By Molly Martin
Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed dangerous vulnerabilities for women and girls around the world. The social, political and economic effects of the virus have deepened pre-existing inequalities as they generally suffer from lower wages and insecure employment, and often bear the burden of unpaid family care and household duties. All of these pre-existing challenges are amplified in the context of conflict and fragility, where access to supportive services is typically lacking.
In response to these challenges, peace operations have taken special measures to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic on women as part of their efforts to implement the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Despite the operational challenges the virus presents, peacekeepers remain committed to protecting and supporting women, throughout the pandemic and beyond.
Here are a few ways peace operations are partnering with women to amplify their voices in decision-making processes and ensure their well-being during the pandemic.
Equipping women to stop the pandemic
Having access to fact-based information is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Distributing this information can pose a challenge, especially when working in rural areas with limited access to media. Several peace operations have conducted special outreach to women to ensure they are equipped to stop the spread of the virus within their families and communities.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO organized an awareness session on COVID-19 for women in Bunia. Peacekeepers explained the COVID-19 symptoms, its modes of transmission and the prevention measures they can take to stop the spread of the virus.
While maintaining proper social distance, MINUSCA police meets with local women in the Central African Republic to share information on staying safe during the pandemic.
In Darfur, the Human Rights Section and Child Protection Unit of UNAMID has conducted special outreach to internally displaced women and girls in Golo. The peace operation distributed hygiene materials and dignity kits as well as hand-washing supplies to slow the spread of the virus.
Supporting women leaders
Lasting peace and security can only be achieved if all members of society are equally engaged in decision-making and leadership. Women, therefore, must be an essential part of the COVID-19 response and recovery process in local communities, and continue to be key players in advancing the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. Peacekeepers are working to ensure that women’s voices are central to political and peace processes and in all policies and actions responding to COVID-19.
In Mali, MINUSMA took action to ensure women could campaign and vote in the April legislative elections despite the additional challenges of the pandemic. As a result of these efforts, women now comprise 28% of parliamentarians — a significant increase from 9.5% and more than the global average. Women leaders have also played a prominent role in mediating between disputing parties in the on-going political unrest following the elections.
In the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is supporting preparations for the country’s upcoming presidential elections. In addition to technical, logistical and security support ahead of the elections, the peace operation is conducting voter registration and outreach initiatives for local women, to encourage them to participate and make their voices heard.
Arsène Gbaguidi, Director of the Electoral Division of MINUSCA, said that the engagement of women in the electoral process “is very important for the development of the country, the representation of women, [and] the well-being of women and girls.”
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO has trained local women’s networks in mediation to enhance their conflict resolution and Conflict Violence Reduction efforts as they pushed for armed groups to respect the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.
In Kosovo, UNMIK has joined the European Union in supporting women leaders through professional development and network building. The joint project is aimed at building gender-responsive and inclusive political and peace processes, which will be more important than ever in the global COVID-19 response.
Danijela Vujicic, Former Chief of Cabinet in the Kosovo Ministry for Agriculture spoke about the importance of having greater representation of women in positions of power, saying, “Our value is not diminished by one’s inability to recognize it. We seek freedom more than power and power only because it enables freedom.”
Building new skills for economic empowerment
The COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the global economy, and the fall out is compounded for women. Emerging evidence has shown that women’s economic and productive lives are being affected disproportionately, as women generally earn less than men, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. Peacekeeping operations have taken these trends into account as they support local women to find new income generation opportunities during the pandemic.
In South Sudan, UNMISS peacekeepers led a three-month tailoring course for 16 local women. The women learned new sewing skills that will help them earn an income and produce masks for their local community.
“Now I will look for a place to set up shop at the market and be my own boss rather than wait for my monthly salary from the local government to be paid,” says 35-year-old Rekella Tande Ukoti, a graduate of the programme.
UNMIK is taking a similar approach to tackle the economic slowdown and shortage of critical medical supplies in Kosovo. The peace operation has supported 54 women in Mitrovica as they have sewn more than 24,000 face masks for vulnerable families in the region.
In addition to the fabric and materials needed to sew the masks, the women were also given extra supplies to support their own business ventures and secure their livelihoods during the pandemic.
Helen Maloku, one of the sewers, spoke of the support she received from the programme and the opportunity to give back to her community. “I’m an older woman, and my sons didn’t have salaries during this state of emergency. I have enough material to continue sewing masks [and] I see that people need them,” Maloku said.
Protecting women and preventing sexual violence
Protection of civilians is a core mandate of many peacekeeping operations, and it remains a key priority during the pandemic. While restricted movement and social isolation measures have been implemented in many communities to curb the spread of the virus, these restrictions have intensified domestic abuse and sexual violence against women and girls. Peacekeeping operations have taken special measures to combat such crimes by fostering a protective environment and partnering with women’s organizations and women’s protection networks during the pandemic.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peacekeepers connect with local girls and young women during their daily patrols to raise awareness for the prevention of sexual violence in their communities.
UN Police deployed with MONUSCO have also organized a workshop for judicial police officers of the Congolese National Police on best practices for investigating crimes of sexual violence and protecting victims and children.
Chikoroko Kamulete, commander of the Child Police Squadron for the fight against sexual violence in Uvira spoke of how he can use the skills he learned in the workshop to better serve and protect the local population. “From this moment and in my capacity, I will see to the application of the lessons received. This workshop further awakened our sense of inquiry; thus, we are committed to the protection of victims and the effectiveness of the fight against impunity.”
Building a better future
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed our world, one thing remains the same — peacekeepers are committed to partnering with women and ensuring their leadership in political and peace processes. This support will continue throughout the pandemic and beyond, as we build back better towards a more equal future.
Read more on UN Peacekeeping’s response to COVID-19 here.
Molly Martin is intern at the UN Department of Peace Operations’ Strategic Communications Section.