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Tackling barriers to women’s participation in economic activities in Kenya, Ghana and Uganda


The COVID-19 pandemic’s ripple effects have been multifaceted, disproportionately impacting marginalized communities, including women in developing countries. The agricultural sector in Kenya, which relies heavily on women’s labour, witnessed disruptions in production and access to resources, jeopardizing women’s livelihoods and wellbeing. In Ghana and Uganda, the artisanal and small-scale mining sector, while offering economic opportunities, presents significant challenges for those working within it, particularly adolescent girls and young women.

IDRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council are funding research projects in the three countries to support the identification of locally led, evidence-based solutions to help adolescent girls and women build resilience and recover from COVID-19-induced shocks. The projects, all part of the Women RISE initiative, use a participatory approach that identifies and addresses factors that hinder women’s equal participation in economic activities and limit their access to employment, finance, health-care services and policymaking.

Catalyzing women’s involvement in post-COVID-19 recovery in Kenya

A group of women discuss research activities in Voi Town, Kenya.
Gender-transformative research activities with the TATABA cooperative in Taita Taveta, Voi Town, Kenya.

Designed to address the specific challenges faced by women in agricultural cooperatives post-COVID-19, the WINRACK project, implemented by The Co-operative University of Kenya, the University of the Fraser Valley in Canada and the Commissioner for Co-operatives in Kenya, delves into the intricate dynamics at play in Kiambu, Kajiado and Taita Taveta counties. The project identifies the factors underlying the pandemic’s impact on women’s work, participation and health within agricultural cooperatives, which emerge as a relevant and impactful avenue for providing sustainable and gender-responsive health-care financing.

Key findings from the project highlight the barriers hindering women's leadership and active participation within cooperatives. These barriers are manifested in various forms, including limited access to decision-making processes, unequal distribution of resources and social norms that perpetuate gender stereotypes impacting women's health.

The UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery underscores how “women, as a diverse group, do not experience emergencies uniformly,” revealing that women-headed households experience a significant lack of constant income, limiting their access to critical health-care services.

A member of a Kajiado Dairy Cooperative emphasized the link between climate change and economic vulnerability experienced by women in agriculture. According to the member, “We are people who rely on milk. We farm milk. From the drought, people lose cattle and losing cattle means we do not have milk. So that means our members lack money.” This statement underscores how weather-related emergencies like droughts exacerbate women’s economic vulnerability and limit income for the entire cooperative.

The research team’s findings revealed that, while many women attend education activities and are involved in meetings, men are often in positions of power at cooperatives. To be eligible for a leadership position, a cooperative member must be a landowner. However, due to the culture’s patriarchal roots, land in Kenya is passed down through the man in the family. While activities in the cooperative, including access to services, are available to the household, men continue to make decisions.

Empowering women through gender-transformative strategies

The team has developed multi-pronged gender-transformative strategies at household and cooperative levels to drive meaningful participation and leadership for women, empowering them not only individually but also collectively as a force within their communities. The strategies include:

  • gender-transformative training workshops designed to address household-level socio-cultural and economic barriers to women's participation in agricultural cooperatives 
  • gender-transformative cooperative-level training workshops to build the capacity of cooperative leaders in implementing gender equity and social-inclusion initiatives in cooperatives 
  • cooperative-level follow-up workshops to support cooperative leaders in developing gender policies that enable cooperatives to integrate gender issues and promote gender equity and social inclusion in leadership, budgeting, and design and implementation of programs, activities and practices  
  • research on a policy-backed cooperative-level health-insurance scheme to provide affordable and quality health-care coverage to members of agricultural cooperatives who are unable to receive coverage under existing, traditional health-insurance schemes.

WINRACK’s holistic approach recognizes the interconnectedness of economic empowerment, wellbeing and environmental sustainability, helping to enable a future where women farmers can thrive and contribute meaningfully to their communities’ development. 

Cushioning the impacts of the pandemic in Ghana and Uganda 

A group of adolescent girls and young women gather for coaching.
Coaching of adolescent girls and young women in Carpenter, Ghana.

Young women in artisanal and small mining communities navigate a complex landscape defined by gender norms, environmental hazards and health risks, which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Highlighting their experiences lays the ground for interventions that build resilience and empower them to thrive. A project implemented by Makerere University in Uganda, McMaster University in Canada and the Northern Empowerment Association in Ghana is providing a step toward understanding and addressing the impacts of the pandemic on adolescent girls and young women in these mining communities.

Life in these communities is often characterized by poverty and limited opportunities. Many adolescent girls and young women engage in various roles within the mining sector, from food vending to ore processing, contributing significantly to household income to make ends meet. The pandemic posed further challenges for adolescent girls and young women in these mining communities, disrupting economic activities and leading to income loss as well as food insecurity. Accessing health care became difficult, and many struggled to manage childcare responsibilities while their work opportunities dwindled. 

The research team found that 50% and 29% of adolescent girls and young women in Ghana and Uganda, respectively, took their children to work, highlighting the lack of viable childcare options. A single-mother informant in central Uganda confirmed in a survey, “We women are always looking after the children. Where do I leave these children? have to ensure that they survive.”

A significant proportion of their work is often undervalued and underpaid, and it is further compounded by deeply ingrained gender norms, the pervasive discrimination they face and the taboos surrounding women’s involvement in mining. All of these factors limit their access to opportunities and decision-making power.

A group of participants at a multi-stakeholder meeting in Uganda.
Some of the participants at a multi-stakeholder meeting in Uganda.

Health challenges experienced by adolescent girls and young women

Early sexual debut and limited access to sexual and reproductive health services put adolescent girls and young women at increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses as well as  unwanted pregnancies. The research findings showed that 75% of adolescent girls and young women in both Ghana and Uganda had an early sexual debut, and nearly half were already working in the mining when it occurred. 

Another concern is that artisanal and small-scale mining practices often involve the use of mercury, leading to environmental contamination and posing health risks for workers and their children. Over half of the adolescent girls and young women in Ghana and Uganda lack access to proper sanitation facilities and polluted water sources increase the risk of waterborne diseases. 

How Women RISE is helping to build resilience

The research in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda seeks to understand the impact of COVID-19 on adolescent girls and young women in artisanal and small-scale mining communities with a view to promoting their resilience. Key achievements include:

  • strengthening the capacity of adolescent girls and young women by coaching and empowering them to advocate for change within their communities 
  • amplifying stakeholder engagement through the convening of national and global advisory boards comprising experts from various sectors to foster collaboration and advocate for policy change 
  • exchanging knowledge and key learnings with a wider audience

These Women RISE research projects demonstrate the power of locally led evidence-driven interventions in empowering marginalized communities. By amplifying the voices of women and girls in communities and advocating for change, the projects pave the way for a more just and equitable future where these young women can thrive, be healthy and reach their full potential.

Learn more about Women RISE