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Gendered effect of pandemic across the food system

Rajarshi MITRA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Covid-19 has significantly impacted both lives and livelihood with major disruptions like lockdowns, travel restrictions, and non-essential business and school closures. At the beginning of 2020, about 690 million people were undernourished; with the strike of the pandemic, this number could rise by about 130 million. Not only is the food sector critical to the food and nutrition security, but also plays a major role in economic empowerment. The pandemic has affected food systems at all levels―globally, domestically, locally, and in the home itself.

Women and men have been impacted differently by the Covid-19 crisis. Ironically, while a  majority of women and girls are food producers and providers for households, they face the brunt of food insecurity and hunger in the country. This gender gap tends to widen with lack of education, poverty, and unemployment. The pandemic has led to a rise in hunger and food shortages, putting an additional load on women who are already facing distinctly gender-related problems from health risks to gender-based violence. The pandemic has exposed the flaws in the food system, which have greatly impacted women, especially in developing countries.


"Women and men have been impacted differently by the Covid-19 crisis. Ironically, while a  majority of women and girls are food producers and providers for households, they face the brunt of food insecurity and hunger in the country"

 

In developing countries, about 43 percent of the agricultural workforce is comprised of women. Women and girls form the majority of the world’s food producers. Women being the primary food producers are at greater risk due to the pandemic threat to agricultural produce with lockdowns and market closure taking a further toll on their productivity and income.

Covid-19 has highlighted and intensified the disparities of our current food system. Women, whose productivity has been hindered by the mobility restrictions, have been one of the most seriously impacted. Currently, women represent half of the world labour force in the seafood industry, putting them at greater risk at this time of crisis. Women working as casual labour or in the informal sector are provided with minimal to no access to safety nets. The pandemic has decimated jobs and the corresponding loss in income has impacted access to food and basic healthcare. Additionally, report indicate that only 54 percent women have access to mobile internet in low-and-middle income countries. Amidst the shift to online platforms, women are likely to be left behind in the widening digital gap.

Women have been doing more unpaid work and, often, the reproductive work and care work goes unseen. The pandemic makes visible the gender inequalities at the household level, thus, highlighting the unpaid caregiving and daily domestic work including cleaning, cooking and childcare. The Covid-19 outbreak-induced lockdown and shift to work from home has brought productive and reproductive work closer within the household. Women’s paid and unpaid labour has increased with the pandemic, as they form a large chunk of people who are teachers, caregivers for families, and frontline warriors/nurses. However, this care work often go unnoticed and is undervalued.

Farmers have had one of the worst experience with Covid-19 protection measures, due to the lack of labour and low productivity. This in turn has impacted retailers who are predominantly women in most parts of developing world. Rural women are facing the brunt of this disruption in the agricultural value chain and food system.


"Farmers have had one of the worst experience with Covid-19 protection measures, due to the lack of labour and low productivity. This in turn has impacted retailers who are predominantly women in most parts of developing world"

 

Evidence suggests that households have adapted coping strategies during this crisis, like buying less food and reducing the number of meals eaten. Women often face the burden, of this rationing of food and nutrition, by eating less food and compromisng their health and immunity. Such household food insecurity puts women at greater risk leading to an intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN, ‘More often than not, the face of malnutrition is female’, even though women are in a unique position to reduce malnutrition. Added to this is the high likelihood of anaemia in women leading to reduced learning capacity and less productive workers, which costs developing countries a 4.05 percent loss in gross domestic product annually.

Women are the changemakers and should be a part of the solution. Investment in women has been shown to benefit (1$ invested can reap 31$) the woman herself, the family and the community. Policy responses to tackle Covid-19 have disregarded gender norms, both in the food system and the reproductive care work. Women’s role in food systems and household food security needs to be considered in formulating policies to address the fallout from Covid-19. Social and behavioural change has  been shown to greatly impact the Covid-19 pandemic response.


"Policy responses to tackle Covid-19 have disregarded gender norms, both in the food system and the reproductive care work. Women’s role in food systems and household food security needs to be considered in formulating policies to address the fallout from Covid-19"

 

There is an urgent need for policy that impacts the role of gender in food systems.  Investing in women and empowering them to contribute to policy making can help address this crisis. This co-relation has been clearly evident during this pandemic with countries that have women leaders being seen to be better able to manage the Covid-19 crisis. To ensure long term resilience, women’s rights,empowerment and gender equality are crucial to the pandemic response. Addressing gender inequalities will help provide a critical analysis of, and remove the obstacles women face and promote good nutrition, thereby improving lives and livelihoods. If not, then in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, the global community will have to deal with the possible hunger pandemic.

Shoba Suri (ORF)
13 November 2020

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