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Sensitizing Pakistan’s female breadwinners to the risks of COVID-19 — via WhatsApp

©FAO/ Pakistan

Until the outbreak of COVID-19 in Pakistan, many families living within Muzaffargarh, an arid district in the eastern province of Punjab, kept cows and goats as dairy livestock. Mansab Mai, a mother of seven, supplemented her husband’s and eldest son’s earnings as daily wage laborers with regular milk sales.

But when the country went into a two-month countrywide lockdown on March 21 2020, potential buyers stayed home and Mansab saw demand disappear overnight—along with her husband’s and son’s work.

To keep the household afloat, Mansab relied on seeds and training she received as part of FAO’s women’s Farmer Field School (FFS), which uses experiential, field-based group learning to teach both traditional and innovative farming methods. Along with a distribution of canola seeds, FAO supplied hands-on technical support and harvesting techniques, allowing Mansab to sow the seeds in early winter using a family plot of land.

The canola plot flowered during Pakistan’s spring lockdown, making up for the family’s lost earnings. “The harvest brought welcome relief to our family,” said Mansab. “The profit we made from selling the canola will help us get by during these difficult times.”

There have been over 285 000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan as of mid-August 2020, including over 80 000 in Punjab alone. Measures to contain the pandemic’s breakneck spread have dealt a crushing blow to rural workers, putting the country’s most vulnerable in even more precarious straits. But while male wage laborers stayed home jobless, barred from accessing informal livelihood opportunities, women stepped in to replace lost income using newly acquired agricultural skills.

However, as these female breadwinners continue to step up to the economic front lines, they are encountering new risks of virus transmission.

“Men were helpless to move outside to do labor work, so women helped support their families,” said Deeba Shaheen, a FAO Farmer Field School facilitator in Muzaffargarh and former lawyer with Pakistan’s Ministry of Women Development. “[But] they have no masks, no hand sanitizer. They don’t have the same awareness that we have at city level.”

According to a recent policy brief from UN Women on the gendered impact of COVID-19, only 55 percent of women in Pakistan have access to adequate healthcare – as little as 25 percent in rural areas. Yet the pandemic is disproportionately impacting Pakistani women. Along with new farming ventures, women’s prescribed roles as domestic caregivers increase their risk of virus exposure. While they are expected to tend to sick household members, women have no downtime for recovery if they fall ill themselves.

To increase awareness about the risks of COVID-19 among rural women, FAO Pakistan harnessed the Farmer Field School platform to disseminate crucial information on virus prevention. In Muzaffargarh, each school draws about 25-35 female participants. Along with livestock management, organic pesticides, kitchen gardens, and climate-smart agriculture, the schools now emphasize COVID-19 mitigation practices, from routine handwashing to physical distancing guidelines.

The trainings themselves are also being conducted at a distance, using popular messaging platforms to stream sessions and teach COVID-19-safe protocols.

“We are organizing sessions via WhatsApp and Skype and we orient our field farmers about the COVID-19 situation,” explained Deeba. Many women are unaware of the dangers posed by the pandemic, and might even be skeptical. “We try to convince them,” Deeba added. “Some of them with relatives in city areas are conscious and they are sensitive. Others have no experience.”

In Pakistan, around 40 percent of people are unable to read and write, especially in rural areas. Illiteracy rate is highest among Pakistani women, hovering at just over 50 percent, and also concentrated in remoter districts. Coupled with rural women’s more sedentary lifestyles, this has created obstacles in targeting remote female audiences. Personalized, social media-based communications help override this gendered information gap.

After the first week of July, two months after the end of Pakistan’s national lockdown, Muzaffargarh’s Farmer Field School trainings cautiously returned to the field. In addition to posters and awareness messages shared on Skype and WhatsApp, small Urdu-language brochures were also distributed to participants, who are still adhering to strict distancing requirements. “We are in mask and gloves,” said Deeba. “We are very careful.”

Through regular remote and field-based training sessions, women like Mansab Mai have been able to master new income-generating farming activities while keeping clear of the virus. Key messages about safeguarding the community, even in the absence of individual symptoms, have caught on. “They may not suffer or feel the negative impacts on their bodies, but maybe they can spread to others. So be careful and keep distance to others,” said Deeba, summarizing the advice she gives her students.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, FAO Pakistan plans to upscale its distanced-based awareness campaigns. Though initial impacts are still being determined, the interventions can feasibly be replicated to target other remote communities around the world, especially with low literacy rates.

As for the female farmers of Muzaffargarh, they have now taken up Deeba’s cause of sharing COVID-19-safe practices, added the facilitator: “They learned our messages and tried to convey this message to other women also.”


This article is made possible by the support provided by the European Union, under the Partnership Programme contributing to the Global Network Against Food Crises, and the American People through the U.S. Agency for International Development. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union, USAID, or the United States Government.

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