When Idris and I visited Sierra Leone last December, the optimism was palpable. The country was back on its feet after a bitter civil war and an Ebola outbreak in 2014. We met resourceful, resilient women like Isatu, a mother of four, who was transforming swampland into paddy fields with the help of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). She trusted IFAD because it had not abandoned her village when Ebola struck. The agency stayed and supported farmers with access to finance in their most desperate hour.
Back in December, we did not know that a pandemic was about to hit us. And while its impact on our lives in the West has been chronicled exhaustively, we hear little about its effect on the most vulnerable people of all – the 1.7 billion women and girls, more than one-fifth of all humanity, who live in rural areas around the world.
So let me tell you just how devastating this pandemic has been for them. I recently heard from Isatu, and she says that worse than the coronavirus is the silent pandemic of hunger that is sweeping rural areas in Sierra Leone. Restrictions on movement mean farmers have not been able to get their crops to market. And without an income, they haven’t been able to buy food for their families nor seeds for the next planting season.
Isatu says she and her four children, who are no longer at school because she cannot afford the fees, are subsisting on just one small meal a day. Day laborers, who live hand to mouth as farmhands, are even worse off. Such jobs have simply gone. Market women and shopkeepers are also suffering as people have run out of savings to buy anything but the bare essentials. Even though Isatu takes vegetables from her garden and woven baskets to the market every day, she says there are few customers and prices are low.
At the same time, migrant workers in cities – unable to work during lockdowns – began the long journey home, often taking the coronavirus with them. For rural families, the return of city relatives is a blow: there are now extra mouths to feed at a time when food insecurity is increasing.
Isatu is not alone. Across Africa, millions of women are impacted by school closures and market restrictions, the need to care for sick family members and the lack of access to school feeding programs. This puts further stress on their households at a time when rural women, the majority of whom are employed in the informal sector, find their work has dried up. Faced with these multiple shocks, their strength and resilience is being tested like never before.
Still, Isatu says she is one of the lucky ones. She is one of almost 160,000 farmers in Sierra Leone supported by IFAD to improve their cash crops and get them to market. With this support Isatu has been able to extend her acreage and plant rice for the new season, boosting her resilience to the worst impacts of the crisis. It means she will have a crop to sell come the next harvest. Too many farmers won’t.
Isatu reminds me of my mum—strong, resourceful and determined to give her children a better future. My mother was born in Somalia. She emigrated to Canada, where my siblings and I grew up in comfort that would have been unimaginable to her as a child. She never let us forget that things we took for granted – school, food on the table, shoes – are denied to too many children still.
From my mother I learned how tenuous existence can be when you depend on the land to survive. And rural women in Africa get the worst deal of all, with little education, limited land rights and little access to credit or control over their household finances. It is thanks to my mother that I became involved in IFAD, and it is because of her that I am desperately concerned about the plight of rural women and girls who truly are the voices least heard during this pandemic.
While there has been some progress in gender equality over the years, women aged 25-34 are still 25 percent more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. There is now a real risk that economic hardship and hunger will set women and girls back a generation and kill more people than the coronavirus itself, particularly in rural areas where people are already poor and have no savings to fall back on and no safety nets.
This December, the UK and other governments have the opportunity to prevent a further hunger crisis by increasing their funding to sustainable agriculture through IFAD. With $1.75 billion, IFAD can double its impact by 2030 and help more rural communities recover from the pandemic and rebuild their lives. The fate of millions of rural women and girls depends on government leaders stepping up and agreeing to invest more ambitiously to ensure women like Isatu have the access to the training, technology, assets and finances they need to keeping growing food and earning incomes through future shocks.
Investment in agriculture can do so much to support the economic empowerment of millions of rural women. We cannot allow a virus to set back women’s rights and equality again.
Sabrina Dhowre Elba is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.