Can we be hopeful about women’s leadership in a COVID-19 world?

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COVID-19 and the measures being taken to contain it, continue to severely affect populations around the world. Women bear the brunt of what is often called 'reproductive work' while also usually providing an income for the household. Unable to balance paid work with unpaid care responsibilities, women are dropping out of the workforce in record numbers to nurse the sick, and home school and care for children, all while shouldering a disproportionally heavy domestic burden of cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the home.

At the same time, women are suffering from the silent pandemic of intimate partner violence (IPV), which has increased during the COVID-19 health emergency due to lockdowns and quarantines that force family members to shelter together in cramped quarters during a high-stress situation. Many women are barely surviving through this difficult time, let alone taking on leadership responsibilities. It is hard not to lose hope for advances in gender equality when it seems like we are taking several steps backwards.

Women overcome

Despite such challenging circumstances, SNV is proud to report that with support from our projects, women in regions across the world continue to overcome restrictive gender roles to take on leadership positions in their families and communities.

In Ethiopia, fewer than 5% of farmers in leadership positions are women. Despite serious restrictions due to COVID-19 regulations and political unrest in the country, SNV’s BRIDGE project (Building Rural Income through Inclusive Dairy Business Growth in Ethiopia), funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands (EKN) was able to support women  to move into leadership positions in Dairy Farmers Extension Groups in the regions of Oromia, Amhara, Sidama and Tigray. In the 3,435 gGroups that have been organised, 861 women now have the role of Lead Farmer (leading 4 farmers in our farmer-to-farmer peer learning) and 87 are leading the larger groups (DFEGs that consist on average of 25 farmers). When the project began, no women held such leadership positions due to traditional gender roles that favour men in decision-making positions.

In Mali, women are thriving as they reap the benefits of their participation in the EKN Mali-funded Programme for Sustainable Local Governance (PGLR) (2015-2020) Project. Young Leaders received trainings that prepared them to serve their communities and to help strengthen the social contract between citizens and government. Despite a heavy domestic burden, young women leaders are finding time to actively participate in community meetings of the Public Services Management Offices and 3,322 women have been integrated into community service offices by mandate from their regional districts.

Men supporting women

In Kenya and Vietnam, women leaders gained new skills in the 'Enhancing Opportunities for Women’s Enterprises' project funded by the Department of Social Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands under the ‘Funding Leadership Opportunities for Women’ (FLOW) framework. A final evaluation of the project conducted in 2020 showed impressive results.

In Vietnam, the women taking part in SNV’s household dialogues showed a 30% increase in self-confidence to be a community leader compared to before the intervention. They are also increasingly speaking up in meetings on community issues, and others in the community increasingly approve of this, compared to before the project.   At the same time, more women felt that their husbands would support them if they wanted to become community leaders. Men in the household dialogues showed an increase in their perception of women as leaders, and there was a large drop in the percentage of men thinking that if their wife was a community leader this would have a negative effect on their children, and an increase in the percentage of men willing to take over household tasks if their wife would be a community leader.

Generation equality

Funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) and the EKN, the Opportunities for Youth Employment (OYE) Mozambique Project is training young women to be community leaders and raise awareness on COVID-19 safety through campaigns on hygiene and social responsibility. OYE leaders collaborated with the District Service of Health Women and Social Affairs (SDMAS) to learn about COVID-19 prevention measures and acquired tools and skills to help inform the public. As community leaders, they disseminate this very important information through SMS and WhatsApp messages to fellow group members and to other community members.

Women’s participation as decision-makers in their households, communities, and governments is essential to a rapid and inclusive post-pandemic recovery. Even though many women are struggling right now to survive the COVID-19 global health emergency, they continue to sacrifice and risk their own health to take on leadership roles to help their communities. We can be hopeful for the future of women’s leadership in a COVID-19 world because women are strong, resilient agents of change. It is up to us as a society to provide the enabling environment, free from violence and discrimination, to support women and to recognise them for the powerful leaders that they are.