This year marks 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which set out 12 critical areas of action aimed at removing the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. Whilst progress has been made in broadening socio-economic opportunities for women and affirming their rights in the Constitution, challenges remain.

Indeed, available evidence of the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is showing a deepening of inequalities and persistent violations of the rights of women and girls, and further exposed acutely disadvantageous conditions that make women more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. There are reported increases of cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and financial distress due to the informal and survivalist nature of economic activity women are involved in. Much is required to ensure policies and strategies are addressing these gaps, to ensure resilience and recovery by women in both urban and rural areas.

Thus, as the world commemorates International Day of Rural Women, this is an ideal opportunity to reflect on their crucial role in agriculture, food security and nutrition, and management of pandemics at community level

Fifty-six percent of communal farmers in Zimbabwe are rural women. Women play a significant role in agricultural value-chains, but rarely go beyond subsistence production.  Restrictions in movements, in response to the spread of Coronavirus, exposed a lot of rural women to limitations in participating in this sector. A Gender Assessment of COVID-19 and the Countrywide Lockdown Process, carried out by UN Women Zimbabwe, revealed that women reported an increased burden in taking care of children, performing household chores among other routine duties they have at household and community level.

In addition, an Outcome Monitoring Survey done by the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF), revealed that young female-headed households are particularly vulnerable to shocks and stresses, as their mobility and livelihood options are limited to caring for younger siblings in the home. The key constraints to resilience for women, because of COVID-19, range from time poverty, lack of access to healthcare, reduced access to scarce resources and lack of information.

Before the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, rural women were already struggling to enhance their livelihood options due to, amongst others, insufficient infrastructure and services in rural areas. ZRBF, a multi-partner initiative funded by EU, Sweden, UK and UNDP, recognises that rural women’s exposure to pandemics are exacerbated by existing gender dynamics at household and community level. UN Women, through the Generation Equality campaign, is calling for strengthening of rural women’s sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing.

Investment in rural women is a means of attaining food security and empowering women and girls as they move from subsistence agriculture to becoming more active participants in the economy.

UN Women Zimbabwe support to enterprising rural families in areas such as Murehwa has increased the role of women in agricultural value-chain. In Binga District, ZRBF has supported Zambezi Valley Alliance (ZVA) to implement a layered gender‐transformative approach that evolves from improved access to resources, improvement of agricultural practices and diversification of livelihoods. A case in point is, a woman such as Thandazile Sithole, a mother of eight children who has been using her goat-rearing project to acquire cattle, household assets that assist with her resilience to climate shocks such as drought, floods and health disasters.  In times of crises, she has livestock assets that she can sell off to sustain her family. Thandazile also benefitted from Income Savings and Lending Schemes (ISALs) as another form of empowerment which provides access to funding among low-income earners.

UN Women and ZRBF are more convinced than ever that gender-responsive investments to expand basic infrastructure, healthcare and care services as well as economic opportunities in rural areas are critical. This International Day of Rural Women it is important for all stakeholders to support rural women and girls to not only rebuild their lives after COVID-19 but increase their resilience to be better prepared to face future crises.

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