Lynda Keeru reports back on the webinar, ‘Women’s experiences of food insecurity and during the COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea’ which shed light on the plight of women in the agricultural sector during the pandemic.
In the agricultural sector, women have experienced more discrimination and challenges due to COVID-19 than men, particularly in accessing credit, seed and trade opportunities. The lockdown and border closures caused significant disruptions to food systems and food markets, thus creating more challenges.
The studies discussed in the webinar sought to investigate the challenges that women experienced through hearing their stories and perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic in real time. They sought to understand what the food insecurity has been like and economic impacts on small scale women farmers and vendors in the three countries; as well as discuss the rapid and long term responses needed to address the challenges brought about by COVID-19.
Zin Mar Oo from Myanmar explained that female farmers and vendors were forced to make adjustments in their daily diets like the consumption of less meat and more vegetables due to increased prices of food items and farming supplies. Limited access to water and irrigation, climate change and unusual pest infestations like snails also became huge challenges. As a result of lockdowns and restrictions, there was a decrease in demand at markets and women found themselves not selling enough goods to recover the principal they had borrowed. There were also many other challenges like access to financial resources, limited access to income support from government and pawning of their assets.
The research identified the immediate needs for women in agriculture such as safe spaces to come together to share their common challenges. In addition, it is also important for women to have access to mental health and psychosocial support. There is also a need to set up self-help groups for knowledge transfer among women. Long term needs include introduction to appropriate technology in agriculture, financial inclusion of women and disaster and business risk management trainings.
Food is an essential need acknowledged by the government who facilitated food passes and other COVID-19 protocols related to food access during the pandemic. Nevertheless, COVID-19 affected businesses. Difficulty in transporting produce brought about challenges like farmers not demanding for high prices for their produce because they could not afford to transport them out of their municipality. Research participants identified several additional expenses which are a burden like PPE, penalties from violation of COVID-19 protocols and internet costs for the education of their children. Claire Juanico noted that there was no support provided for market vendors because they were not considered a severely financially affected population by government. They were however, prioritized for vaccination as a priority group.
The immediate need of the vendors is additional support to sustain capital for their stalls. They also require access to low interest finance because farm inputs are expensive. Psychosocial support used to be provided by associations but this is no longer the case because of the difficulty in conducting face-to face-meetings. It would be useful if an online alternative could take its place. As for long-term needs, women need continuous agricultural subsidiary support, improvement in transport of produce and increased numbers of agricultural extension workers.
Papua New Guinea
In addition to COVID-19, some regions in the country experienced extreme rain and drought weather conditions making food insecurity a major issue in the pandemic time. Farmers and vendors shared that they were at some points forced to go hungry owing to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions and lack of transport. Those that were mothers would forego themselves when they got some food in order to feed their children first.
In this context, Naomi Woyengu explained that there was a lot of misinformation about COVID-19, bringing fear and panic into households. This resulted in farmers not selling some of their produce which affected their income. A lot of resilience and resourcefulness was however noted on the part of women in looking for alternative business opportunities to provide for their families and earn an income.
There’s need to boost women’s skills in agriculture in addition to other skills sets like baking and sewing should agriculture not work for them. There were also recommendations to supply seeds that can cope with extreme weather.
Discussions in the webinar suggest that male- and female-owned businesses are impacted differently by lockdown policies and measures of support to help businesses weather this crisis. Going forward, careful consideration of differential impacts by gender of the COVID-19 pandemic and the different constraints that men and women face will be important to build effective policy interventions.
Zin Mar Oo
IMAGE CREDIT: Field Work, Myanmar by Imke.Sta is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0