Governments all over are asking people to stay at home, and The Gambia is no exception. Whilst this is to curb movements to limit the transmission of COVID-19, these steps can have unintended consequences for the poorest & most vulnerable. Whilst the Nema and other agricultural projects have delivered outcomes and results that seek to ensure our rural population have improved livelihoods, increased food nutrition and a decent quality of life, the Coronavirus will no-doubt have dire negative effects on the gains registered by these projects, thereby posing a very devastating economic downturn for the poor rural beneficiaries, especially women.
70% of our food is being produced by our rural women, who are the primary food crop producers while men are more involved in animal husbandry or labour off the farm. Women are also often responsible for the care of children, the sick and elderly. This means they could have increased exposure to COVID-19 with knock-on implications for food production, food preparation and child nutrition.
Although we have a youthful population, but young people tend to be less interested in agriculture and more likely to migrate to urban areas - although with innovative financing at various projects, we are reversing this trend with the likes of the Matching Grant Facility, thereby creating rural youth enterprises. It however still leaves a slightly older farming population that could be more vulnerable to the Coronavirus.
With land borders and the airspace now closed, and the lack of tourists coming through, tourism has taken a hit and thereby affecting the food supply chain, and small holders taken the brunt of it - considering the huge investment that projects have disbursed - in the various interventions. In the same vein, with closed borders we are going to be faced with food import challenges to meet local demand. It is therefore necessary to support our rural farmers with seeds, fertilizers and all necessary inputs NOW, so in 3, 6 and 9 months to come, they will have enough to feed themselves and the nation at large.
We have no option but to ensure the rural poor communities can survive because without them we don't have a community. While some voices have flagged the impacts on women, gender concerns are not yet shaping the decisions that mainly male leaders are making. At the same time, many of the impacts of COVID-19 are hitting women hardest. We therefore need urgent action plans for our women folks.
Firstly, a big part of efforts must be focused on stemming the spread of COVID-19 itself. Crucial preventative measures - from promoting hand-washing and social distancing to imposing restrictions on gatherings and movement - will be essential to slowing the impacts of the virus including on food systems and producers. It therefore means that support through proper sensitization, via various modes - radio, television, visual materials and local communicators otherwise known as Kanyalengs (excuse my spelling), will be essential to help spread the message in various languages within the rural communities using the Agricultural project sites as entry points. Similarly, the provision of Hygiene and Sanitary materials will be very vital during these crisis as with the lack of income to buy basic food items, these things will not be considered as a necessity for the majority of the poor rural households.
Secondly, with the absence of a national social protection net in The Gambia, a one-off cash payment (prior to full blown impact of the crisis as an early action to mitigate impact) or ensure multiple payments to help families meet their basic needs; providing complementary entitlements to offset loss of income by small-scale producers and exploring the use of food banks could be an option through the support and partnership with NGO's (Non-governmental organizations); enabling mobile payment systems where possible via our Mobile Technology Network operators (with mobile money services) to prevent disruptions in delivery of cash entitlements due to restrictions on movement;
Thirdly, the crisis is having an impact on women's health and safety. Apart from the direct impacts of the disease, women may find it hard to access much needed maternal health services given that all services are being directed to essential medical needs. Availability of contraception and services for other needs may become disrupted. Women's personal safety is also at risk. The very conditions that are needed to battle the disease - isolation, social distancing, restrictions on freedom of movement - are, perversely, the very conditions that feed into the hands of abusers who now find state-sanctioned circumstances tailor-made for unleashing abuse.
Finally, because the majority of front-line health workers - especially nurses are women, their risk of infection is higher. So, while attention must be paid to ensuring safe conditions for ALL caregivers, special attention is needed for female nurses and carers - not only in access to personal protective equipment like masks but also for other needs such as menstrual hygiene products - that may be easily and inadvertently overlooked, but are essential to ensuring they are able to function well.
Banky Njie Is the Business Development Officer and Gender Focal Point for the National Agricultural Land and Water Management Development Project (Nema-Chosso).