The social impacts of COVID-19 have important implications to food security and, like many other social and environmental calamities, are not gender or spatially neutral. In many regions across the world, deep-rooted gender norms that devalue women’s unpaid domestic labor burdens also marginalize the health, nutrition, and decision-making power of women and girls. In 2017, FAO reported that women account for nearly 60% of all people living in hunger, highlighting the potential to address both food security and poverty alleviation by addressing gender inequalities. Extension and advisory services (EAS) is a vehicle for addressing food security and poverty alleviation, and FAO highlights the importance of gender to that equation.
Reports indicate that food security and health risks for women and children are increased during crises because women occupy nearly 70% of the healthcare workforce. Women’s roles in healthcare increase their work burdens and risks to contract and transfer COVID-19. The United Nations Population Fund suggests that crises also hinder the ability of women to access critical sexual and reproductive health services as well as support systems for domestic-based violence; this is especially true for women refugees.
While research on the gender dimensions of emergencies remains limited, the effects are inevitably compounded by place-based social norms as well as individual or household access to resources and information––in addition to a person’s agency to use them. Women that are racial minorities, disabled, and/or in low-income groups will face additional intersectional challenges. In times of crisis, these already marginalized groups of women and children face increases in malnutrition and food insecurity.
Lessons learned from past crises, such as the Ebola epidemic that ripped across West Africa from 2014-2016, underscore the crucial role of social capital in supporting emergency response efforts and facilitating rapid behavior change. This is particularly relevant for hard to reach rural areas that account for a large portion of communities in West Africa––communities that depend on subsistence and small-scale farming for both food security and livelihoods. In Liberia, for example, 70% of the population derives a portion of their income from agricultural activities, and 49% live in rural areas. This highlights the crucial role of governmental EAS to provide information and resource input to all farmers, including women. Unfortunately though, infrastructure, low resource capacity, and inequality in service dissemination continute to remain barriers for rural women farmers during COVID-19.
Given these gender dynamics and realities, could existing EAS and the trusted local personnel that disseminate them be adapted and targeted to serve more effectively in times of crisis? Specifically, could they address the unique and intersectional challenges of women farmers?
This post highlights specific gaps in the ability of EAS to address the needs of rural farmers, specifically women, that are increased during emergencies. For example, globally, women report lower access to extension services, as well as information and communication technology devices (radios, cell phones), risk-sharing networks outside of their communities (village savings and loan groups), household power to make decisions, and time to allocate to innovative and adaptive agricultural solutions. In addition, this post addresses the risks that such gender and place-based gaps present to rural food security and social stability, specifically in low- and middle-income countries. Below are specific challenges related to EAS access.
- Information Access and Communication. Reliance on technology to access information reported by EAS is critical to emergency response in post-conflict settings where degraded infrastructure makes resources and information delivery to rural, remote communities extremely challenging. In low- and middle-income countries governed through male-dominated systems, it’s common to find such devices owned primarily by the male household head, increasing the difficulty for women to effectively access first-hand agricultural and emergency information. Further, market function during crises relies on information access that can be improved by leveraging existing community social capital, which is critical for women’s role in selling produce.
- Household Agency and Intersectional Challenges. Women may face additional challenges stemming from household power dynamics that result in less agency due to male-dominated decision-making, land ownership, involvement in cash crops, and the devaluation of women’s education. Further, gendered-intersections with ethnicity, religion, geography, and socio-economic status impact women’s domestic labor responsibilities, power to make household decisions, and inevitably how much and how often they eat. Systemic social marginalization coupled with increased environmental stress such as climate change, deforestation, and shifts in precipitation contribute to the added challenges that rural women farmers face during crises.
In light of these challenges, principally in low- and middle-income countries, there is potential for EAS to play a more central role to provide critical information, resources, and reassurance to farmers and communities during COVID-19 and future emergencies, including the unique challenges faced by women. This is especially relevant for hard to reach rural communities that have existing relationships and, therefore, trust with their local extension providers.
There is an urgency for EAS to respond in this pandemic because of their trusted role in agricultural communities; doing so requires their efforts to transmit information about healthy behaviors and how farmers can stay well while maintaining their livelihoods. A more gender-aware approach is vital for EAS to generate effective and equitable solutions that holistically address the added food security, poverty, and healthcare consequences that lie ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is critical that EAS respond to this role during COVID-19. Here are some examples of what they can do.
- Build on social capital to use existing women’s farmer groups to disseminate both agricultural and health information, regardless of the type of women’s organizations, due to time sensitives in crises as well as diminished avenues for community organizing and capacity building. Women also play a critical role in youth education related to behavior change and sanitation, which is especially important to decrease the transmission of COVID-19.
- Transform systems that structurally marginalize women and hinder behavior change needed for improved health and food security may be modified in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to facilitate targeted messaging for both women’s roles in agriculture and household nutrition. If the need for gender-transformative approaches is recognized, the COVID-19 crisis response could serve as a catalyst for positive change by facilitating the transformation of detrimental social norms that have historically degraded women. For example, greater access for women to smart technology devices to receive alerts about appropriate health behaviors as well as access to online/mobile resources like banking and information sharing.
- Communicate and share information by EAS personnel through call centers, radio, cell phones, and farmer groups can be used more effectively if transformed to serve multiple purposes for information dissemination. For example, the use of existing radio stations to disseminate agricultural extension content and information about healthcare and how to minimize spreading the virus as well as gender sensitization (i.e., the opportunity for men to ease women’s domestic burden during emergency response and women’s legal right to own land). The focus needs to be on intersectionality and behavior change to aid in both crises efforts and long-term social norm change to build community resilience.
- Provide place-specific messaging to improve extension efficacy and decrease immediate and long-term impacts of food insecurity related to the pandemic. EAS occupies a unique position to communicate directly with rural communities relaying urgent safe health behaviors. Place-specific messaging requires understanding the spatially distinct challenges of farmers through disaggregated data by locally relevant social factors (i.e., gender, race, socio-economic status) and physical limitations (i.e. water access, infrastructure, soil quality). A better understanding is needed on how and where these challenges most critically undermine the role of local extension providers or where farmers are not receiving adequate support, especially true in the case of women.
- Create data disaggregation and availability at the community scale, which is critical as women and men are impacted differently by disease treatment including vaccinations. As seen in previous disease outbreaks, thus far during the COVID-19 pandemic we are once again experiencing a lack of gender-disaggregated data collection and sharing and diversity with respect to drug trials. This is evident in both high- and low-income counties. Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) highlights the role of data access to empower women and achieve global food security. Moving forward, empowering local EAS and farmers with novel tools and techniques to track social and environmental components of their productivity and resilience over time should be supported, including more equitable local partnerships and monitoring and evaluation for international development programs.
The long-term goals of gender-aware extension services are to increase resilience in recognition that there will be future pandemics. Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, highlighted in her recent reflections to the BBC that the COVID-19 response requires all hands on deck through united local and global efforts.
When emergency responses to COVID-19, including EAS, don’t incorporate intersections with gender and rural landscapes, the risk of harm and exposure to women and girls will continue to increase. Building on the existing knowledge and trust infrastructure of national extension systems may serve to address global food security and poverty alleviation by confronting systemic local and national gender inequalities. EAS can increasingly be at the forefront of local efforts to curb food insecurity through gender specific approaches to emergency response.
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