Revealing the deeper forces impacting women’s lives after COVID-19

As the world emerges from the pandemic, agricultural researchers have begun training their lenses to understand how COVID-19 has affected the lives of women in agri-food systems in developing countries. To inform development initiatives and investments, having a proper and specific understanding of women’s experience is paramount. 

However, many feminist researchers express concern that the methods used in these investigations often miss the nuance if they focus heavily on capital or production and ignore reproduction or the specific ways that women experience changes in agriculture and their livelihoods due to the impacts of COVID-19.   

Against this backdrop, the CGIAR GENDER platform organized a webinar to share results and learning from exciting new research projects which focused on these important questions about impact and methods. 

The webinar was built around the presentations of two GENDER platform supported research grants that used feminist political economy and political ecology approaches to untangle the dynamics that affect women’s lives in agriculture. 

The first study from Vietnam and Myanmar – led by CIP’s Nozomi Kawarazuka and her team1 – highlighted how fishery, livestock, and horticultural production systems rely heavily on women’s hidden labor, inter-generational reciprocal support, women’ own risk-taking, and the changing nature of natural environment.  

The research team found that women’s economic activities were embedded in their families and not always immediately visible or apparent. Women’s forays into agribusiness seemed more attuned to building safety nets on reciprocal support from other women, rather than on amassing sufficient sums of capital for retirement or other life needs. COVID-19 was impacting women’s economic activities through increased problems in non-economic activities (e.g., a shortage of family labor for their agricultural business, and increased care and domestic responsibilities) and thus a focus on these responsibilities would be needed to create more effective interventions to improve women’s lives. 

“In other words,” Kawarazuka asked the audience, “How can we change the dominant focus of research on agricultural production to incorporate those women’s experiences into development planning post-COVID-19?”  

The second study from Egypt showed that poor, marginalized women working in [waste]water irrigation have limited ability to negotiate increasing productive labor demands on their time, which happens alongside persisting domestic care work.  Deepa Joshi from IWMI and her team2 found that women’s work in [waste]water irrigation is particularly constraining in Egypt, where a colonial past, persisting patriarchy, and increasing poverty shape the nature of irrigated agriculture.   

Given this complex tapestry of social and political dimensions of irrigation and agriculture, the research team highlighted the need for interventions to consider the gendered dynamics of food, water, and eco-social systems. Without this framing, Joshi told the audience, COVID-19 and other crises will exacerbate challenges that women face in securing water and providing food, and, more importantly, living safer and more fulfilling lives. Joshi and her team found that the poorest among women often work long hours, the year around as tenure sharecroppers and are yet unable to consume the produce they grow as much of it is low quality due to wastewater.  

Following these case studies, the findings of each were used as the touchstone for a wider discussion about creating better approaches to agricultural research and development by considering specific historical forces (e.g., colonialism and war) that are, even today, intersecting with the demands and changes wrought by COVID-19. According to Jessica Dempsey, a geographer at the University of British Columbia, and Rosemary Collard, a geographer at Simon Fraser University, natural and ecological systems are also undervalued in analyses of agricultural and economic production systems, and in the same way that non-economic activities are devalued. But both play crucial roles in economic activities and people’s wellbeing.  Fiorella Picchioni, from the University of Greenwich, emphasized that understanding interplay between economic and non-economic activities is particularly important in agricultural food system research as those activities influence health and nutritional outcomes.  

Ranjitha Puskur, the Evidence module leader of the GENDER Platform concluded the session highlighting the importance of addressing structural and systemic problems as a root cause of gender inequality, which have been exacerbated by COVID and climate change. Transdisciplinary approaches with pluralistic methodologies and concepts and innovative ways of evaluation to understand gender issues in agri-food systems might produce not only more effective solutions to the challenges women face, but also provide evidence for systemic, transformative change. 

You can see a replay of the event here, including links to the power point presentations.