How women in crisis settings are coping with COVID-19

May 25, 2020

Women are the backbone of the global response to COVID-19. They make up the majority of health-care workers, and they perform 76 per cent of the world’s unpaid care work, including for the sick. The UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan to counteract the coronavirus puts women at its heart, recognizing that investing in women and girls is the best way to produce dividends for everyone. In this piece, we hear from women and girls in Nigeria, Guatemala and Venezuela on how COVID-19 is affecting their lives and how they are responding — from countering misinformation to getting food to their families and refusing to give up on the dream of an education for their children.

Aishatu Kabu, Nigeria

Aishatu Kabu in Borno State, north-east Nigeria

A decade-long conflict in north-east Nigeria has forced over 1.8 million people from their homes. Aishatu is one of them. She was pulled out of school and forced into marriage at age 17. Herself a survivor of gender-based violence, Aishatu now runs an organization that helps fellow survivors among the displaced population. To fund this work, she uses the proceeds from a poultry farm that she runs with other women. But the business has been crippled due to movement restrictions related to the coronavirus. “For women and girls in north-east Nigeria, financial independence is the best way to protect ourselves against violence and abuse. The loss of economic opportunity because of COVID-19 is not just about money, it’s about the safety of women.” Despite the hardship imposed by COVID-19, Aishatu says she understands first-hand the struggles women and girls in her community face. “This gives me the zeal to work to end their suffering.”

Victoria Yohann, Nigeria

Victoria Yohann, Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria

Victoria sells drinks in sachets to fellow camp residents, having set up the business with a US$10 microloan from the Food and Agriculture Organisation. On a good day she could earn $3. But business has trickled to only a few sales per day since the COVID-19 lockdown. “Since then I have made very little money. My husband has not worked. It is only God that is helping us survive,” she says. Victoria and her family crossed the rocky Mandara Mountains to flee to Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria when violence came to her town. It’s still too dangerous to return home. More than anything the pandemic carries a crushing loneliness, says Victoria. “Maiduguri is not our home. Now we have no family to turn to for help.” Prior to COVID-19, 5 million people were acutely food insecure in Nigeria’s 16 northern states. Victoria and her four children now survive mainly on maize, which lacks nutrients and energy. “I pray this coronavirus will end soon, for the sake of my family. I do not want my children to suffer from no education the way I have. I still hope to educate them one day.”

Fatima Suleiman, Nigeria

Fatima Suleiman, Borno State, north-east Nigeria

Fatima, 42, is a widow with eight children in Sulimanti IDP camp. Boko Haram insurgents killed her husband one night as he sat outside chatting with other men in their village back home. Most of the residents of the camp are women and girls. Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency distributes food, but only intermittently. It is difficult for Fatima to obey lockdown rules, as she must go out to beg to get enough food to eat. It has been particularly difficult for men in the camp to follow lockdown guidelines, says Fatima, as they are reluctant to break traditional customs, such as bathing and praying for the deceased before burial. Many of them believe the coronavirus is a myth. “I have often heard men arguing on the existence of the coronavirus,” says Fatima. “Some argue it is a ploy by officials to amass wealth for themselves…My fear is that these stubborn men will put their wives and children at great risk of contracting the disease.”

Fatima used to work as a cook, preparing food for naming or wedding ceremonies. She is used to working day and night and earning enough to support her family, but that work has now come to a standstill. “Since this COVID-19 came, I haven’t been able to lay my hands on even 5 naira (US2 cents) to call my own. My clients are afraid I may bring the disease into their homes, and I am also afraid to go to these wealthy people’s houses, as I was made to learn they were the ones who brought the disease into the country.” It is now Ramadan, and Fatima has been breaking the fast with kunu (gruel) and water instead of the bean cake, watermelon, yams and oranges that she’s used to. Her 24-year-old son tries to help by picking up odd jobs, and he makes sure there is always water and soap in the house. Despite the hunger and economic pain, Fatima says: “We are coping well. We try to discuss the challenges as a family and we try to comfort each other.”

Fanna Saje, north-east Nigeria

Fanna Saje, Maiduguri, Borno State, north-east Nigeria

Fanna works for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) counselling people affected by the conflict in the north-east. COVID-19 continues to spread in that area, and Borno is now the fourth worst-affected state in Nigeria, with 116 confirmed cases and 14 deaths. COVID-19 has complicated IOM’s work. “We used to draw large groups during our sessions, but now we conduct door-to-door counselling with groups of four to five people,” said Fanna. Misinformation is proving to be one of the challenges of the pandemic. “Some of the camp residents don’t believe that the virus exists or that it only affects foreigners; others think that this is an act of God and they will be spared,” she added.

Fanna says that COVID-19 adds more tension to lives already full of fear. In the four years since she began working as an IOM mobile team member, she has heard countless testimonies that paint a grim picture of a life under fire. The ongoing conflict between Nigerian forces and non-State armed groups has robbed entire communities of their homes, their livelihoods and, most tragically, their loved ones. Many people have trouble sleeping after these experiences. Fanna said: “They often ask me ‘Is Boko Haram coming here?’ During the counselling sessions, they open up about their fears. These men and women left their homes and saw violence first-hand… Some of them have told me that they still have flashbacks of the attacks.” Fanna is resolute in continuing her work despite the increased risks from COVID-19. These include risks to her own mother and five siblings. “Building trust and promoting positive coping mechanisms are extremely important,” she says. “I show people that I take the threat of COVID-19 very seriously.”

Gilda Esperanza Ixen Cum, Guatemala

Gilda Esperanza Ixen Cum, 42, Guatemala

Gilda, a widow with three girls aged 15, 6 and 4, is a member of the Mayan Cakchiquel indigenous group in Patzún, Chimaltenango. She is the President of the Women’s Cooperative AJSUM, which produces soya milk products, and is supported by NGO CARE. She explains: “We have suffered losses in the past, but we have never had a crisis like this before. My whole family has been affected by COVID-19. My mother can no longer go out to sell in the market, and other family members have been fired or suspended from their jobs. There are many agricultural producers here, but the markets have fallen now and there are food shortages. Cooperative members have no income but we must continue to pay the operating costs and we don’t know how long we can do so. In the worst-case scenario, we will have to suspend the cooperative.” A natural entrepreneur, Gilda is looking into other types of products or services the community will need once the crisis is over. “But we need capital to start again. It will take time to recover. Food prices are rising, and child malnutrition and poverty will rise. This will hit women like us hardest as we do not have a fixed income.” The cooperative is her lifeline in a crisis, she says. “The cooperative makes us feel we are not alone. We are also trying to support other women who need help. We are not experts, but we are trying to be strong to help them. We must keep on going and we must not get discouraged.”

Rosa Marchan, Venezuela

Rosa Marchan, Venezuela

Rosa is a single mother of five, including 18-month-old twins. She says that while she’s worried about COVID-19, her primary concern is how to get enough for her children to eat. “I feel like I’m drowning,” she said. “I need to work to support my children.” The twins have already suffered through two bouts of malnutrition over the past 12 months. Rosa and her children do not have their own home and live with her mother, who works in a health clinic. “This disease has affected everything in my life. I can’t go out and look for work. I’m locked up, worried.” Rosa receives help with essential items, food and nutritional treatment for her children from the NGO Caritas Venezuela.

How women in crisis settings are coping with COVID-19 was originally published in Humanitarian Dispatches on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.