increases and decrease access to necessary resources for production as well. The trade disruptions impacting the transport of produce to market also make access to fertilizers and inputs more difficult. 

Women make up a substantial proportion of agriculture producers, processors, traders, agricultural entrepreneurs, and natural resource managers. COVID-19 related restrictions on movement, increased caretaking burdens, increased gender-based violence, and other impacts will hamper women’s ability to cultivate land and engage in other agriculture activities. These impacts will have further repercussions, such as reducing women’s ability to participate in village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) or to pay back VSLA loans, reducing the capital of the associations and the women’s longer-term economic prospects. Women's reduced livelihood opportunities due to travel restrictions or increased unemployment will impact their decision-making power in the home, further impacting nutrition and resilience factors. Reduced livelihood opportunities for women have knock-on effects, as this income is generally prioritized towards education, health care, and re-investment in the women's agriculture or entrepreneurial activities. Examining gender-specific COVID-19 impacts and integrating women’s empowerment interventions remains essential to COVID-19 survival and recovery.

What should agriculture donors and implementers do during this period of crisis?

Effective crisis response must be timely and prioritize resources where most needed, but rapid and targeted responses should still attend to the risks and differentiated needs of vulnerable groups. In mobilizing resources and determining responses, it is crucial to plan “smart” and develop intentional strategies that have the widest impact while avoiding negative unintended consequences. The first step in effective crisis response is continuing to implement best practices to mainstream gender equality. This means organizations should reflect on how gender and social inclusion issues are relevant to their planned responses and identify ways to integrate gender and social inclusion analysis as part of design processes.  

For example, while planning food and provision distribution, programs could consider how women’s limited mobility might keep them from getting supplies. Or how emergency communications distributed through SMS or text messages might not reach women and other vulnerable populations due to their limited access to and control of mobile devices. Or how increased cases of COVID-19 will disproportionately affect women’s capacity to continue income-generating activities or support other crucial voluntary community activities, given their increased role as caretakers.  

Organizations might use focused, rapid data collection methods, such as rapid gender analysis, or integrate key gender and social inclusion questions in ongoing studies to support the design of inclusive and effective response measures. Collecting data through remote processes or adjusting traditional processes to allow for social distancing will pose new challenges. This means methodologies will have to consider not only logistical challenges, but also new ethical and inclusion considerations in remote data collection. For example, agriculture programs shifting to data collection through phone surveys will need to consider how the data could be affected by women’s lack of privacy when social distancing orders are in place. When adapting in person data-collection, programs might need to acquire personal protective gear for data collectors and create social distancing guidelines to keep data collectors and study participants safe. Organizations will also need to create new partnership strategies to collect data, such as partnering with local health data collectors to include questions about increases in food insecurity due to the inability to buy food in markets or crop surpluses being wasted because they cannot reach markets.   

Whatever strategies organizations develop to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and whichever data collection methods they use, it is important for donors and organizations not to assume that all members of a population experience the crisis in the same way, have the same needs, or can be reached using the same methods.

Another important step to consider is revising how organizations are collecting and using sex- and age-disaggregated data. Incorporating gender indicators and questions into monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation processes and COVID-19 agriculture recovery activities will ensure activities have a more equitable reach. It will decrease the likelihood of having strategies that end up “losing” women or other vulnerable populations’ participation, unintentionally reinforcing or widening gender gaps, or contributing to increases in gender-based violence. It will enable organizations to check whether information and messaging are reaching all members of a community or target group, determine whether activities are having the desired or different impacts on groups, and identify and respond to unintended consequences.

What activities or areas are particularly important for gender and women’s empowerment under COVID-19?

Women are heavily engaged in agriculture—as producers, processers, marketers, and informal traders—and their participation in these activities is being heavily curtailed by the crisis. As groups such as Data2x have noted, women and girls are highly likely to experience disproportionate burdens of care work under COVID-19 due to social norms regarding caring for the sick, children, and the household. In addition, women face rising levels of gender-based violence that are further exacerbated by mobility restrictions and the reduction in services or closing of healthcare centers that offer services to survivors of violence. 

Women’s access to information is further curtailed by social distancing efforts, because of their lower access to mobile phones and other means of receiving information, and public information campaigns frequently lack targeted outreach to marginalized groups. As savings groups activities pause, women also face gaps in access to financial and social support. These groups themselves will likely face long-term consequences or be unable to withstand the shock produced by the crisis. Women-headed households will have magnified burdens as they are forced to manage increased responsibilities in caring for the ill, while continuing to provide family income in places where women’s employment opportunities and mobility may be even more limited than before the crisis. 

Agriculture implementers adjusting activities or developing COVID-19 mitigation interventions should consider that women will likely experience greater and longer-term impacts on their social and economic prospects as a result of reduced income and food security. And it will likely take longer for them to recover than men. 

Implementers and donors should pay specific attention to what challenges can be addressed in the short term, as well as ways to address these challenges during mid- and long-term adaptation and recovery efforts. In addition to including activities that address women’s increased care burdens, mitigate gender-based violence, and improve access to information, implementers should incorporate activities that target women’s economic empowerment and specifically target women in agriculture and economic recovery efforts. This will ensure women are not left behind and have access to resources and the agency they need to participate in the recovery of their households and communities.

Programs can find quick wins when looking to solutions used during similar crises in the past. For example, the USAID Office of Food for Peace–funded Emergency Food Security Program responded to the 2015–2017 West Africa Ebola outbreak with a market-based recovery approach to addressing food insecurity through emergency cash transfers to vulnerable households. The goal of the program was to stimulate early recovery of markets and address food insecurity by distributing cash to affected households, ensuring access by creating the incentive for suppliers to continue serving rural areas. The program developed a women’s empowerment and safeguarding approach that included engagement of men and community leaders in sensitization on the purpose of cash and transparent, participatory selection of affected households. Activities focused on communication strategies targeting women; a culturally sensitive approach to gender roles, emphasizing household decision making; and robust monitoring, evaluation, and learning activities focused on adaptive learning to improve messaging and address unintended consequences.  

The project achieved significant learning around the successful outcomes achieved through engaging men and community leaders in safeguarding efforts and gender-sensitive conflict resolution. The program confirmed that cash can be used effectively by vulnerable households when women participate in prioritizing needs, enabling multiple pathways to recovery. Finally, linking cash transfers with savings activities enabled women to develop entrepreneurial activities that strengthened their household economic recovery beyond the period of cash transfers, generating new rural market opportunities.

Where can I learn more?

The Advancing Women’s Empowerment (AWE) Program is available to assist missions, implementing partners, the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, and other USAID offices in their efforts to apply a gender lens in responding and adapting to COVID-19. AWE provides a range of support services—from collection, analysis, and application of data and review of strategies and interventions to assistance with program and strategic pivots. 

To learn more—including how AWE can help you work remotely and support remote engagement—please contact the AWE Activity Manager, Aslihan Kes ([email protected]) or AWE Team Lead Samantha Croasdaile ([email protected]).