Submission to the International Development Committee
Humanitarian Crises Monitoring: impact of Coronavirus in developing countries: secondary impacts
Evidence submitted by ActionAid UK
ActionAid UK has previously responded to the Committee’s inquiry on the Covid-19 crisis, in April and May 2020. In these submissions we detailed the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls; including the surge in gender-based violence and the devastating impact of Coronavirus on women’s economic rights. ActionAid Bangladesh Country Director, Farah Kabir, also presented evidence to the Committee on the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls in Bangladesh, including on the Rohingya refugee community in Cox’s Bazaar.
In this submission, we would like to highlight ActionAid’s recent research in relation to Covid-19 and food security; Covid-19 and GBV and the experience of WROs of funding, participation and coordination in the Covid-19 response.
Summary of recommendations:
To address increased food insecurity among women smallholder farmers as a result of the pandemic, the UK Government should:
- Channel timely, flexible, unrestricted funding directly to women’s rights organisations (WROs) to uphold the rights of women and girls and require this of its implementing partners (including UN agencies)
- Recognise the unpaid care burden of women and girls and ensure UK trade and investment deals do not undermine efforts to support gender-responsive public services.
- Prioritise technical assistance identified by women smallholder farmers.
To address the surge in gender-based violence and support the vital work of WROs in responding to Covid-19, the UK Government should:
- Prioritise funding for protection and response to gender-based violence in response efforts
- Channel timely, flexible, unrestricted funding directly to WROs and require this of its implementing partners (including UN agencies)
- Promote and support women’s leadership in crisis response
2. Economy and food security; economic performance, development and level of ODA (implications for livelihoods and food security and nutrition
Women smallholder farmers and food security
The Covid-19 crisis has not occurred in a vacuum. It has impacted communities already affected by multiple existing crises caused by conflict, climate change and transcontinental outbreaks of pests, as well as sustained underfunding of gender-responsive public services and social protection.
In September 2020, ActionAid conducted qualitative research to explore how Covid-19 and related measures had affected the lives and livelihoods of women smallholder farmers in 14 countries across Africa and Asia. Early findings show that lockdowns aimed at stemming the spread of Covid-19 have triggered increased hunger in rural areas, where many poor households rely on small-scale and subsistence farming, daily wages, remittances, tourism and school feeding programmes. While Covid-19 has affected the entire smallholder farming community in the 14 countries, women were adversely affected. We found:
- Covid-19 reduced income levels for many smallholder women farmers. Market disruptions such as the closure of local markets made it difficult for women smallholder farmers to sell food they had grown as well as to buy supplementary foodstuffs. This in turn affected income levels and access to food for their households. Some 83% of respondents reported facing loss of livelihoods and income. Over 93% of participants confirmed that Covid-19 had led to reductions in their savings, which were having to be used for essential household needs.
- Covid-19 related market disruptions led to reduced access to markets, which had a number of negative impacts. It reduced access to inputs, such as seeds and fertilisers, due to increases in price as well as availability, which further affected farm production. It also reduced market hours and rotations of vendors. In addition, restrictions on movement affected the market price of the produce being sold in the market. On the one hand, locally produced crops were being sold at a lower price, given the reduced number of buyers and the over-supply due to limited market access. On the other hand, other food and items coming from other regions that were usually sold locally were scarce and sold at higher prices, often by middlemen, as a result of increased transport costs associated with travel restrictions or hoarding. Closure of markets also induced a change in consumer behaviour because of the fear of being in crowed spaces and of contracting Covid-19. Farmers reported being more dependent on middlemen, incurring higher costs and reducing selling opportunities and profits.
One smallholder farmer from Lalitpur, Nepal told us: “We had produced foods but due to restrictions on vehicle movements we couldn’t sell it in the market. Our product got wasted and we didn’t make money for the last 5 or 6 months. In Rwanda, one woman smallholder farmer told us: “We were not able to get food because our farm produce, garlic and onions, was the non-household food but we used to export to Kenya. The rest sold in hotels and restaurants in different cities in Rwanda. Due to lack of buyers, we could not even get money to buy the food from the market”.
