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Gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the livestock sector

November 23, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge global health systems and cause financial hardship, there is mounting evidence of how it is deepening gender disparities across cultures and economic sectors.

In the livestock sector across the Global South, measures imposed by governments to contain the spread of COVID-19 directly impact the livelihoods of many livestock farmers and service providers. Reports from the field show that these effects may be even greater for women. Women make up nearly two-thirds of the one billion livestock smallholders worldwide, and they are essential to food security and dietary diversity in many rural communities across the Global South. While differences exist across regions and cultures, women are more likely to be responsible for smaller stock such as poultry, goats, and sheep.

The socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19

Small farmer Mary Musau feeds her brood of mixed Indigenous Chickens and Improved Indigenous Chickens in Kwale Village, Machakos, Kenya.

When public health responses to the pandemic emerged in Africa and South Asia in early 2020, the Livestock Vaccine Innovation Fund (LVIF) was already supporting four projects working to empower women in the livestock vaccine value chain in Ghana, Kenya, Nepal, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda. Researchers involved with these projects have gained insights about how COVID-19 is impacting women livestock keepers, their rural communities, and the livestock vaccine value chains they depend on. 

During the imposed lockdowns aimed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, businesses, markets, and schools were closed and gatherings for festivals and other cultural events were banned. These factors conspired to push livestock prices down, with significant repercussions for livestock service providers and for women livestock smallholders who rely on the income from their sales to purchase household necessities.

In Kenya, for instance, the greatest demand for poultry comes from Nairobi. Due to COVID-19-related restrictions on travel into the city, women had to remain in their local communities where the demand and price of poultry were lower. “Ordinarily, where you would sell one chicken to get household supplies like soap and oil or salt, you now have to sell two chickens to get the groceries that you require,” explains Dr. Salome Bukachi of the University of Nairobi, one of the lead investigators for a project in Kenya that is testing models to empower women’s groups and cooperatives by building skills in livestock entrepreneurship and livestock health and management, among others.   

Similar challenges were reported in communities across East Africa that were involved in a project focused on strengthening women’s agency in developing local businesses as community animal health workers. In May, one of the project’s lead researchers, Dr. Hellen Amuguni of Tufts University, along with her team, conducted a survey of project stakeholders in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya to gain a better understanding of how they have been affected by the pandemic. Participants included women and men smallholder farmers in addition to people higher up the livestock vaccine value chain, including feed distributors, private and public veterinarians, government officials, and vaccine manufacturers and distributors. Of those who completed the survey, 70% said they were short on food, and many families have had to stretch what food they had to ensure they get a full meal each day.

For many households, the pandemic has both decreased household revenue and increased expenses in other ways. School closures have forced children to stay at home and miss out on the meal they would typically receive at school. Similarly, travel restrictions and business closures have kept working household members at home. These household costs, and the associated increase in workload, are often borne by women, who are more likely to be responsible for household management and caregiving duties. “Women are the health providers of the home,” explains Dr. Amuguni. “So, they have had to provide soap, sanitizer, and masks, and have had to obtain money to purchase those things.”

Effects on the vaccine value chain

Focus Group discussing chicken vaccination in Muumandu Kalama Kenya.

Logistical challenges arising from COVID-19 have significantly disrupted vaccine value chains and in some cases they have interrupted or delayed important public animal vaccination campaigns. Where vaccines remain available, many smallholders facing financial pressures due to COVID-19 face a trade-off between vaccinating their animals and purchasing household necessities.

Endemic livestock diseases such as Newcastle disease in chickens and peste des petits ruminants (PPR) in goats and sheep result in enormous livestock losses and take a toll on the livelihoods of smallholder livestock keepers, especially in Africa and Asia. Women, who often bear the primary responsibility of looking after sick animals, are heavily affected by these animal diseases. While vaccinations are available to prevent Newcastle, PPR, and other livestock diseases, they can be difficult to access by smallholders.

In many countries, vaccines for certain livestock diseases are paid for by the government. This year, COVID-19 lockdowns in many countries prevented the annual PPR vaccination campaign from being carried out. Furthermore, few countries have designated the services of veterinarians as essential, and even in contexts where veterinary staff could travel, early fear surrounding the virus and lack of support prevented them from reaching communities and their livestock.

Measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have compounded and exposed existing burdens that women in the livestock sector face because of gender inequalities. In Uganda, ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, known as boda bodas, were restricted from carrying passengers. “Female vets and animal health workers could not provide services because they rely on boda bodas for transport,” reports Dr. Amuguni. “The men are better off because they own motorcycles, but the women rely on other people to carry them.”

Higher-than-usual mortality of livestock and poultry is already being reported in northern districts in Ghana where another of the projects is testing and applying gender transformative approaches to improve livelihoods and gender equality in livestock farming communities. The effects of COVID-19 disruptions on women who rely on livestock for their livelihoods will only be fully understood over a longer period, but it is clear that the longer women’s access to animal health services is limited, the greater the potential impacts will be on the health of their animals and their families.

The bottom line

Combined with pre-existing gender inequalities, the disruptions and setbacks caused by COVID-19 over the longer term risk eroding women’s assets and magnifying the crisis.

“It is the responsibility of the woman to ensure that the children are fed, so it is her livestock assets that are sold off first,” says Agnes Loriba from CARE, one of the leaders in the Ghana project. This loss of an income stream can have dramatically negative effects on women’s empowerment that are difficult to quantify, such as the loss of bargaining power within the household. Reports suggest that intra-household bargaining power changes and domestic violence incidents increase when the labour market outcomes of women worsen as a result of reduced income and financial distress.

COVID-19 has brought inequalities into the spotlight and shaken up existing systems and structures. Tough directives are emerging around the world that the sooner policymakers and businesses act on improving gender equality, the greater the benefits not just for gender equality but also for economic growth. In such times of crises, social norms can change very quickly. A gender analysis survey on the impacts of COVID-19 in West Africa conducted by CARE reported that men are engaging in more childcare work and that more joint decision-making is occurring in households than before the pandemic. This points to a positive shift in deeply entrenched gender inequalities.

In many of the communities where these research projects are taking place, women have led organized responses. Working with Dr. Amuguni and her team, a women’s group in Kenya created part-time work opportunities for women, making masks and soap to help the community comply with new government regulations. Through its gender analysis survey, CARE documented similar women-led interventions in West Africa. Women exercising their leadership by mobilizing their resources and know-how for the benefit of their communities can contribute to women’s empowerment. It renders women leaders more visible and can help shift the way they are perceived within their communities.

To support women in the livestock sector in their post-pandemic recovery, it is important to monitor and track the impacts of public health and economic measures on rural livestock smallholders. This includes collecting sex-disaggregated data and approaching research through an intersectional perspective that accounts for people’s overlapping identities and experiences to understand the disadvantages or privileges they face. With a better understanding of these impacts and by documenting their effects, research can contribute to better crisis planning and help to minimize the short- and long-term burden on women and girls.