The social and economic toll of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on rural economies across Africa. It is affecting rural women's productive, reproductive and income-generating capacities because it tends to reduce their economic opportunities and access to nutritious foods, while at the same time increasing their workloads and escalating gender-based violence. Covid-19 lays bare structural and societal inequalities; and without significant investments and commitment to gender equality and social justice, we expect these to deepen, undermining efforts to achieve the SDGs (sustainable development goals).
Rural women are facing greater constraints than men in accessing productive resources, services, technologies, markets, financial assets and local institutions, public services, and fundamental social infrastructure. Covid-19 is also compounding vulnerabilities, in particular to all forms of violence against women and girls, including child marriage and other harmful practices.
Despite these challenges, women are the primary caregivers, and upon whom families and communities depend for economic survival and social wellbeing. In so many ways, rural women are at the heart of vibrant rural economies. In most African countries, almost 60% of the population still lives in rural areas, where agriculture is the predominant source of livelihoods.
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Empowering women in agriculture, value chains and trade will therefore accelerate the achievement of the Malabo Commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ending hunger by 2025 in Africa is possible if we address the gender inequalities in production and reduce post-harvest losses. The African Union gender equality commitments focus on achieving 30% documented land ownership and 50% finance for women. These are pre-requisites to reach Malabo Commitments. Giving women decision-making power within the household and the community will allow them to have access to economic opportunities.
To improve gender inequalities and improve their socio-economic status, the United Nations, through its relevant Agencies, Funds and Programmes, delivers comprehensive and gender-centered programmes geared towards meeting global and regional development targets.
UN Women Offices in the East and Southern African region are approaching the pandemic as an opportunity to promote equitable economic systems. This means working with governments and civil society to effect policies that recognize women's unpaid care work, that steward natural and environmental assets, that support social protection policies, and that are inclusive of women in leadership and governance.
The UN Women's economic empowerment programme promotes public procurement from women-owned businesses; supports the private sector in the adoption of the Women's Empowerment Principles, and partners with women farmers to ensure that women's leadership and participation is promoted to advocate for actions needed to advance women's access to resources and opportunities within rural economies. UN Women's current climate-smart agriculture partnerships reach rural women in Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) also works to contribute to reducing gender inequalities. At the global and regional levels, FAO advocates for sharpening the focus of high-level dialogue and decision-making regarding food security and nutrition to ensure that gender equality and women's empowerment issues are adequately addressed. At the national level, it supports governments across a range of subsectors including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries to design and implement policies and programmes that ensure women and men have equal access to productive resources, organizations, technologies, markets, decent employment and social protection, and that they participate and benefit equally from agricultural services and opportunities.
What can we do to ensure gender equality and gender-inclusive policies?
To accelerate progress towards gender equality and inclusive and climate-smart economic recovery in rural communities, we need a range of efforts. These include the expansion of, and equal access to social protection programmes; the promotion of local food economies, food security and nutrition; and greater investments in rural women's engagement, empowerment, leadership and voice. Women's knowledge must be harnessed for the restoration of biodiversity in ecosystems and landscapes that underpin rural economies.
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Policy responses to address Covid-19 should consider women's key roles in agri-food systems and household food security and nutrition, as food producers, farm managers, processors, traders, wage workers and entrepreneurs.
There should be focused actions towards ensuring the availability of sex- and age-disaggregated data and analysis for monitoring gender-related impacts; establishing measures to reduce gender inequalities in food security and nutrition; adopting special measures to support rural women's economic activities in the agri-food value chains; adopting programmatic and policy-oriented measures to address gender-based violence, and investing in women's leadership and support their formal and informal networks to contribute to the Covid-19 response.
It is essential to tackle food insecurity, undernutrition and rural poverty for women through a holistic approach that integrates the adaptation and mitigation of climate change, biodiversity, and peace and security. This is key for the empowerment of rural women. Through partnerships, investments and concrete actions, we can improve the status of rural women.
On the occasion of the International Rural Women's Day on 15 October, UN Women and FAO reiterate their commitment to working with governments, rural women's organizations and the private sector to ensure that women are supported in their roles in sustaining local economies, securing rural households and communities, and improving rural wellbeing.