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COVID-19 disproportionately affects female farmers in Nepal

Farmers in Nepal plant seeds in seedling trays with Trichoderma, a sustainable technology that helps boost plant defense mechanisms against threats.

Like many nations in the developing world, Nepal’s agricultural sector and systems were at a critical juncture before the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially becoming more profitable, inclusive, and resilient. Unfortunately, the economic and food insecurity shocks generated by country-wide lockdowns may inadvertently undo much of the progress made by marginalized communities, especially women.

The newest project out of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management — named Feed the Future Nepal Integrated Pest Management (FTFNIPM) — is culturing a gender-responsive and socially-inclusive approach to the economic disparities magnified by COVID-19. Studies show that women are often disproportionately impacted by crises, with COVID-19 as no exception.

Women play key roles in family nutrition outcomes in Nepal and around the world, be it through food preparation, food purchasing, or their own nutritional status. In a rapid gender and social inclusion assessment, the FTFNIPM team interviewed Deepa Poudel — a community business facilitator (CBF) and plant doctor in Nepal — about the nuanced impacts of COVID-19 on women in her community. CBFs are local farmer-entrepreneurs who help deliver supplies from agri-businesses and offer integrated pest management (IPM) recommendations to remote rural farmers.

“Women farmers who used to earn [income] by selling vegetables are out of cash now,” Poudel explained.

Poudel said that due to the country lockdown, more family members are cohabitating, children are no longer in school, and other family members are no longer working, leaving women to bear a disproportionate burden of food purchasing, preparing meals, and additional household responsibilities (such as caring for children home from school and unwell family members).

The virus has caused disruptions of the typical opportunities, supply chains, and markets that women often turn to for additional income for food purchasing. Limitations such as the closure of local transportation facilities and street markets reduce a family’s ability to sell produce, or simply force them to sell produce at the lowest market price. 

Poudel noted that farmers she has interacted with since the rise of COVID-19, including her own family, are experiencing major stress during this uncertain time with women’s workloads at an all-time high. Consequently, due to time restrictions and strict social distancing guidelines, women may be unable to attend farmer training sessions — leading to further challenges in achieving agricultural prosperity.

“All family members are together [now],” Poudel said. “This has never happened before.”

In addition to increased care-giving responsibilities, another gap that continues to widen during the time of COVID-19 is access to trusted crop and market information. Based on preliminary findings, the constraints that women in Nepal already face in accessing information could intensify. CBFs like Poudel will play a critical role in generally providing farmers the trusted resources they rely on for growing crops as commercial agri-businesses and other businesses remain closed. In order to reach women and other disadvantaged groups that may have limited access to technologies like smartphones, FTFNIPM is turning to the radio and other easily accessible platforms to deliver information on emerging pests and pest management. One of those pests includes the invasive fall armyworm, which is currently wreaking havoc on maize and other staple crops throughout Asia. 

Weekly text messages on fall armyworm management and recommended IPM packages for vegetables are also being disseminated to staff from Feed the Future development projects, agro-vets, farmer cooperatives, CBFs, and others to ensure widespread access to crop health information.

However, as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, unanswered questions remain about how to provide for and protect disadvantaged communities: How can pest management messages be refined to better address current needs, challenges, and priorities? How can FTFNIPM overcome inequities in phone and internet access?

FTFNIPM plans to conduct a qualitative study to assess the potential impact of applying IPM practices and technologies on women’s time and labor. The study will document the different pathways that are available and attainable for women to learn about IPM practices and technologies, as well as assess any unintended negative effects for women. The study will also adapt the recently developed toolkit titled Assessing How Agricultural Technologies Can Change Gender Dynamics and Food Security Outcomes designed by the Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension Services (INGENAES). In the current context, now more than ever, it is essential that efforts to promote the application of IPM do not exacerbate women’s already increasing workloads and burdens, and instead increase access for women to information on improved agricultural technologies.

“Farmers are facing many new challenges right now,” said Niki Maskey, a gender specialist with the FTFNIPM project, “including cash-deficits to buy agricultural inputs, shortage of seeds, decreased suppliers, and more. But FTFNIPM is mobilizing to assist these farmers, specifically women and marginalized groups, by continuing to shift our responses as the pandemic shifts. In this regard, we are coordinating with government officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MOALD) and Plant Quarantine and Pesticide Management Centre (PQPMC) – through discussion within the fall armyworm technical committee – to make IPM technologies for fall armyworm management such as safe pesticides, pheromone lures, and other agriculture inputs from local agri-businesses readily available during the lockdown.”