by: Stephanie Leder and Gitta Shrestha
In any pandemic or major socio-economic crisis, health and food security of marginalized populations will be affected the most. Social and economic inequalities will become visible because households and communities’ responses rely on their financial resources, as well as reliable information and social networks.
In rural Nepal, the most marginalized farmers have limited access to health care facilities, quick financial support, food and relief measures during COVID -19. For households where every day needs for food are covered through daily wage labor 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 cut of income and restricted mobility and disruption of food production and supply chains.
Impact of COVID 19 lockdown on women farmers
In Nepal, citizens have been instructed to maintain physical distancing which limit their ability to farm since the lockdown has begun on March 24th, 2020. The supply of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers are interrupted, and farmers suffered a huge loss since they were not able to transport their production in the market. Female smallholder vegetable farmers have been the hardest hit since they would carry and sell the vegetables door to door, so many lost the main source of their income. This situation was confirmed by a member of a Rural women farmers group in Rautahat and Sarlahi in a Gender in Humanitarian Action Task Team online meeting conducted by UN Women on April 27th, 2020. She informed on the risk of growing food insecurity and anxiety of debt return especially among female headed households. Women in particular depend on informal loans with high interest rates. The failure of crop, the loss of livelihood and natural disasters add to their vulnerabilities.
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, stated that in their villages, most keep physical distance and stay at home as advised on the radio and national TV news. Upon the return of migrants who have not returned home yet, communities hope they follow quarantine rules so that the virus will not be able to spread. Limited access to markets currently could severely affect the whole cropping season and thus their food security. In addition, the supply with soaps, vegetables or cell phone recharge cards from the market is limited, and they are advised not to leave their remote village which is perceived considerably safe. Instead, a truck delivers regularly food to them, which, however, is limited to those who can afford to buy food especially if their regular remittances may not arrive anymore.
Government Response on relief and recovery
The government of Nepal recently introduced emergency relief packages for farmers. However, voices from the field share exclusionary consequences of such packages. The relief package demand certain criteria to be the beneficiaries of the relief 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. In Province 2, the government has recently announced a new relief package for farmers who own 10 kattha (3380m2) of land and cultivate themselves to receive 10,000 NPR cash in their account. This will de-facto exclude smallholders, tenant farmers, share croppers and daily agricultural wage laborers, of which the majority are women. This has huge implications on women’s well-being and family food security. While men equally suffer psychological stress due to the loss of income, research shows that in situation of emergencies, 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, in the past, a lack of strategies for gender equality and social inclusion in agricultural planning is evident in Nepal .
COVID-19 impact on women farmers
Social and gender discriminatory norms within households impact women’s health and well-being negatively in rural Nepal. Eating last in the family and dropping first from education falls on women and girls during emergencies. Ensuring water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is traditionally women’s responsibility, and this has received greater attention of national and international governments in the recent pandemic. With reduced food security, income and mobility and increased water stress, girls and women may force to compromise on food, health, education and decision-making spaces. 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.
Women organisations and inclusive digital platforms to spread awareness
Local women leaders and farmer-managed organisations such as water user associations may be an important backbone to handle the COVID crisis as they can reach out to rural farming populations. Women leaders and local farmer organisations, however, do not have sufficient resources and influence on decision-making. For example, in a webinar, Female Deputy Mayors from Nepal Province 2 said women farmers feel comfortable to share their concerns with them as female deputy mayors, but they themselves are underresourced and do not have sufficient influence to make sure relief packages at the district level reach the most marginalized.
To address these imbalances, substantial financial support for public awareness campaigns, the supply of relief packages and testing and medical kits via local networks to the most marginalized communities is necessary. Local groups and female health care workers such as Nepal’s network of Female Community Health Volunteers may be key informants for marginalized communities and local governments alike. The financial support of local organisations is also important as physical distancing is still a prevalent practice to discriminate historically lower caste members, and social stigma may easily spread and affect returning migrants. Therefore, access to reliable information on precautions and medical measures are needed building on existing structures at the local level.
COVID-19 brings even further to light gender inequalities and the vulnerable situation of small-scale farmers. This is now the chance to address these structural inequalities through the implementation of locally adapted sustainable food security measures such as subsidies, information, and adequate trainings for (female) farmers with small land holdings and tenant farmers and local staff.
- Three short phone interviews were conducted on April 15th, 2020 by Yuvika Adhikari, research assistant at the Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS) in Kathmandu, Nepal, and in the FORMAS project “Revitalizing community-managed irrigation systems in the context of out-migration in Nepal” led by Stephanie Leder at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).
- As a study on gendered practices in the water sector in Nepal shows, gender equality and social inclusion attempts are only focusing on gender quotas of 33% women in WUAs, without strategies to more inclusive decision-making overcoming unequal and gendered power relations (Shrestha & Clement 2019)
Dr. Stephanie Leder is a researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala, and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, UK. Her four-year project “Revitalizing community-managed irrigation systems in the context of out-migration in Nepal” is funded by the Swedish Research Council FORMAS. Her research interests cover feminist political ecology, water governance, agrarian change, collective action and Education for Sustainable Development. Stephanie was a Postdoctoral Fellow for Gender, Poverty and Institutions at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Kathmandu, Nepal, and led studies in inter- and transdisciplinary projects within the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Program “Water, Land and Ecosystems” in India, Nepal and Bangladesh (2014-2017). Stephanie holds a PhD in Human Geography from the University of Cologne, Germany. Her book “Transformative Pedagogic Practice. Education for Sustainable Development and Water Conflicts in Indian Geography Education” is published with Springer in 2018. More information on Stephanie’s work can be found at: https://www.slu.se/cv/stephanie-leder/
Gitta Shrestha, BSc, MA, M.Phil. has training in geography, human geography and in the study of human adaptation to natural resource constraints. She has been trained in India, Nepal and Europe. She has worked extensively in a capacity of researcher and gender specialist for the past 14 years. Her research interest involves inquiring into the reproduction of social and gender inequalities and its impact on the changing human-environment relations. In the past, she has worked extensively on Gender and migration, Women in peace and conflict, Water Governance, Gender in organisations and Masculinities. Her ongoing research investigates Gender in Solar irrigation, Resilience capabilities of the left-behind against climate change & water-induced disasters, Gender & WASH, Youth migration, gender & rural agrarian transformation. She has developed gender training manuals, served as a trainer on gender and social inclusion for community mobilisers, mainstreamed gender in community implementation models, research projects & organisations. She has served as a lecturer at various reputed universities of Nepal and team leader for project evaluation teams at Social Welfare Council (Nepal). She has contributed as an author and reviewer to international journals and books on GESI across Nepal.