Roses in the battlefield: rural women farmers join the fight against COVID-19 in China

In January 2020, the COVID-19 epidemic began spreading across China. Of the 42,600 medical workers dispatched to the hardest-hit Hubei Province, as of early March, two-thirds (28,000) were women, who have been dubbed “roses in the battlefield”.

Women without any medical background also joined the fight, volunteering for vital roles across other provinces: in the rural village of Xiaruoyao, in China’s northwestern Qinghai Province, 45-year-old Yan Shenglian joined her village COVID-19 management team. Standing at front-line checkpoints, her daily tasks included ensuring that anyone going in or out of the village got their body temperature checked and had their vehicle information recorded. The community volunteers also made sure that the villagers avoided public gatherings and maintained social distancing—essential measures that have proven useful in reducing the spread of the new coronavirus.

This may not have happened a few years back. Shenglian, like many other women in her village, used to believe that participating in public affairs was a man’s job. But her ideas changed after she participated in a UN Women program on gender and climate change, funded by the Chanel Foundation. 

Shenglian, a pig farmer, participated in a series of skills training sessions in 2019, sponsored by the UN Women program. She learned how to raise pigs organically, while saving on production costs, and also how to sell her pigs using innovative online platforms, such as Kuaishou. The program also provided gender awareness and leadership training to women.

In 2019, UN Women flew Shenglian to Beijing to attend a seminar for women entrepreneurs. It was the first time she had traveled by air or been anywhere outside her province. In Beijing, she met 20 women entrepreneurs from across China, learning from them and sharing her own experiences. After returning from the trip, Shenglian started organising other women to take up farming to boost their income and independence. Today, she is a mentor to several women in her village.

In 2019, Yan Shenglian promoting the agricultural products from her community at a UN Women event. Photo: IGSNRR

“Although some men do not want to admit it, they are silently imitating and learning my methods,” she says, adding that no one questions her abilities any longer and no villagers think that women cannot participate in public affairs. “I feel that my voice can be heard, and I can get a lot of support now.”

Then came the COVID-19 outbreak, with its devastating impact on health and socio-economic well-being. Maintaining food production is essential as the crisis unfolds, and Shenglian has managed to sell 46 pigs through online platforms, earning more than USD 7,100 (CNY 50,000 Chinese Yuan Renminbi).

“Many rural women like Yan Shenglian gained knowledge, information and leadership skills during the programme. Now, the impact of the programme is evident through the roles they are playing in supporting and contributing to their own communities, as well as to the most hard-hit Hubei Province,” said Wang Qing, UN Women Project Manager for Qinghai. “As farmers, these women are also playing a critical role in food security in the aftermath of COVID-19. Bringing their voices and leadership at the forefront of the recovery phase is very important.”

Yan Shenglian and her team members working at the check point of her village during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: UN Women/Feng Xinlin

Whether as farmers, doctors, nurses, scientist, construction workers, journalists or volunteers, women have been key pillars of China’s response. To highlight unsung heroes such as Shenglian, UN Women China launched the #AMessageToHer social media campaign ahead of International Women’s Day, on 6 March.

Having already attracted more than 56 million views and 37,000 online discussions, the campaign celebrates the important roles and contributions of women front-line responders fighting COVID-19 in China.

“In China’s response to COVID-19, women from different walks of life have played irreplaceable roles,” explains Smriti Aryal, UN Women Head of Office in China. “Campaigns like this promote recognition and awareness of women’s important leadership and contributions to COVID-19 response and facilitate public awareness and discourse on gender issues. Everywhere in the world, women are at the front lines of health care and other essential services. Globally, 60 per cent of women are in the informal economy and one in three women work in agriculture. “

Under UN Women’s leadership, #AMessageToHer campaign brought together the UN system in China to amplify messages of solidarity and recognition of women’s contributions. It also called on advocates and partners to take into account the differential needs of women and men in the immediate response to COVID-19, as well as in long- and medium-term recovery efforts. And, it has brought women like Shenglian, whose contributions are often invisible, never in media headlines, to the foreground.

UN Women is on the ground working hard to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and provide life-saving information, services and supplies for Rohingya refugee women in Cox’s Bazar. But we urgently need your support to continue this work. Your donation will help women leaders carry out their vital prevention campaign, and continued health, hygiene and counselling services in UN Women’s Multipurpose Women’s Centres. Show your support by giving a gift now.