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International Women’s Day, 2021
Recognizing Rural Women as Central to Cost-COVID Recovery: An Imperative for International Women’s Day

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.

Agricultural biodiversity at the market in Western Bengal. Credit: Krishnasis Ghosh

ROME, Mar 6 2021 (IPS) - In times of crisis, policymakers have a tendency to prioritize economic recovery while leaving “social issues” like women’s empowerment on the backburner. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, women’s leadership is as essential to full and meaningful recovery as it is to basic human rights. As the world mobilizes to design and build a post-COVID landscape, women’s rights, interests and priorities must not only be included in international recovery agendas but pushed to the forefront. To achieve this, women themselves must not simply be included in the discussion, but equitably represented in leadership roles.

For these reasons the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” is a cause for celebration as much as a call to action. Women’s considerable achievements at the forefront of global pandemic response have been as laudable as they are essential. They also call into stark relief the disproportionate and undue labor burden that continues to fall upon women in this time of global crisis.

While there is a clear and pressing need to achieve more gender-equitable representation in leadership – just a quarter of parliamentary seats are held by women worldwide – women are already on the front lines of COVID-19 response efforts. As the United Nations has stated, women have played outsized roles in this crisis as “health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organizers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic.” At the same time, women are also among those most vulnerable to the pandemic and its devastating externalities. Among other disproportionate and gendered impacts, women’s unpaid domestic and care-based labor burdens have increased during the spread of COVID-19, as has the frequency and severity of gender-based violence in a frightening phenomenon that the UN has called the “shadow pandemic.”

This increased vulnerability is particularly relevant for rural women. Women in rural areas already stood a higher risk of disenfranchisement, and their considerable social and economic struggles have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Already confronted with the devastating combination of climate change, decreased biodiversity, severe and worsening land degradation, and resulting food insecurity, rural women have been pushed further below the poverty line than men and into the margins by COVID-19 .

Secure land tenure, essential to the well-being and livelihoods of rural women, has increasingly come under threat with the advance of the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 widows are at a high risk for disinheritance in several countries, and many more rural women are being displaced as unemployed men return to rural communities, thereby “increasing pressure on land and resources and exacerbating gender gaps in agriculture and food security.”

Safeguarding the rights, livelihoods, empowerment and agency of rural women should be a goal unto itself, but doing so is also essential to safeguarding ecological health and food security writ large. Already, COVID-19 has not only compromised progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but has undone some of the progress made. Rural women are central to sustainable development and post-COVID resilience as natural resource managers, land stewards, food growers, sellers, buyers and preparers. They are not merely victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also essential – and all too often overlooked – agents of change. They are also part of the solution.

The restrictions brought on by the pandemic have isolated rural women and inhibited their abilities to maintain their livelihoods as well as to “fulfill their fundamental roles as farmers, social organizers, wives, and mothers.” What’s more, as women have been kept from gathering in common spaces such as marketplaces, an essential forum for communication in rural communities, misinformation has proliferated. All of these effects are exacerbated by the “digital gender divide,” which is heightened in rural areas where women are even less likely to have access to phones, computers and other technologies which would allow for innovation and resilience in isolation.

As illustrated by one case study of rural women in Burkina Faso by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, social distancing requirements keeping rural women from the marketplace, as well as keeping them from each other, has greatly compromised these women’s ability to earn a living, as well as their ability to support one another in community-led efforts and organization. Women’s stories documented in this study show that, “As pillars for their households and communities, rural women’s needs and priorities must take center-stage in efforts to rebuild a better world.”

Despite being essential to safeguarding biodiversity, combating climate change, and shoring up food security and food sovereignty, rural women’s labor is often carried out in the background, with little recognition (not to mention little compensation). This International Women’s Day, we urge that post-COVID recovery initiatives not repeat these mistakes; and that the needs and priorities of rural women are not only recognized but prioritized. As we advocate for more women in leadership in COVID-19 recovery efforts and across all spheres of social life to create more resilient societies, those calls to action must intentionally and explicitly include rural women, their rights, and their perspectives.

The author is a gender researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT


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