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To counter COVID-19 in Nepal, we must support small-scale women farmers

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

COVID 19 has exposed the deeply embedded social and economic inequalities in human societies. The cost of the ongoing pandemic is disproportionately borne by the underprivileged and marginalized who lack regular sources of income and safety nets to deal with and recover from the consequences.

People are worried of dying and it's not only because of the virus. It's mainly from hunger. For households where every day needs for food are covered through daily wage labour or remittances from out-migrated family members, a pandemic such as COVID-19 can have not only direct consequences for health, but also for short and long-term food security because of the immediate income loss, inability to access health services, and disruption of food supply chains.

Impact of COVID 19 lockdown on women farmers

And it's hit women and low income farmers even harder. The nationwide lockdown imposed by the government since 24th March 2020 has had larger impacts for small scale and landless farmers in rural Nepal - the majority of whom are women.

These farmers suffered substantial loss since they were not able to transport their production in the local market and were forced to sell their produce at cheaper prices. Female smallholder vegetable farmers lost their main source of income since with restricted mobility, they were not able to carry and sell the vegetables door to door. The supply of agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and veterinary services are interrupted. And a 61 percent dip in the remittance receipts since the lockdown presents a worrying picture for investments in the planting season in June-July.

Recent phone interviews to research participants in our field sites confirm similar experiences in Western Nepal. Three residents in the villages of Selinge, Dadeldhura, and Tiltali, Doti, described limited mobility and access to inputs and markets. And they worry a drop in income could severely affect the whole cropping season, and thus their food security.

Social and gender discriminatory norms within households impact women's health and well-being negatively in rural Nepal. Especially during emergencies, eating last in the family and dropping out first from education fall on women and girls. Ensuring water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is traditionally women's responsibility, and this has received greater attention from national and international governments during the pandemic.

With reduced food security, income and mobility and increased water stress, girls and women may be forced to compromise on food, health, education and household decision-making. Access to resources and social networks is gendered, and this causes reduced resilience capacity of women to the impacts of pandemics and disasters. The consequences have already been evident with a 200 percent increase in the maternal mortality rate since the lockdown began, and increased cases of domestic and sexual violence.

Government response on relief and recovery

The government of Nepal recently introduced emergency relief packages for farmers. However, voices from the field share stories of being excluded from such packages. Beneficiaries of the relief must meet criteria such as land entitlement and land size. The central government has announced a relief package of 750 Nepali rupees (6.20 USD) per kattha (338m2) of land. And in Province 2, the government has recently announced a new relief package for farmers who own 10 kattha (3380m2) of land and cultivate it themselves, to receive 10,000 NPR (82.6 USD) cash in their account.

This automatically excludes most smallholders, tenant farmers, share croppers and daily agricultural wage labourers, of which the majority are women.This has huge implications on women's well-being and family food security. More daily wage workers are at the risk of dying of hunger due to indirect fallouts of economic breakdown in the coronavirus times.

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While men equally suffer psychological stress due to the loss of income, research shows that in emergency situations, women are the ones to sell their assets first, causing increased incidences of poverty among women and women-headed households. Gender scholars have repeatedly highlighted the imperatives of gender and social inclusion perspectives in agricultural planning. However, as in the past, a lack of strategies for gender equality and social inclusion in agricultural planning is evident in Nepal.

Supporting women organisations and strengthening women networks

COVID-19 brings even further to light these gender inequalities and the vulnerable situations of small-scale farmers. But this is also a chance to address these structural inequalities through the implementation of locally adapted sustainable food security measures such as access to land, market, subsidies, information, and adequate trainings for (female) farmers with small land holdings, tenant farmers and daily wage farmers.

An important backbone to handling COVID-19 will be newly established local governments under the federal structure, particularly locally elected women leaders, Women organizations, female community health volunteers and farmer- managed organizations such as water user associations. They are best placed to reach out to rural farming populations.

In an online meeting conducted by UN Women, Mandavi Jha, a member of a Rural women farmers group in Rautahat and Sarlahi districts in Eastern Nepal, described the risk of growing food insecurity and the anxiety of debt, especially among female headed households. Women in particular depend on informal loans with high interest rates. The failure of crops, the loss of livelihoods, and the anticipated upcoming natural disasters in monsoon season will add to their vulnerabilities.

Women leaders, workers and local farmer organisations, however, do not have sufficient resources and influence on decision-making. For example, in a recent webinar, female Deputy Mayors from Nepal Province 2 shared women farmers feel comfortable to share their concerns with them as female deputy mayors. But the officials themselves are under-resourced and do not have sufficient influence to make sure relief packages at the district level reach the most marginalized.

To address these imbalances, it is important to ensure that women representatives from various groups - particularly those in the frontline - are consulted in planning and implementation processes such as emergency response, relief packages and design of social support systems. Local grassroots women leadership has proved effective in the past, including in advancing the interest of the vulnerable and marginalised groups in earthquake response, and against gender based violence against women and girls in Nepal. They also contributed to rebuilding livelihoods after the earthquake. Women from civil society organizations advocated for long-term change and women's rights by investing in capacity-building at the local and district levels and advocacy at the national level. Similar instances have been found in India where women farmers networked with women cooperatives, and communities were able to endure labor and market crises in COVID-19 situations.

These examples show women central in dealing with past disasters and could become key players reaching small scale women farmers and helping to strengthen resilient food systems in Nepal. However, to achieve this, government should be committed to investing in women's education, capacity, and networks. And promote enabling institutional environments that are pro-poor and gender friendly. With the right efforts, Nepal will be well positioned to advance these vital causes.

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Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners.

WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDFIDDGISSDC, and others.