- Women and men smallholders had to skip meals because of a shortage of food at household level, and women did so more than men. Over 58% of smallholder women farmers interviewed confirmed that parents, especially women, prioritised their children’s nutrition over their own by skipping meals during lockdown. Children were severely impacted by food insecurity following the closure of schools, which in many cases, offered feeding programs that would guarantee children with at least one nutritious meal a day. One smallholder farmer from Gaibandha in Bangladesh told us: “My husband and I have started to skip food to feed our baby. Hunger puts detrimental effects on children. On empty stomach they can’t even focus on reading...”
- Lockdown restrictions also caused an increase in police bribery, stimgatiztion, intimidation and sometimes harrassment. In some countries, such as in Zimbabwe, people were required to purchase a movement permit from the police, which created another obstacle and cost that farmers had to take into account when deciding to travel to markets.
- The impacts of Covid-19 have led to an increase in women’s unpaid care and domestic work. Over 60% of the respondents confirmed that the household chores of women had increased during the last 6 months. In households where the men worked as labourers or waged employees, job losses caused by lockdown restrictions along with school closures meant that women experienced an increase in the number of dependents, leading to an increased burden of ensuring household food needs were met, as well as greater levels of unpaid care and domestic work. The unequal division of labour within the household resulted in women and girls taking responsibility for the vast majority of unpaid care work. In Bono, Tian, Ghana, a woman smallholder farmer told us: “Because of Covid-19 the extended family depended on me. So, we could not get enough food to feed ourselves”.
- GBV has intensified as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and social-isolation measures (GBV is explored further in section below). Over 52% of respondents reported an increase in GBV in their community. Over 64% of the women smallholder farmers underlined that during lockdown women and girls have experienced an increase in violence. Participants reported several problematic behaviours, such as men forcefully taking money from their wives, increases in police harrassment of women and girls, and an increased lack of confidentiality and difficultly in reporting cases of violence to the relvant institutions. Similarly with school closures, there is increased policing of the movements of girls by household members, leading to increased stress and tension for the girls. A woman smallholder farmer from the North Bank region, Upper Niumi district of The Gambia said: “In my community, we are witnessing physical abuses to women and girls by men. Especially where the women provide for the family and now they cannot, the husband is always violent”.
Covid-19 responses must be fine-tuned to meet the needs of women smallholder farmers, including through gender-sensitive social protection programmes. Through its aid spend the UK Government should:
- Channel timely, flexible, unrestricted funds directly to WROs working on the frontline and ask implementing partners to do the same. Covid-19 and measures aimed at stemming the disease have exacerbated existing crises and has heightened the gender discrimination and inequality already experienced by women smallholder farmers. WROs understand best the priorities of women and girls and are able to meet their specific needs. In addition, experience shows us that responses led by women can lead to transfomrative change. Shifting prevailing, entrenched inequalities is vital in addressing the marginalisation and exclusion of women farmers. In particular, women must have secure access to control over land and other productive natural resources, which in many countries is fraught with legal and administrative obstacles – exposing women to a range of vulnerabilities and rights denials.
- Recognise the unpaid care burden faced by women and girls as part of it’s Covid-19 recovery strategy. As a result of Covid-19 women smallholder farmers have taken on the additional burden of childcare and domestic work. The UK should recognise the impact of this for women smallholders and support any government efforts in the Global South to recognise, reduce and redistrubute the caring responsibilities of women and girls. The UK should also ensure its trade and investment policies do not restrict women’s access to publicly financed gender-responsive public services in childcare, education, health, and water and sanitation.
- Prioritise technical solutions identified by women farmers to recover from Covid-19. Women need improved access to technical assistance, equipment and agricultural inputs tailored to their needs, means and availability. These range from support to better adapt to climate change (such as easy access to weather information, soil mapping and agro-ecological practices to improve agro-ecosystems, build climate resilience and improve the fertility and productivity of soils), as well as enable women small-holders to adapt to changing and fluctuating markets (for instance, support to diversify crops , for the processing of food and non-food products and income generation activities). Government procurement programmes that prioritise products from women small-holder famers groups and cash transfers for women are essential.
