OPINION - Marginalised women are being left behind in the coronavirus pandemic

by Brita Fernandez Schmidt | Women for Women International
Thursday, 7 May 2020 09:35 GMT

Women sit next to tents, at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

2020 should have been a ‘big year for women’s rights’. Instead, women living in conflict are being left behind

Brita Fernandez Schmidt is Executive Director of Women for Women International – UK.

2020 should have been a ‘big year for women’s rights’. An unprecedented number of high-level political meetings were planned throughout the year to push forward progress. Today, activists and women’s groups should be gathering in Mexico City for the kick off for UN Women’s Generation Equality Forum – a global gathering for urgent action, reflection and accountability for gender equality.

Instead, the forum is on hold while COVID-19 brutally exposes the cracks in our systems and threatens women’s power in the process. The pandemic is amplifying gender inequalities and power disparities. Poverty, insecurity and gender-based violence are spiraling. And those who are already unheard and unseen will be disproportionately impacted.

This is exactly what I am hearing from our colleagues on the frontlines of prevention and response, living in some of the most challenging and fragile contexts around the world. A Women for Women International programme participant from South Sudan told us, “COVID-19 is worse than our usual South Sudanese war because when you hear gun shots, you can run or hide. But you cannot hide from Coronavirus.”

Lockdown is a luxury that the poor cannot afford

Women perform 76.2% of unpaid care work globally, and so are more susceptible to contracting and transmitting COVID-19. In conflict zones, where unequal gender norms are most pronounced and living spaces are overcrowded (particularly in refugee camps), the risk is even greater.

To make it worse, conflict has destroyed their healthcare systems. Healthcare spending in the Democratic Republic of Congo is just $32 per capita, compared to over $3,300 per capita in the UK. In many contexts, non-COVID related but vital services such as sexual and reproductive healthcare have been stopped entirely.

We also know that many women living in poverty and conflict do not have access to mobile technology, live in particularly rural areas and have low literacy levels. The most typical way of sharing important information – face to face – has been ground to a halt by lockdowns. As a result, they are struggling to access accurate information to keep themselves, their families and their communities safe – including essential guidance on preventative measures such as social distancing and handwashing, as well as how to identify symptoms of the disease.

Not just a health crisis, but a humanitarian and economic one

COVID-19 is not just a health crisis, but also a humanitarian and economic one. Globally, data is emerging that shows a rise of violence against women.

Through our daily contact with women in conflict settings, we have already been informed of and responded to several cases of violence, most at the hands of their husbands. We assume that more women are facing violence at home but are afraid or unable to report it. This is exacerbated by lockdown measures that lead to social exclusion, food shortages and rising hunger, financial insecurity and job losses.

The economic shocks will be felt in the immediate and long term – and it will be women who pay the highest price. On top of this, for women living in the most fragile settings, COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate existing tensions, violence and stigmatisation.

The challenge is great, but so is the opportunity

It is striking to me that, over the past 25 years, the needs and rights of the most marginalised women living in the most challenging and fragile places have not been prioritised. These women have been failed by the international community before - we cannot let that happen again with COVID-19.

Importantly, women’s fundamental right to participate in processes that guide decisions around the pandemic is currently being outright denied, despite the leadership roles they are playing in the response itself. This is happening at all levels, from local to global, and will not serve any of us.

Instead, we urgently need to see a global pandemic response that is coordinated, inclusive and puts gender at its core. Governments and decision-makers must respond in a nuanced manner by understanding the specific realities of different women; take a holistic approach to women’s needs; actively engage women’s rights organisations; prioritise violence prevention and recovery; and proactively consider women’s economic rights, in the immediate and longer-term. The COVID-19 response must not leave women in conflict behind.

COVID-19 has served as a reminder that the existing, long-term challenges we face as a global community are exacerbated in times of crisis. And while the challenge is great, governments and international institutions can still make 2020 a year of critical action for gender equality by setting a pathway for a more just, equitable and resilient post-pandemic world.

 The opportunity is there – will they take it?