Five ways the COVID-19 response supports women and girls

May 6, 2020

Rosa Marchan and her children live in San Felipe, Venezuela. Credit: Caritas, Venezuela

Rahmo Mohamed and Rosa Marchan are both single mothers but living on different continents. Just a few months ago, neither could have imagined their lives being turned upside down by a common threat: COVID-19.

Rahmo is an internally displaced person (IDP) living in a makeshift shelter with her 10 children outside the Somali capital, Mogadishu. She says: “Health personnel are telling us to practice physical distancing. But do you think that can work in an overcrowded settlement like this one? We have to do whatever we can do to sustain our families.”

Rosa, a mother of six in San Felipe, Venezuela, worries every morning about how to feed her children. “This disease has affected everything in my life. I can’t go out and look for work. I feel like I’m drowning, locked up, worried…I need to work to support my children.”

Rahmo runs her own household and trades out of a small kiosk in the IDP settlement. Rosa’s mother heads the household and also works at a local medical clinic.

Fortunately, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have stepped up to provide support to women living in such conditions. Rahmo receives a monthly cash allowance of US$60 from a humanitarian organization, while Rosa and her family receive food, hygiene and nutritional supplements from international NGO Caritas.

Rahmo Mohamed sells vegetables outside Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit: OCHA/Mursal

The UN and partners are working to ensure that the needs and safety of women such as Rahmo and Rosa are addressed through the $2 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP). The funds will be used to help fight the COVID-19 virus in the world’s poorest countries, including Somalia and Venezuela.

Preliminary findings show that more men than women are dying of the disease, potentially due to sex-based immunological differences, higher rates of cardiovascular disease for men, and lifestyle choices, such as smoking. However, it is now clear that the disease has made more women and girls vulnerable.

Globally, 70 per cent of women are front-line health-care workers or service staff, such as cleaners, who are highly exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Women and girls are often the primary caregivers and forced to take risks to feed their families. For example, 70 to 90 per cent of street food vendors in Myanmar, who are women, have to go out to work.

The UN and its partner organizations on the ground are ensuring that the voices of women such as Rosa and Rahmo are heard.

Here are five ways the GHRP and other humanitarian projects are providing support to women and girls:

Women across Libya say the pandemic has affected their work. Credit: OCHA/Giles Clarke

1.Strong gender analysis to ensure humanitarian action meets the distinct and different needs of women, girls, boys and men.

OCHA in Libya reports that such analysis is already being undertaken in the conflict-affected country. Fifty-two per cent of women who responded to recent UN Women survey in Libya indicated that the pandemic had already affected their work, and 26 per cent believed that their livelihood source would be affected if COVID-19 curfews were extended.

The data shows that women in Libya are 12 times more likely to be unemployed and earn nearly three times less than men. At the same time, the report revealed that COVID-19 has increased Libyan women’s fear of gender-based violence (GBV), particularly domestic violence.

OCHA in Nigeria reports that although men’s health seems to be more affected by the COVID-19 virus, vulnerable households with women and girls, especially those from IDP communities, are particularly affected by the lasting secondary impacts of the outbreak. With that in mind, aid workers in north-east Nigeria have already adapted their programmes. They are also holding a rapid gender analysis to evaluate early responses and identify specific needs, as the pandemic and the virus are presenting new and unprecedented challenges.

With funding from the Nigeria Humanitarian Fund, local civil society organization,Jireh Doo Foundation is providing training to internally displaced women and girls at a camp in north-east Nigeria. credit: OCHA/Eve Sabbagh

2. Consult with women and women’s groups in designing and implementing the interventions.

In Nigeria, specific focus group discussions are being held with women and girls in IDP camps where COVID-19 cases have been recorded. Women from the affected communities, including female-headed households and girls, have highlighted the key needs for women in the community to be considered for humanitarian interventions. Sensitization sessions on the virus have helped women feel empowered with the information, as they now better understand how to protect themselves and their families, and they have the courage to ask family members to isolate themselves after being in contact with suspected carriers of the virus.

The incidence of domestic violence has increased in the past few months. Credit: OCHA/Alioune Ndiaye

3. Ensure COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns do not expose women and girls to additional harm.

The incidence of domestic violence has increased since the lockdowns began, as women and girls have often been confined in homes with their abusers. Mobile teams from the International Organization for Migration in Nigeria carry out door-to-door awareness missions on COVID-19, during which they also inform displaced people about GBV prevention and where to access related services. Existing safe spaces in north-east Nigeria have been equipped with a series of simply constructed private phone booths/stalls where survivors can call GBV case workers who are on standby at set times to offer support.

Women refugees at a food distribution in a camp in South Sudan. Credit: UNHCR

4. Adopt interventions that recognize, reduce and redistribute the unpaid care and household responsibilities assigned to women and girls, and safeguard their dignity.

Mercy Corps in Nigeria is prioritizing female recipients in its interventions by selecting female-headed households for food, cash and shelter assistance. It is also selecting more women as community hygiene promoters and nutrition promoters for house-to-house COVID-19 sensitization. An electronic platform for food assistance showed that 70 per cent of people who did not turn up for food assistance are pregnant and lactating women, as they had to return home early to prepare meals, care for their children and carry out household chores. Mercy Corps is now ensuring that such women are prioritized during the monthly food distribution.

Eutur Nafra is a volunteer in Idleb, Syria, working to create awareness on COVID-19. Credit: OCHA

5. Involve more women organizations in decision-making on response.

To ensure women’s voices are heard, it is crucial to have women leaders in decision-making bodies. In Lebanon, the Humanitarian Country Team has arranged for the full participation of ABAAD, a resource centre for gender equality, in its decision-making. In Afghanistan, UN Women and the International Rescue Committee have activated a Gender Working Group to consult with gender experts to ensure that women’s experiences and leadership are included in response efforts.