Gender, COVID-19 and Food Systems: Impacts, Community Responses and Feminist Policy Demands

Jessica Duncan, Rural Sociology Group, Wageningen University

Dr Priscilla Claeys, CAWR, Coventry University

The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered even more vulnerabilities and weaknesses in our food systems. It has been suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic may add between 83 and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world in 2020 depending on the economic growth scenario.[i] The OECD has declared that the pandemic has had, and will continue to have, a major impact on the health and well-being of many marginalised groups, especially on women.[ii]

Women are indeed positioned to be disproportionately impacted as they are literally on the front line of the crisis.[iii] Women and girls are the majority of food producers and providers for their households, they are the majority of nurses and social workers, teachers and food workers. They do the bulk of the care and social reproduction work, as a result of the gendered division of labour. Yet, they have been consistently overlooked in research and responses to the pandemic.[iv]

In this blog we summarise key findings from our recently published report Gender, COVID-19 and Food Systems: Impacts, Community Responses and Feminist Policy Demands, which examines how women working across food systems are experiencing and responding to the crisis and its outcomes.

The report is a product of the Women’s Working Group of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) to the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and was developed with a view towards feeding into a wider process led by the Working Group on Global Governance.

The report is based on interviews and analysis of documents produced by CSM participants and other actors, academic literature and relevant reports from international organisations (notably UN organisations, i.e. FAO). Our interviews and document analysis focused on:

  • Impacts
  • Community responses
  • Policy demands emerging from constituencies and sub-regions.

Our analysis identified a number of principles that have been advanced by CSM actors to guide policies and programmes in relation to gender, COVID-19 and food systems. These principles transverse policy demands.

The principles include:

  • Participation and representation: Women and women’s organisations in rural and urban areas must be involved in decision-making and leadership roles in their communities, as well as in policy-making at all levels.
  • Human Rights: Human rights must be respected, protected and fulfilled at all times.
  • Non-discrimination and intersectionality: Applying an intersectional approach means assessing how multiple forms of oppression come together.
  • Food sovereignty: Food sovereignty calls on States to address structural inequalities, including gender and power relations, within food systems.[v] It also calls for a holistic approach to addressing the food, environmental, climate, economic, public health and other crises.[vi]
  • Feminism(s): Feminism(s) can be defined as a range of social movements, political movements, practices and ideologies that share a common goal: to expose and redress socio-political power hierarchies and privilege revealed in gender relations but extending to and influenced by other power factors such as class, post/neo-colonial relationships, ethnicity, and religion. There are numerous feminisms, with different viewpoints and aims.[vii]
  • Gender justice, equality and equity: A gender-responsive approach actively seeks to address and change rigid norms and imbalances of power that impair gender equality (e.g. by facilitating and supporting alternative agricultural programmes that support women-led farms and women as farmers, and promote women’s traditional farming practices).[viii]

In light of these principles, policy demands were put forward, organised around four themes:  

The policy demands were linked directly to the major impacts. What follows is a short summary of these impacts and demands. They are expanded upon in more detail in the final report.

THEME 1: Economic activities, markets and access to resources

The situation that lockdowns created, in some cases, helped to make visible and increase understandings of women realities and existing inequalities. The crisis has served to aggravate challenges, threats and everyday risks that women around the world face, and deepened the cumulative impacts of decades of impoverishment. In terms of economic activities and access to resources, the challenges linked to power relations are striking.

THEME 2: Care work, public health and gender-based violence

According to the FAO, ‘rural women bear a disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 crisis not only as health care workers, but also from the burden of care of out-of-school children and the sick, the reduction in economic opportunities, the reduction in women’s reproductive and health services, and increases in intimate partner violence.’[ix] Our interviews confirm this finding (see table below).

THEME 3: Participation, representation and digital inequality

As one of the interviewees explains:

 ‘It is time to build policies that recognise women … as the economic subjects that they already are. It is not necessary to invent other things for women farmers to do (…) The question is how to organise ways of distributing and integrating into policies this production that women already have’.

THEME 4: Government responses and social protection

Government responses varied country to country, and also by region and municipality. Governments were forced to respond quickly to a rapidly changing and unfamiliar context. The responses highlighted tensions between politics and science, between life and capital. In some countries, militaristic lockdowns were imposed leading to a rise in authoritarianism, state violence, and serious human rights abuses, often specifically targeting women.

In summary

In March 2020, the sentence “We won’t go back to normality, because normality was the problem” projected on the facade of a building in Santiago, Chile. The women we interviewed and the Women’s Working Group of the CSM are working hard to make sure there is not a return to normality, but, as our report makes clear, they are doing so under difficult and uncertain conditions. What is clear for them, and for me, is that this is a profound and unprecedented global crisis that is exacerbating and leveraging pre-existent systemic forms of patriarchal inequalities, oppressions, racism, colonialism, violence and discrimination that cannot be tolerated.

A coherent global strategy is needed to tackle the multidimensional nature of the crisis from a food systems and intersectional perspective. Strong public policies, informed by existing good practices, are needed and our hope is that this report is a small step to advance this goal.

The full report is available here

Also available is the CSM Global Synthesis Report on COVID-19

Image courtesy Gyan Shahane

[i] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO. p. xvi

[ii] OECD. 2020. Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis.  OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

[iii] Women make up 70 percent of health and social workers worldwide for example but they are underrepresented in leadership roles. See: [iii]Silva, I. 2020. Coronavirus and gender: Women on frontline need to be included in pandemic response. EuroNews. April 8.;  OECD. 2020; and Buvinic, M. Moe, L. and Swanson, E. 2020. Tracking the Gender Impact of COVID-19. Centre for Global Development.

[iv] CARE. 2020. Left Out and Left Behind: Ignoring Women Will Prevent Us From Solving the Hunger Crisis

Policy Report.

[v] Via Campesina, FIAN et al. 2020.  

[vi] Interview 1

[vii] Via Campesina, FIAN et al. 2020.

[viii] Via Campesina, FIAN et al. 2020.

[ix] FAO.2020. COVID-19 and rural poverty