Women are among the hardest hit by the intersecting and overlapping impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through community mobilization and solidarity, women are also finding solutions.
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COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but it is a public health crisis that has disproportionately put women and girls at increased risk for poverty due to food insecurity and gender-based violence. Rural and indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to the multiple and intersecting impacts of the pandemic.
In the agriculture rich province of Negros Oriental in central Philippines, the first concern of community women like Luz Bador was staving off hunger brought by the pandemic. “Hunger becomes a reality when families do not earn sufficiently and have limited mobility to find work,” said Bador.
Hunger becomes a reality when families do not earn sufficiently and have limited mobility to find work.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020 prompted the Philippine government to put the country under lockdown. Checkpoints that sealed off inter-city borders were manned by armed security personnel. Public transportation was suspended and all commercial establishments and educational institutions were closed. The country went into self-isolation, bringing virtually all economic activity to a grinding halt.
The outbreak of the pandemic and the national lockdown coincided with the harvest season. The agriculture sector was still reeling from a series of natural disasters and the impact of the rice liberalization policy that flooded the market with cheap imported rice. Roadblocks and checkpoints imposed by the pandemic further disrupted agricultural supply chains. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an estimated 9 million Filipinos working in the rural sectors of agriculture and fishing have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of this number, about 22 percent are women.
As part of the informal economy, the agriculture sector, characterized by poor working conditions, low wages and a high risk of occupational hazards. Though agriculture is a major source of livelihood for women, female agricultural workers are often invisible in government surveys and programmes. Their contributions are undervalued and perceived as minimal and as “mere support” to their husbands or male members of their family.
The pandemic further underscored women’s invisibility. Quarantine protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 severely limited the mobility of women. Quarantine passes were issued only to one person-- the household head which was often an adult male. Women were confined to the home, preventing them from employing the usual coping strategies such as working additional odd jobs or taking out loans to augment income and ensure that there is food on the table.
Bador, who heads the Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan or PKKK (National Rural Women Coalition), a national coalition of 320 organizations comprised of women peasant workers and indigenous peoples, said that the pandemic compelled women to take matters into their own hands.
KABILIN, the local organization Bador leads, along with the PKKK Provincial Coalition of Negros, conducted vulnerability and capacity assessments among the affected communities and identified priority issues and potential solutions. From this, emerged the Rural Women Securing Food where women farmers used natural farming inputs based on organic/ natural farming practice to cultivate and convert what used to be sugarcane farm into a diversified farm growing rice, corn, vegetables and rootcrops.
By October, in time for the World Food Day and International Rural Women’s Day, the group plans to launch a community market within the farm and cater to walk-in customers. According to Bador, this would not only contribute to the economic power of the KABILIN women, but more so highlight a “women-managed farm that will inspire the others to produce healthy food for a healthy community.”
A women-managed farm that will inspire the others to produce healthy food for a healthy community.
In addition, the PKKK Provincial Coalition of Negros launched a community seed banking project and lobbied for support from the village councils. The community seed banks will help ensure the availability of endemic seeds which the women can cultivate, as compared to dependence on hybrid seeds distribution. This effort also aims to reinforce the women’s efforts to be recognized as food producers and thereby demand equal production support.
The projects are being monitored and their progress will be presented to the village councils for the formal inclusion of the projects in village development and budget plans. This experience also serves as a model that can be replicated by other provinces covered by the National Rural Women Coalition.
Gender-based violence: The shadow pandemic
The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) recognized that the prolonged imposition of the lockdown has put women and girls at greater risk of experiencing violence at home. Such risk can be attributed to economic instability that triggers tensions and abusive behavior in the household, restricted movements that discourage survivors of gender-based violence to seek help, and limited access to care and support services.
Gender-based violence was an additional challenge faced by rural women during this health pandemic. According to Bador, gender-based violence has been increasing since the lockdown. “In our village alone, we have had 12 cases of abuse reported from January to June 2021,” she said. That number may be severely understated as many cases have gone unreported as social services have been refocused to COVID-19 response programmess.
In our village alone, we have had 12 cases of abuse reported from January to June 2021.
Currently, Bador leads the Barangay Obat Health Workers Association (BOHEWAS) and the Kababaihang Lig-on nga Nibarug ug Nagkahiusa (KABILIN) - Cebuano for "Women Standing Strong and United" - at the village and municipal levels. These women’s organizations are fighting back against the challenges of the lockdown by acting as frontliners in the rural areas, serving as volunteer health workers and extending thinly stretched health service systems that hinder assistance to survivors and victims of gender-based violence.
Women-led Information Dissemination Efforts
For this year 2021, noting that the cash grants through the socialized amelioration program (SAP) of the national government and the assistance from local government units were simply not enough, the women’s organizations partnered with the PKKK Provincial Council of Negros Oriental in distributing food packs. The effort reached 321 women as direct beneficiaries and 1,366 as indirect beneficiaries from the farming, fishing, and indigenous communities. Clearly, the practical needs and welfare must be addressed simultaneously by supporting the strategic actions initiated by women.
In various webinars on COVID-19, Bador has highlighted the urgency to include sexual and reproductive health services in basic COVID-19 response, apart from food packs.
The internet server is unstable in the rural areas, and the radio broadcasts are usually about politicians. There’s no exact information about COVID and it’s usually fake news that reaches remote areas.
Additionally, access to information and communications systems has always been difficult for geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDA). COVID-19 increased their vulnerability. “The internet server is unstable in the rural areas, and the radio broadcasts are usually about politicians. There’s no exact information about COVID and it’s usually fake news that reaches remote areas,” said Bador.
As a result, many are still prone to believe that the threat of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 is exaggerated. This skepticism is fueling vaccine hesitancy. Apart from the interventions that promote food security and support services, access to correct information through development-oriented radio stations and government-sponsored internet centers is essential.
Currently, the pace of the vaccination program and testimonies from those who have benefitted from the protection offered by the vaccine are unable to counter fake news about vaccines or provide information to allay fears and encourage informed choice among Filipinos.
These efforts, Bador emphasized, underscore the importance of mobilizing women and organizing them into groups tasked to address and mitigate community problems such as food security and gender-based violence. Though women are among the most impacted by the pandemic, the efforts of women leaders and first responders underpinned the opportunities and mechanisms which helped the community cope with the economic, social, cultural and reproductive impacts of the pandemic.
Taken from the word “kabilin” which means “ancestral”, Bador and the KABILIN women are passing on knowledge such as artisanal methods of growing food as a foundation for food security and a time-honored tradition of caring for one another in the community as a way to adjust a new normal.
Daryl Leyesa is rural women’s rights advocate and project manager of sexual health empowerment advocacy at the National Rural Women Congress of Philippines (PKKK).
Carmina Flores-Obanil is the Asia Regional Coordinator of Coalition for Human Rights in Development. Her main expertise are issues of human rights, land rights, indigenous people's rights, women's rights and climate justice.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.