Can you hear me? Covid-19 and building women’s resilience in northern Ghana 

Covid-19 has been a major setback. But it could also help encourage new thinking on digital outreach and the necessary soft and hard infrastructure to enable such a transformation.

Esther Wahabu, Research Officer – Social Sciences, IWMI, Accra, Ghana

Women planting onions in the Upper East Region of Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby
Women planting onions in the Upper East Region of Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby

Covid-19 has been a huge barrier to women’s empowerment, both in the global north and the global south. In both regions, women have found themselves suddenly away from the workplace and back in the home, responsible for housekeeping and childcare once more. But in some places, Covid-19 results in much more serious repercussions.

In the Upper West Region of Ghana, targeted provision of information is one important way in which women can be empowered and rapidly change their position in a heavily patriarchal society. Covid-19 has, however, become a recent barrier, disrupting information flows on livelihood support programs, threatening rural women’s climate resilience and economic empowerment.

Normally, local gender officers who support women, work hard to break down these patriarchal structures, from a grassroots level. They organise advocacy programs and training workshops to help empower vulnerable groups.

“Our work is such that we get more results from the community level, the grassroots contact”, says  Charity Batuure, Head of Gender Department at the Upper West Regional Coordinating Council (UWRCC).

However, this year’s trainings have been erratic due to Covid-19. “We have not been able to effectively meet all the groups and it will affect the skills of those people”, says Yiryel.

New Covid-19 related anxieties and restrictions on public gatherings have limited interactions between gender officers and local communities. In-person programs and activities have been all but halted. Donor support has long since run dry, and district resources are being diverted to ‘Covid-19 support measures’ such as the construction of boreholes in market centers to provide populations with free access to water.

But fountains of information, as well as fountains of water are equally important. And in a region with a chronic lack of both equipment and soft computing skills in local communities – and the authorities who serve them – there has been an information drought under the pandemic. While radio has become a major outreach mechanism with programming covering a wide area and interactive sessions enabling listener input, some of the most remote and marginalized groups still have no access to these services. Outreach in person is the only practical way of providing technical support and enabling economic empowerment, especially for vulnerable women.

Pre-Covid-19 local authorities and development partners including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Upper West Region, spent time supporting women to diversify into other farm and non-farm income activities including soap making and shea butter processing. Additional on-farm training included making compost manure and land preparation methods that helped conserve soils and enhance water availability. But with no training this year, “…yields are going to decline” according to Linda Ninberewe, Gender Officer in Jirapa District.

Perhaps more than anything this situation shines a light on the key role played by local government in driving social transformation in rural communities. Building their capacity to understand and respond to change and to assess progress and monitor impact is key to future success in development programming. This is the focus of IWMI’s Resilience Against Climate Change Social Transformation Research and Policy Advocacy Project (REACH-STR), funded by the European Union. REACH-STR seeks to achieve more inclusive and sustainable economic growth policy, and programming in northern Ghana by 2025. Doing so will help Ghana attain key SDG 5 development targets.

But as the pandemic impedes the flow of knowledge which underpins transformation, a lack of sustained economic empowerment may result in more women and girls losing jobs or their education. Records from Ghana Health Service and Girl Child Offices in the districts show that teenage pregnancies, child marriages, and gender and sexual-based violence are rising. Planned educational campaigns on these issues have had to be postponed or cancelled. “If we take too long, I am afraid we might get back to ground zero and have to do everything all over again”, says  Ms. Batuure.

Ultimately, national government policy has to find ways round this major development challenge. Working out how to ensure continued information flows from local authorities to communities, and back again, is vital. Covid-19 has been a major setback. But it could also help encourage new thinking on digital outreach and the necessary soft and hard infrastructure to enable such a transformation.  Nothing can replace face-to face contact, but when that’s impossible, a better alternative can – and should – be found.

Implementation partners for the REACH-STR project are the University of Ghana – Centre for Migration Studies, University for Development Studies (UDS) and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – Science and Technology Policy Research Institute.

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