Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, on the International Day of Rural Women

In rural Xiaruoyao, China, 45-year-old pig farmer Yan Shenglian is part of her village’s COVID-19 management team, giving temperature checks and recording vehicle information at local checkpoints to help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In Tanzania’s Iringa region, the outbreak of COVID-19 prompted 28-year-old Stella Nziku to join the Mufindi Women’s Network to raise awareness of gender-based violence. And in Itá, Paraguay, 50-year-old Mirian Cáceres is coping with the pandemic’s impact on her livelihood as a potter by organizing soup kitchens to alleviate hunger.

The vital roles of rural women as farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, community leaders and first responders during crises are key to building peaceful, prosperous and sustainable societies. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to roll back these significant contributions, which is why we must double our efforts to build rural women’s resilience to current and future shocks.

Discriminatory gender norms and resource constraints compound the negative effects of COVID-19 on rural women’s lives. Already, before the pandemic, women across the world did more than three times the unpaid care and domestic work as men. In rural areas, this is exacerbated by lack of infrastructure and insufficient access to clean and safe water, sanitation and energy. Something as essential to hygiene and safety as frequent handwashing with soap, is no simple matter in many locations.

The gender digital divide in rural areas has magnified women’s and girls’ marginalization, limiting their access to distance education, essential services, digital finance and life-saving information during the crisis. The shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls, which has been rising in situations of lockdown, must also be overcome as a matter of urgency. Rural women and girls are even more at risk of experiencing violence yet less likely to receive the support they need due to lack of essential services, legal remedies and justice.

To address these gaps and respond to the pandemic, millions of rural women worldwide have organized protection, support and relief. In Liberia, the National Rural Women Association, with the support of UN Women, is communicating vital COVID-19 information in rural communities. Through the Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment joint programme, run by FAO, IFAD, UN Women and WFP, rural and indigenous women in Guatemala, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan are producing masks as a community service and to earn an income, and disseminating health information, preventative measures and essential goods.

To sustain the livelihoods and food security of rural women and their families during the crisis, social protection must be expanded in ways that intentionally respond to women’s needs. But this is not yet happening to the extent needed. UN Women and UNDP’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker shows that only 10 per cent of social protection and labour market measures are aimed at women – for example, cash transfers or food assistance that directly target women, support to women entrepreneurs and informal traders with grants and subsidized credits, or keeping childcare services open during lockdown to help relieve unpaid care burdens. It is critical that economic stimulus and recovery packages reach rural areas as well as urban settings to keep rural women and their households afloat.

On this International Day of Rural Women, our commitment to leave no one behind has never been more urgent. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to direct attention and resources to empower rural women and eliminate the long-standing obstacles to their progress, so that we can emerge from COVID-19 as a stronger, better balanced, resilient and caring society.