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Food security and Covid-19: Recognising women’s leadership

Over half the world’s farmers and food producers are women. A study will look at their experiences in the covid crisis.

Women farmers harvesting rice in Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines, 2015 (International Labour Organisation/Flickr)
Women farmers harvesting rice in Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines, 2015 (International Labour Organisation/Flickr)

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” – this recognition was a central focus of the 1996 World Food Summit. Today, Covid-19 has compromised food security across the world. There has been an 82% increase in acute food insecurity compared to pre-Covid needs. In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, food insecurity has steadily risen throughout 2020. An estimated 51.1 million people (and rising) are food insecure in this region.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in January 2020, food prices have risen at a much faster rate than the overall consumer price index across all regions of the world. Women face a higher risk of food insecurity if they cannot afford food, and if they cannot sustainably and affordably grow their own food. They face higher risks of malnutrition, poverty and harm.

More than half the world’s food producers and farmers are women. Any rise in food prices, coupled with dramatic job losses in the informal employment sector, higher home care duties and less opportunity for women to access civic and public spaces due to lockdown restrictions, raises serious concerns about the long-term gendered harms caused by Covid-19. As the World Bank found in a 45-country survey on food insecurity and Covid-19: “If farmers are experiencing acute hunger, they may also prioritise consuming seeds as food today over planting seeds for tomorrow, raising the threat of food shortages later on.”

Governments are adopting farm, trade and social-protection policies in response to the Covid-19 crisis, but what are women’s experiences of these policies in their implementation? We need to know more.

We know women face a higher risk because of the evidence from an earlier global crisis. Before the outbreak of Covid-19 and the current food-price crisis, the most recent food-price crisis occurred as a result of the 2007–08 global financial crisis, in which women were disproportionately affected. Quite simply, men were afforded more access to pathways to lift them out of economic crisis: they had fewer home-care duties and more work flexibility; they held more land and property and thus faced less rent costs; they had more access to bank accounts and, in turn, welfare payments. In response to the global financial crisis, recovery response budgets and social capital investments were gender blind and favoured recovery systems that benefitted, mostly, men.

This time we can do better. It is essential to introduce pathways that will lift women out of the Covid-induced economic crisis. Food insecurity and its gendered impacts must be prioritised in national budgets and social capital investments to avoid intergenerational harm and empower populations that may have already been on the poverty line prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.

Then, as now, women make up the majority of the population of smallholder farmers. What is certain is that women farmers face structural, gendered disadvantages in terms of unequal land rights, access to technology and social capital investment. Covid-19 has created a food insecurity crisis that negatively impacts a cross section of women in smallholder farming and food production. Women farmers and food producers have a right to be heard as the world manages it way out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet despite these structural challenges, women farmers are often unrecognised leaders who ensure every day that their children, elders and communities are fed through their smallholder crops and their small incomes from food production.

A woman working in a sesame field, Magway, Myanmar, July 2019 (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)

Important research is being conducted to understand the social, economic and political effects of Covid-19 on women, men and non-binary genders. It is essential to understand how the pandemic is affecting food security as well as agriculture more broadly to ensure optimal gender-sensitive social protection responses. Governments are adopting farm, trade and social-protection policies in response to the crisis, but what are women’s experiences of these policies in their implementation? We need to know more.

In a recent rapid assessment report on food security and resilience in the first surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) identified that the gendered impact on food systems will be one of ten impact areas that will require further investigation.

Our research team is examining the impacts of Covid-19 on women and their food security systems within three ACIAR priority partner countries – Myanmar, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. In each country, farming and social protection policies have been adopted in response to the Covid-19 crisis. As yet, we have little understanding of how these policies affected the daily experiences and decision-making of women farmers and women food producers during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The onset and pace of Covid-19 outbreak, the lockdowns and the restrictions were experienced differently across Myanmar, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. This project will record the experiences of women farmers and women food producers during the first year of the Covid-19 crisis and ask them what can be done to support their hard work to ensure their communities are economically and food secure. It is important to hear women’s voices and recognise their daily work to achieve food security.

About the authors:

Sara E. Davies is a Professor of International Relations at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University and an adjunct research fellow at the Gender Peace and Security Centre, Monash University.

Darlene Joy D. Calsado is a community development practitioner and Research Associate at the University of the Philippines Visayas Center for West Visayan Studies.

Karen A. Grépin is an Associate Professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

Claire Samantha T. Juanico is a part-time PhD in Fisheries student of the University of the Philippines Visayas (UP Visayas) and the Project Development Officer II (PDO II) of Philippine Genome Center Visayas (PGC Visayas).

Zin Mar Oo is the Honorary General Secretary of the YWCA Myanmar and the Director of Thabyay Education Foundation based in Yangon, Myanmar

Robin E. Roberts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing and leader of the research stream Griffith Agribusiness nested within the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.

Julia Smith is a University Research Associate in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. 

Clare Wenham is Assistant Professor of Global Health Policy at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Naomi A.G. Woyengu is a feminist activist and a consultant who currently serves as the World YWCA Rise Up! Young Women’s Leadership Program Regional Coordinator in Asia and the Pacific and is the Director of the HausKuk Initiative in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea.

Yadanar is a passionate Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights advocate in Myanmar and a co-founder of Nyi Ma Lay Organization. 

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