With COVID-19 wreaking havoc to the economic, social and political fabric of societies worldwide, the gendered impact of the outbreak is being debated by academics and international human rights organisations. Amongst women, rural women, who on average make up about 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, are a particularly hard-hit segment that governments and policy makers need to draw attention to and tailor policies corresponding to their specific needs in this global pandemic.
Rural women – the ignored segment
According to UN Women statistics, 75 percent of rural women and girls in Pakistan are employed in the agricultural sector and 60 percent of them work as unpaid contributing family workers or on low wages, with inadequate attention paid to their economic, social and property rights. Their access to financial services also remains low with only limited options for credit without collateral.
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The health of rural women is another issue that is directly linked to their own and their children’s nutritional status. Reproductive work burden with high rates of malnutrition and limited access to maternal health is quite taxing and takes a considerable toll on their health.
Rural women are also ill-prepared and ill-equipped to cope with the changes resulting from urbanization, climate change, environmental degradation and emergency situations due to limited access to resources, low levels of education and poor training.
Their poor health and nutrition status, lack of access to healthcare and the social security system makes them high-risk targets in case of exposure to the coronavirus, and their weak immune systems safe havens for COVID-19.
Diminished access to social services
Economic Relief Packages like the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program are worthwhile initiatives, considering that existing beneficiaries of Ehsaas Kafaalat (all women) will receive an additional Rs. 12000. But they are in no way sufficient to eliminate the predicament of rural women during the COVID-19 global pandemic, particularly if they are amongst the unfortunate few who fall into the cracks of exclusion.
Let’s for a while suppose that no rural woman will get infected and that this virus will only target the well-to-do, interpreting it as the common man’s understanding of it as God’s wrath on the wealthy for their blithe indifference to the suffering of the poor.
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But what happens if they do start testing positive for coronavirus? Do they have the luxury of isolating themselves from their families? Do our hospitals have the capacity to accommodate two-thirds (which is the figure of people living in rural areas) of our population?
The answer is obviously not in the affirmative.
This, coupled with the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases and fatalities in the past few days has the potential to break down our already overwhelmed healthcare system, disrupting access to essential healthcare services for other groups of individuals, particularly expectant mothers, the elderly, children under the age of five requiring regular immunization and persons with disabilities.
We celebrate the grassroot women leaders who are working under difficult circumstances, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, to assist the vulnerable members of our society. pic.twitter.com/CNP603tije
— William Samoei Ruto, PhD (@WilliamsRuto) June 11, 2020
Engaging and employing the rural woman
An important resource that is underutilized in the prevailing crisis is Lady Health Visitors (LHVs) who can bring about a 360-degree turn in government efforts to control the outbreak if provided with skills and training that they can pass on to rural women through door to door awareness raising in regional languages. The least this can do is pass on important information about staying safe from contracting COVID-19 and how to adjust social behaviours to aid the government’s efforts in containing the spread and limiting hospital admissions.
Moreover, involving rural women as community volunteers in the fight against COVID-19 in return for a stipend from the government, particularly those who’ve lost a source of income, could both empower them and enable them to claim their space in public affairs by playing vital roles like ensuring public gatherings were avoided in their village.
As crucial contributors to agricultural output, rural women are entitled to all critical information to be better equipped to cope with the existing and future crisis situations, along with inclusion in the social safety net and in public affairs in emergency contexts for enhanced future security and balanced gender roles.
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This will go a long way in empowering rural women to take better control of their lives and reduce their vulnerability, which will have a generational impact by improving child education, health and nutrition as women are known to invest more in their children’s wellbeing.
Mashal Arbab is an experienced researcher and editor, certified in Child and Women Rights and Health from Harvard and Stanford University, currently working on women and children’s issues as a Consultant at the Ministry of Human Rights, Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.