This week, Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in commemorating International Day of Rural Women.
The day grants special recognition to the critical role and contribution of rural women as the vital role that they play in guaranteeing the sustainability of rural households and economies has been gaining attention.
The day is a reminder that the world’s sustainable future and the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals would not be possible without women and girls.
Last year, the theme was pegged on climate resilience and this year the day is commemorated under the theme of building women’s resilience in the wake of Covid-19.
Rural women play a crucial role in agriculture, food security, and nutrition, land and natural resource management and rural enterprises. They have been at the frontlines in responding to the pandemics, their lives were drastically affected by lockdowns as they could not run cooperatives and other economic activities.
Unpaid care and domestic work increased during lockdowns, as mobility was restricted, supply chains have been disrupted. No movement on highways meant that many women were stuck with a lot of produce and could not sell.
Rural women have already been hard hit by climate change and other social crises which compound the Covid-19 impacts in their communities.
The International Day of Rural Women is a key moment to galvanise action by all stakeholders to support rural women and girls to not only rebuild their lives after Covid-19 but to also increase their resilience to be better prepared to face future crises.
Improving the lives of rural women and girls requires robust legal and policy reforms that will see their inclusion in decisions that affect their lives.
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.
With the pandemic threatening to roll back these contributions, Government and its partners in the country must double their efforts to help strengthen rural women’s resilience so that all Zimbabwean women are able to withstand current and future shocks.
The gender digital divide in rural areas has magnified rural women and girls’ marginalisation, limiting their access to distance education, essential services, finance, and lifesaving information during the crisis.
The shadow pandemic of gender-based violence has also been a big burden for women in rural communities as it has not been easy to be mobile and get help and report abusers. It has not been easy to access health, legal and counselling services.
Zimbabwe can use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to redirect attention and resources to empower women and eliminate long standing obstacles to their progress, to help communities emerge stronger, better balanced and resilient.
For instance, Government and non-governmental organisations are already rolling out social assistance programmes to help vulnerable communities countrywide. This can be extended by introducing special cash transfer programmes targeted at women, to help them back on their feet and continue whatever entrepreneurial programmes they had going, which were affected by the pandemic.
Government must also ensure that whatever programmes were started by various ministries for rural women do not suffer still births owing to the pandemic, but must ensure that such programmes are revived and serve their purpose.
An example could be the Dutch ovens (mud oven) bakeries that were started around the country. It is high time Government scales up those projects and build better structures so that women who have learnt the skill can start producing at a larger scale in a more sustainable way which is not as harmful to the environment as running a mud oven powered by charcoal.
Such initiatives help women gain income which can be used as a special loan in the community, or monthly income which they can use for whatever is needed in their households such as the payment of school fees and buying food.
Women and girls in rural areas still struggle to access productive resources, assets, public services such as education, healthcare and infrastructure including water and sanitation while their labour remains unpaid.
According to the Zimbabwe National Gender Profile of Agriculture, rural women constitute 70 percent of households and family labour in rural communities, yet they continue to suffer disproportionately from multidimensional poverty.
Despite such challenges, rural women are generally strong. Yet they face many more difficulties as compared to their urban counterparts, they have managed to break barriers to education, fought against harmful practices that violate their sexual and reproductive rights, and have managed to start and sustain businesses and broken political glass ceilings all the way to Parliament and beyond.
Hardly have these women been consulted in their spaces on financial and economic policy reforms or at least receive a copy of such in a language that most of them can relate with.
Their striking determination and a true fighting spirit have not received enough support.
It is a fact that patriarchy still thrives more in traditional societies and society cannot be more traditional than rural, therefore if there is a woman who deserves mention, it is the rural sister.
Rural women put in a lot of work individually and collectively. The rural woman is assertive, she ensures that people eat even after a bad season, with nothing in the fields.
There is need for partnerships between urban and rural to help women realise better and bigger achievements in the country as both rural and urban life have advantages.
Structural barriers and discriminatory social norms continue to constrain women’s decision making power and political participation in rural households and communities.
Rural women are also prejudiced by gender relations in their conditions of existence, with gender relations in Zimbabwe still predominantly biased against women.
As the focus this month is on rural women, it is time to breathe action into words and policies and ensure that rural women receive all the support they need to improve their livelihoods. — @andile_tshuma