3. Treatment of women and children; levels of domestic abuse, gender-based violence and exploitation of women and children, including child marriage
Gender based violence
Gender based violence (GBV) is driven by patriarchal norms that condone and normalise gender based violence in both private and public spaces. With one in three women experiencing GBV in their lifetime, it was a global pandemic long before the onset of Covid-19. In any emergency or protracted crisis violence against women and girls increases.
Between March and May 2020, ActionAid monitored service users and referrals to women’s shelters and hotlines in seven countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and compared this data to that from previous years. We tracked spikes in violence against women and girls across all regions. Yet as demand surged, services were being cut or closed, leaving women trapped or forced to return to dangerous households.
Based on surveys of its partners and women’s movements comparing data from March/April 2020 and the same period in 2019, ActionAid found:
- In Bangladesh – a tenfold increase in sexual violence and domestic violence
- In Uganda – shelters shut down even though cases doubled
- In Nigeria – 253 attacks documented since lockdown
- In Gaza – 700% increase in demand for counselling
- In Brazil – 22% average increase in femicide across 12 states, with most women killed in Acre a northern state with a shocking 300% spike
Responses to Covid-19 have focused on ‘staying at home’ but for many women and girls home is not a safe place. Women’s access to technology during lockdown could also be limited – with phone and internet connection controlled by male relatives; effectively blocking options to escape or seek help. Lockdown also saw an increased risk of sexual exploitation by state officials and national armies. These trends were felt globally but magnified in marginalised communities, where existing inequalities exacerbate the risks for women.
Covid-19 has also diverted policy resources and shut down criminal courts, preventing survivors from accessing justice. ActionAid partners are dealing with cases which are forced to settle out of court, due to lockdown, which is increasing community tensions and is deeply damaging to the survivor's ability to rebuild their lives. ActionAid Ghana finds impunity to be a major contributing factor to the violence being perpetuated or repeated around the world.
Women’s rights organisations
ActionAid works with WROs, activists and violence survivors whose knowledge and expertise must be central to decision-making around GBV prevention and response. Evidence shows that engaging with local actors – particularly WROs - is critical for the success and sustainability of humanitarian work as well effectively addressing gender inequality and shifting cultural norms.
In relation to Covid-19 response, local women, their organisations and networks can be a powerful force in infectious disease control. They know the best ways of communicating health messages to, and are trusted by, families and communities. This means they can lead an effective and inclusive response to stopping the spread of disease, adoption of healthy behaviours based on accessible information.
In June 2020, ActionAid and a number of other NGOs consulted with 18 women’s rights organisations to explore their experiences of access to funding, participation and coordination as part of the Covid-19 response. We found:
- Concerns that commitments to mobilise funding to WROs for crisis response are being backtracked on. Of the 18 women-led organisations (WLOs) and WROs consulted for this statement, only 3 have been able to access new and additional funding for Covid-19 response through the UN system so far. Partners consulted perceived that the vast majority of the funding through the UN system has gone to a narrow range of health interventions, and into the budgets of UN agencies and host governments. Local civil society in general, and WROs in particular, have fallen to the bottom of the priority list for funding through the UN system.
- Lack of meaningful engagement with WROs in COVID-19 response coordination, planning and decision-making by the UN and by governments. A consistent theme in the feedback from partners was a sense of being excluded from meaningful participation in setting priorities, decision-making or shaping the plans which determine where funds are allocated in the UN response.
- WROs struggling to access Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) with months of delays in receiving PPE to respond to Covid-19 from the UN and others. In several cases, UN agencies had told WLOs/ WROs that they would provide funds or supplies, including PPE supplies, to support their COVID-19 response but neither the funds, nor the supplies had materialised.
