Looking into the lives of rural women in trying times

By Abisola Alaka*

ADDIS ABABA – IT is a known fact that rural women in Africa are at the heart of the food supply chain – production, handling and storage, processing and packaging, distribution and marketing, and consumption. Thus, the active engagement of rural women in agriculture is necessary, if improved food security and nutrition in Africa is to be achieved.

The multitude of shocks and crises, nonetheless, repeatedly hinder them from actively involving into and benefiting from the full potential of the sector. Droughts, famines, floods and landslides are common challenges that every farming woman is facing frequently. Harsh plant and animal diseases also pose unprecedented and disproportionate threats against these segments of the society, affecting harvests and livestock.

If we take the Eastern Africa region as an example, the 2020 Regional Report on Food Crises indicated that about 28 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, the Sudan and Uganda were classified in crisis or worse levels of food insecurity. This figure represents around 20 percent of the global total number of acutely food-insecure people in need of urgent humanitarian food assistance.

Weather extremes, conflict and animal and plant diseases are attributed to this calamity. The recent invasion of Desert Locust and Fall Armyworm have also destroyed thousands of hectares of crops in the subregion. In Ethiopia, floods displaced over 300 000 people, of which women and children takes up the bigger proportion.

In recent months, we are witnessing the spread of Covid-19, leaving the agriculture sector and the farming households in the realm of uncertainties. The invasion is projected to take an immense human toll in sub-Saharan Africa, up to 110 million people by some estimates. The immediate economic consequences of the pandemic for African economies are also estimated to be severe, resulting in the first regional recession in nearly 25 years and pushing an estimated 23 million more people into extreme poverty. In the face of the human and economic crisis caused by Covid-19, existing gender inequalities in economic opportunities may worsen, as was seen in previous large-scale health shocks such as the Ebola epidemic.

Rural women are disproportionately affected by Covid-19

While the health aspects of the pandemic have not affected rural areas as much as urban centres, containment measures pose new challenges to rural women with regards to their roles in household food security, as agricultural producers, farm managers, processors, traders, wage workers and entrepreneurs. Past experience shows that rural women are disproportionally affected by health and economic crises in a number of ways, including but not limited to, food security and nutrition, access to health facilities, services and economic opportunities, and gender-based violence (GBV).

The vulnerability of rural women to disasters and crises emanates from the lower economic and social positions they hold in the society. Inequalities in exposure and sensitivity to risk as well as inequalities in access to information, resources, capabilities and opportunities systematically disadvantage rural women, rendering them more vulnerable to the impact of crises.

Rural women also have limited savings or assets to endure external shocks or survive the crises. Recovery periods are often challenging for rural women because of their limited access to farmlands and other productive resources. Securing farm inputs, extension services and microfinance services are hard to come by to resume farming activities. They are also required to work harder to carry out the functions of daily living for their families. This can include lining up for relief supplies and having to travel farther to access water or firewood in challenging conditions. Furthermore, they have to care for the sick; and seek employment, if the main breadwinner is killed during the crises.

What can governments and institutions do to support rural women in times of crises?

In the spirit of the 2030 Agenda and “Leaving No One Behind,” the focus of the disaster risk management actions should be on the most vulnerable, particularly on rural women. Interventions should explicitly recognise the specific constraints faced by rural women during and after crises in maintaining household and national food security and nutrition. Building and enhancing the capacities of organisations and communities are imperative to enable gender mainstreaming into disaster risk management plans. In doing so, collecting gender-specific data and statistics on the impact of disasters, vulnerability risk and capacities are crucial to formulate and implement relevant programmes.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) works with member states to support the design of gender-responsive policy measures in crises, including Covid-19, to address the needs of rural women. It promotes the collection of sex-disaggregated data and evidence to assess the gendered impact of crises and the measures to contain them to inform policy interventions.

FAO pays attention to the long-term responses that support women farmers by enhancing equitable access to and control over productive resources, inputs and rural services.
Gender equality is essential for attaining food security, nutrition and achieving all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By providing equal provision of rural services, it is possible to facilitate the access to education, health facilities and productive resources so as to protect them from and build their resilience to major crises that include Covid-19.

The writer, Abisola Alaka*, is a Senior Administrative Officer FAO Subregional Office for Eastern Africa