Building rural women’s resilience the UN Way in the wake of Covid-19

Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, on the International Day of Rural Women (October 15, 2020)

In rural Xiaruoyao, China, 45-year-old pig farmer Yan Shenglian is part of her village’s Covid-19 management team, giving temperature checks and recording vehicle information at local checkpoints to help reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

In Tanzania’s Iringa region, the outbreak of Covid-19 prompted 28-year-old Stella Nziku to join the Mufindi Women’s Network to raise awareness of gender-based violence. And in Itá, Paraguay, 50-year-old Mirian Cáceres is coping with the pandemic’s impact on her livelihood as a potter by organising soup kitchens to alleviate hunger.

The vital roles of rural women as farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, community leaders and first responders during crises are key to building peaceful, prosperous and sustainable societies. The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to roll back these significant contributions, which is why we must double our efforts to build rural women’s resilience to current and future shocks.

Discriminatory gender norms and resource constraints compound the negative effects of Covid-19 on rural women’s lives. Already, before the pandemic, women across the world did more than three times the unpaid care and domestic work as men. In rural areas, this is exacerbated by lack of infrastructure and insufficient access to clean and safe water, sanitation and energy. Something as essential to hygiene and safety as frequent handwashing with soap, is no simple matter in many locations.

The gender digital divide in rural areas has magnified women’s and girls’ marginalisation, limiting their access to distance education, essential services, digital finance and life-saving information during the crisis.

The shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls, which has been rising in situations of lockdown, must also be overcome as a matter of urgency. Rural women and girls are even more at risk of experiencing violence, yet less likely to receive the support they need due to lack of essential services, legal remedies and justice.  

To address these gaps and respond to the pandemic, millions of rural women worldwide have organised protection, support and relief.

In Liberia, the National Rural Women Association, with the support of UN Women, is communicating vital Covid-19 information in rural communities. Through the Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment joint programme, run by FAO, IFAD, UN Women and WFP, rural and indigenous women in Guatemala, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan are producing masks as a community service and to earn an income, and disseminating health information, preventative measures and essential goods.

To sustain the livelihoods and food security of rural women and their families during the crisis, social protection must be expanded in ways that intentionally respond to women’s needs. But this is not yet happening to the extent needed.

UN Women and UNDP’s Covid-19 Global Gender Response Tracker shows that only 10 per cent of social protection and labour market measures are aimed at women – for example, cash transfers or food assistance that directly target women, support to women entrepreneurs and informal traders with grants and subsidised credits, or keeping childcare services open during lockdown to help relieve unpaid care burdens. It is critical that economic stimulus and recovery packages reach rural areas as well as urban settings to keep rural women and their households afloat.

On this International Day of Rural Women, our commitment to leave no one behind has never been more urgent. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to direct attention and resources to empower rural women and eliminate the long-standing obstacles to their progress, so that we can emerge from Covid-19 as a stronger, better balanced, resilient and caring society.


The experience in Kenya

Data recently published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics highlights the disparity between those living in rural and urban settings. The data further shows that women in rural settings are significantly less empowered when it comes to education, employment and health.  

Increasing the empowerment of rural women is a priority at the international level, and it is why institutions like the United Nations (UN) place primacy on supporting women in agriculture.

Following are some examples of how rural women can be empowered and their value to the country’s society as a whole.

Daily sales grew from Ksh2,000 to Ksh30,000

Lenah Mwangi of Nakuru County began as a trainer of trainers (TOT) when she joined the Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) in 2018. The alliance was set up by six agri-focussed organisations, including the UN World Food Programme, to build resilient value chains and link up public and private sectors.

“I started by buying pesticides, which I would sell to my neighbours and my mother’s friends. I got my customers by word of mouth. I also introduced my mother to the modern way of farming. Though it was difficult at first because she was used to the traditional methods, she began embracing it as she saw my yield was better. This increased my customer base as neighbours also wanted to learn modern farming methods as they had seen the benefits from my farm.”

A gleeful Lenah continues to narrate: “In March 2020, I entered into a co-financing partnership to refurbish and restock my agrovet shop. I contributed Ksh20,000 to the required Ksh120,000, and the rest came from FtMA.

“In 2019, my best daily sales would range from Ksh2,000 to Ksh5,000, and I would feel I had really achieved a lot. However, after the training and credit support, my daily sales grew and today I clock in around Ksh30,000. This grows to Ksh40,000 during peak planting seasons.

“This year has actually been the best for me, especially in the planting seasons of April and May, as I earned a profit of Ksh40,000.”


Lenah Mwangi of Nakuru County, advising a farmer on quality requirements of potato seed.

Raising awareness

Last year, UN Women partnered with the Agricultural Finance Corporation in Kenya to deliver a series of training sessions around the country, for grassroots women farmers.

The lack of information available to women, coupled with traditional norms, severely limit their ability to own land and enjoy economic independence.

Flomena Tendet lives in Uasin Gishu, operating a small farm which produces avocados, eucalyptus and pine nuts. She is married, and although her husband’s name is on the title deed of the land, the ownership of the business is shared. She explains that this kind of partnership is not common in the region.

She says: “Women traditionally do not own titles here, which causes problems. I was renting land, but I had to give it back to the landowner. 

“I used to train women in Mount Elgon, but here, they are not so receptive. Traditions do not allow for it.

“Many women are simply not aware of the opportunities to access credit. Many things are secretive. People are not open to tell others about training opportunities. This is the first training I have attended since I moved here in 2005. The information does not reach women. Some men believe that women will become arrogant towards the husband if they receive training.”

Raising awareness about credit opportunities and developing their businesses and administrative skills are the building blocks for women to gain economic empowerment.


Flomena Tendet, 38, operates a subsistence farm of about 0.2 acres, 30km from Eldoret.

Community leadership

Rural women are the backbone of Kenya’s society and can be relied upon to protect their communities.

Tecla Chumba of the Lembus tribe set up a community forest association and asked the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to give each member half an acre of land and tree seedlings that they could plant alongside their own crops.

But then, the KFS decided to lease the land to a company interested in planting and harvesting trees, denying the community forest association the right to do shamba. Chumba, together with the National Alliance of Community Forests Associations Kenya, took KFS to court, and won.

“Local communities have to be involved in decisions about forests that affect their livelihoods. The Forest Conservation and Management Act 2016 says that Kenya Forest Service has to respect public participation,” says the mother of four from Narok County.

Communities like Chumba’s are supported by the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The programme aims to bring a human rights-based approach to environmental policies.


Thecla Chumba at work with a community member.