They are farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and they are key to building resilient, peaceful and sustainable societies. They live in rural settings, but their contributions nurture entire nations. And as COVID-19 ravaged our lives and economies, rural women have been leading, often hidden from the limelight, in sustaining and recovering their communities.
Their work has increased – whether paid or unpaid – but they face added risks of insufficient infrastructure and services. How do you stay safe from COVID-19 when water and safe sanitation is in short supply, and when access to health is already precarious? In many countries, although rural women grow most of our food, land rights is still a distant dream. As COVID-19 pushes thousands of unemployed migrant workers to return to rural communities, the pressure on land and resources and the gender gaps in agriculture and food security will grow even more.
This year on International Day of Rural Women (15 October), UN Women is drawing attention to the urgent need to build rural women’s resilience in the wake of COVID-19 by strengthening their livelihoods and wellbeing.
Take a look at just five ways that rural women are feeling the impacts of COVID-19 and leading the response in their communities.
Supporting one-another in Georgia
When a family of potato farmers in southeast Georgia were all hospitalised and undergoing COVID-19 treatment, Naira Paksadze and neighbours stepped in to hoe their fields and save the harvest.
“What else could we do in such a situation?” Naira says. “This was the only thing, and if we hadn’t done it, the weeds would have spoiled everything. The family will need some source of income when they recover and get out of hospital, won’t they?”
The municipality (Marneuli) was declared a quarantine zone in March 2020. The local population, which rely on agriculture, found it extremely difficult to sell their goods during the lockdown. Naira, herself a farmer and community mobiliser, knew that supporting one-another would be critical to recovering from the pandemic.
Outside of tending to the land for those who were unable, the women of the local self-help group, “Women for the Future”, led by Naira, worked to help families in need. The group distributed essential goods, including disinfectants, food, as well as cash assistance.
Volunteering to protect communities in China
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread through China, rural women farmers volunteered to stop the spread. In the rural village of Xiaruoyao, in the northwestern Qinghai Province, 45-year-old Yan Shenglian joined her village’s COVID-19 management team.
Every day, Shenglian worked to ensure that anyone going in or out of the village had their temperature checked and information recorded. She also spread awareness about avoiding large gatherings and maintaining social distance.
For Shenglian, the confidence to volunteer and lead in her community came from participating in a series of skills training sessions in 2019, through a UN Women programme funded by the Chanel Foundation. The programme taught her business skills and helped her recognize the value of women’s leadership, including her own.
“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.”
Saving women-owned small businesses in Tanzania
Rosemary Satunini Berere, 23, grew up in Samunge village in Ngorongoro district in Arusha region, an area best known for craters, sacred forests and mountains and wildlife. The Maasai people live in this area.
When COVID-19 reached her community in March 2020, tourist travel was mostly cancelled, and the tourist lodges that provided a major market for Rosemary’s organic vegetable business were temporarily closed.
“I am looking at sourcing new markets, including selling to people in the food business outside the Arusha region and beyond Tanzania,” says Rosemary. “However, my challenge is how to access information on the available opportunities in some neighbouring countries that may be experiencing shortages in various supplies, including organic vegetables, due to lock-down restrictions.”
With support from UN Women and the Pastoral Women’s Council, and funding from the Korea International Cooperation Agency, Rosemary received a small grant to keep her business going. With the added support, Rosemary has started increasing production and introduced new varieties of vegetables. She says she would like to sell more and boost her savings to buy a water pump for irrigation.
Leading efforts to end violence against women in Colombia
As COVID-19 confinement measures started in Colombia, the country saw a rise in cases of violence against women, including those reported through hotline numbers. There was a 107 per cent increase in calls for help this year, between 25 March and 30 July, in comparison to the same period in 2019. Eighty-nine per cent of those calls were rerouted to hotlines dedicated to serve victims and survivors of violence against women.
“Taking a leadership role has not been easy. We have had to fight with men who have discriminated against us, but we have not allowed ourselves to be overshadowed,” says Luz Angélica Tarapuez, one of the 94 indigenous women and farm workers who attended a programme in 2019 to strengthen their leadership roles in their community and to prevent gender-based violence. “Attending the training school allowed us to learn more about our rights and the importance of speaking up about decisions that affect us as women. We have organized a Women’s Roundtable to strengthen our platform.”
Supported by UN Women, UNICEF and UNHCR, with funding from the Peace Building Fund, the training school is part of a project implemented by Hombres en Marcha, in Colombia and Ecuador. It is the first initiative of its kind in the towns along the Colombia-Ecuador border that is focused on addressing gender-based violence. By boosting women’s political participation, and by involving men as allies of gender equality, the initiative aims to prevent gender-based violence and establish more equitable gender norms.
Rethinking business models in Morocco
Members of the women-led Cooperative Tudert, based in Essauouria province of Morocco, has struggled to maintain its incomes as COVID-19 prevention measures and lockdowns started in Morocco. While they were able to continue harvesting their thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage and other herbs, lockdowns closed the drying and packaging units they relied on. With markets also closed, the women were unable to sell their goods.
In May 2020, Morocco’s Ministry of Solidarity, Social Development, Equality and Family, in partnership with the Social Development Agency, developed an online marketplace, called ADS Coopsclub, to sell products during the COVID-19 crisis. This platform is intended to include all women’s cooperatives in Morocco.
“At the beginning of the crisis, with the weekly regional markets closed in Imi N’Tlit, it was very difficult for us to find a solution to sell our products,” says Aicha Ennaih, a member of the Tudert Cooperative. “When UN Women informed us about this platform, it was great news for our cooperative. We were able to register and to negotiate product delivery fees with service providers, allowing us to take advantage of this unique opportunity at a good cost.”
UN Women supported cooperatives, like Tudert, to join the online marketplace by helping with administrative processes. Previously, The Tudert cooperatives and others in Morocco received support from UN Women as part of an economic empowerment project funded by the Coca-Cola Foundation.