Women are champions of pandemic survival in Senegal and Burkina Faso

News | Published at: November 18 2021

Women are champions of pandemic survival in Senegal and Burkina Faso

To protect the population from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments in West Africa quickly closed their borders and put in place measures such as travel restrictions, closure of gathering places (including markets, schools, and places of worship), and at times even curfews to force people to return home at night. Rural communities in these areas depend on their agricultural production and the income from the sale of these products to purchase food. For example, in northern Senegal near the Senegal River Delta, communities rely primarily on rice and market garden produce, livestock, and transportation. Sanitary measures and restrictions have disrupted the fragile livelihoods in these areas. How do you sell onions, tomatoes - perishable foods - if the markets are closed and you can't travel? How can the women traders who used to bring these goods to town or across the border find income?

To better understand how community food security has been affected by the disruption caused by the sanitary measures, CECI joined forces with three universities: Brock University in Canada, the Centre d'Études, de Documentation et de Recherches Economiques et Sociales (CEDRES) of the Université Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, and the École Nationale Supérieure d'Agriculture (ENSA) of the Université Iba Der Thiam de Thiès in Senegal. CECI brought its expertise in the field of gender, particularly in gender equality. It also aimed to assess whether, in the face of these upheavals, the traditional sharing of roles between men and women in the food sphere had changed. If so, this change in roles could potentially serve as a lever for women's organizations - with whom CECI is working in other projects, including Women's Voice and Leadership (VLF) to improve gender equality in both countries after the pandemic.

With funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the year-long study was conducted in four border areas of the Centre-Sud and Hauts-Bassins regions of Burkina Faso and the North (St-Louis) and South (Kolda/Sédhiou) regions of Senegal. The study combines a qualitative approach with semi-structured interviews followed by a participatory/collaborative approach called co-construction. A total of 89 farmers (45% women), 100 traders (60% women), and 73 local leaders (26% women) participated in the interviews (March-May 2021), which focused on the effects of sanitary measures on the four pillars of food security as defined by the FAO (availability, access to food, utilization/preparedness and stability over time).

Co-construction workshops were then organized with 8 groups of about 10 men and 10 women (from May to July 2021). Through the use of scenarios, photos, sketch maps and power graphics, the groups analyzed - men and women separately and then together - the changes experienced during the pandemic in relation to food security but also the changes, opportunities and potential tensions in the relationships between women and men during this period. This culminated in a results-sharing and co-analysis workshop in each of the four study areas -with communities, local leaders, and regional institutional actors- in which they reflected on potential solutions to the challenges they faced using a problem/solution tree (September 2021). The results were then shared and discussed with institutional and civil society actors at the national level (October 2021).

The researchers were able to highlight the fragility of food security in these border areas, which are largely dependent on trade for food. With the arrival of the pandemic, measures restricting movement and closing markets have made it difficult to access agricultural inputs, which have become scarce and very expensive. With no one allowed to gather, each household was left alone to work on its plot. How could they continue to produce?

Financially dependent on sales of their produce, on small businesses (closed) or on informal jobs in agricultural trade or transport (now prohibited), the men can no longer bring home food. They are stuck at home, lost, feeling helpless.

The women, on the other hand, seeing their hungry children, are forced to find solutions here and there to find a few pennies and food of lesser quality. In spite of everything, they are forced to reduce the portions and the frequency of meals. They do not hesitate to sacrifice their share for the benefit of their children and their husbands, running all the risks that this entails for their health. 

The man tries to help with the household chores but this helps little, because like the men, the women have lost their usual freedom at home and this generates tension. This tension is exacerbated by the stress caused by hunger and distrust caused by the pandemic. Usually, when there are difficulties, people in the communities gather to reflect together, but even this is forbidden today.

The study reveals several facets of the undeniable link between the health response to the pandemic and the effects on community food security. It also highlights the key role that women played during critical times, and continue to play today. The men salute their courage and perseverance to feed their families and communities. The co-construction approach itself was highly appreciated by the communities, which gave them tools to analyze their daily lives and problems. The workshops gave a voice to women who traditionally did not easily speak up in assemblies. As co-constructors of this knowledge, they carry the messages to their decision-makers in an attempt to bring about desired changes.

"It is thanks to the skills of our facilitator that I am beginning to speak in public" participant in the workshop in Senegal

The results are being analyzed and written up and will be available soon. Learn more about the project.

Written by Isabelle Vandeplas and Fatoumata L. Balde, CECI

CNCR, IPAR and ASPRODEB. 2020. Effects of covid-19 on family farms and producer organizations members of CNCR in Senegal; Niang, M. and Faye C. 2020. Effects of covid-19 on agricultural and rural households in Senegal; add ref burkina
2 CNCR and IPAR. 2020. Newsletter, The Farmer's Way: Special Series COVID-19 & Agriculture | Nº 001 - July 2020
3 Local leaders include: leaders of farmers' organizations, cooperatives and women's groups; heads of Village Development Committees (VDCs); traditional leaders; etc.
For more information on the pillars of food security - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  FAO (2008). "Food security: information for action. Introduction to food security concepts" Practical guide - EC-FAO Program "Food Security Information for Action" Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/a-al936f.pdf

Learn more about the project

To view the advocacy brief: Women as Key Actors of Food Resilience: A Reconfiguration of Gender Relations in Times of Pandemic COVID-19
Read the advocacy brief: Rethinking health measures for food security in times of pandemics COVID-19

This IDRC-funded research project was carried out in collaboration with Brock University in Canada, the Centre d'Études, de Documentation et de recherches économiques et sociales (CEDRES) of the Université Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, and the École Nationale Supérieure d'Agriculture (ENSA) of the Université Iba Der Thiam in Thiès, Senegal

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of IDRC or its Board of Governors.