- Covid-19 is compounding the insecurity, erosion of civil society space, threats and violence against WROs. In Colombia, Uganda and the occupied Palestinian territories, partners described how security forces and other power-holders have used the cover of Covid-19 emergency measures, and wider instability brought about by the crisis, to perpetrate violence, harassment and intimidation against women active in local civil society. In conflict affected and fragile state contexts, the secondary impacts of COVID-19, in particular economic consequences in terms of job losses, and wider impacts on trade and markets, have been especially destabilising. In the occupied Palestinian territories, for example, local women’s rights activists described how Covid-19 lockdowns and the Israeli government’s moves towards annexation are resulting in a perfect storm of “economic precarity and gender-based violence in home, political instability and military actions in the public sphere.” The impacts on organisations’ finances and ability to move around and implement work has led, amongst other things, to the closure of the only women’s shelter in the Gaza Strip with the staff struggling to find new, safe accommodation for its residents.
As the Covid crisis persists and moves into a second wave of infection in many countries, the UK Government can support the vital work of WROs to respond to the needs of women and the pandemic by:
- Prioritising and supporting protection and prevention services as part of crisis response - the reality of limited social protection and underfunded, understaffed and poorly coorindated essential services to address GBV, have been highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis and the shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls. Many partners ActionAid works with receive no government funding and face lockdown measures. It is crucial that shelters and support for women facing violence and abuse are classed as essential services during the crises and epidemics, because this is precisely the time that women face greater risk to their lives.
- Channelling timely, flexible, unrestricted funding directly to local WROs working on the frontline and requiring this of its implementing partners (including UN agencies). At the same time, the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, major donors, UN agencies and INGOs, agreed that at least 25% of funding should go directly to local organisations to support their communities. ActionAid took that promise seriously and more than 60% of its humanitarian funding goes directly to local organisations, the majority to women’s organisations. In contrast, as of May 2020, only 0.1% of humanitarian funding from the UN-led Global Humanitarian Response Plan had been allocated to local organisations.
- Promoting and supporting women’s leadership in crisis response. Women and WROs remain absent from crucial decision-making processes around Covid-19 including recovery efforts. While the average number of women in the global health and social care workforce is 70%, Care International found that women represented just 24% of the national-level decision-making bodies for the pandemic are women. The UK should strengthen the representation and power of local women and women-led actors in programme design. Meaningfully engaging with local women-led actors and being accountable to them, involves providing accessible information. It is also critical to create spaces and opportunities for them to inform the design of programming responses, which value and are guided by local knowledge and women’s priorities. National governments and UN coordination leads should also encourage the input and leadership of women, and local women-led actors in Covid-19 cluster contingency planning, ensuring their meaningful engagement in all clusters and coordination mechanisms. What this means is taking advice on how to remove barriers to women’s meaningful engagement, including travel and security restrictions, financial constraints, and addressing language issues.
 Previous ActionAid evidence can be accessed here: https://committees.parliament.uk/work/248/humanitarian-crises-monitoring-coronavirus-in-developing-countries-secondary-impacts/publications/written-evidence/?page=1
 Farah Kabir evidence to IDC, June 2020, https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/ad983706-0ff3-4b40-a5c0-db57907507be
ActionAid, CAFOD, CARE et al, June 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/WLO-Covid19-Joint%20Agency%20Policy%20Brief.pdf
 In Asia research was conducted in Bangladesh and Nepal. In Africa research was conducted in DRC, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The study covered 190 individuals.
 Barclay et al, ‘On the Frontline: Catalysing women‘s leadership in humanitarian action’, ActionAid, May 2016, available at: www.actionaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/actionaid_policy_report_on_the_frontline_catalysing_womens_leadership_in_humanitarian_action.pdf
 DFID, VAWG Helpdesk Report, March 2020, https://www.sddirect.org.uk/media/1881/vawg-helpdesk-284-Covid-19-and-vawg.pdf
 ActionAid Ghana, Falling through the cracks, 2019, https://ghana.actionaid.org/publications/2019/falling-through-cracks-tackling-justice-deficit-women-survivors-ghana
 Charter for Change
 Care International, Where are the Women? 2020 https://insights.careinternational.org.uk/publications/why-we-need-women-in-covid-19-response-teams-and-plans