Image: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images
Marginalised people can become even more vulnerable in global health emergencies such as the current COVID-19 pandemic due to a number of factors including limited access to health services. Previous epidemics have illustrated that primary caregivers to the ill are predominately women and that women and girls experience increased risks of gender-based violence including sexual exploitation.
There are a number of factors that put women and girls at disproportionate risk in public health emergencies, including:
- Women make up large parts of the health workforce;
- Primary caregivers to the ill are predominately women. This caregiving burden is likely to cause their physical and mental health to suffer and impede their access to education, livelihood sources, and other critical support;
- Women are more likely to be engaged in the informal sector and be hardest hit economically by COVID-19;
- Women experience increased risks of gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation;
- Cultural factors may exclude women from decision-making spaces and restrict their access to information on outbreaks and availability of services;
- Women might experience interrupted access to sexual and reproductive health services, including to family planning;
- In some cultural contexts, gender roles may dictate women cannot obtain health services independently or from male service providers.
Social isolation policies can also put a disproportionate pressure on women and girls due to:
- Additional childcare responsibilities, that more commonly fall on women;
- Women and girls who are in abusive relationships may be unable to leave a dangerous environment;
- Services supported survivors of violence are unable to offer shelter or in person counselling sessions.
We are fully aware that there will be some disruptions to what we and our project partners want to accomplish over the coming months. However, both they and us are taking measures to ensure that our teams and the beneficiaries are supported in their work and that the risks are minimised as much as possible. It goes without saying how proud and inspired we are by the unending commitment, flexibility and drive that is being shown by everyone to ensure our impactful projects continue as best they can. Saying that, we want to keep you as informed as possible about this issue and what the impact may be on marginalised women and girls around the globe.
Violence Against Women and Girls
Public health, the economy, and women and girls’ safety and bodily autonomy are inextricably linked.
Social Development Direct, following a request from the UK Department for International Development, reviewed the evidence of how COVID-19 might impact on violence against women and girls and lessons learnt from recent epidemics.
Emerging evidence suggests that COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to increase the risks of:
- Domestic violence, with police reports in China showing that domestic violence tripled during the epidemic.
- Violence against healthcare workers, due to the serious stress that the pandemic places on patient, their relatives and other healthcare workers. Racial and sexual harassment (both online and offline), with anecdotal reports targeted sexualised attacks against women of East Asian appearance.
- Abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women workers, including street-based sex workers and migrant domestic workers.
- Sexual exploitation and violence by state officials and armed guards.
Nonceba Family Counselling Centre
South Africa has gone into lockdown in an attempt to avoid a “catastrophe of huge proportions” said the president. This is a difficult time for everyone, but services such as the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre are facing additional challenges. The Centre support a community where there is high-population density, a high level of overcrowding and poverty that makes it extremely difficult to self-isolate. Women and girls in Khayelitsha are already vulnerable to intimate partner violence, but the fear, tension and stress related to the COVID-19 outbreak will only intensify the risks they face.
In addition to this, most of the women in the shelter are HIV positive and rely on the Nonceba Centre for access to healthcare. With the additional pressure on healthcare services globally, the Centre is working to ensure the safety of all of the women and children using its services.
Image: Siyanda at The Nonceba Family Counselling Centre
Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis
For women and children experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence, home is not always a place of safety. Perpetrators will use infection control measures as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour. According to the Joint Statement on COVID-19 from VAWG services across the UK:
“Access to support for women and children may also shrink further due to social isolation and those in poverty will be severely impacted.”
Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis are working to adapt and prepare for the potentially increased pressure on their services and also the restrictions on the services that they are able to offer. As a result of the crisis, they are currently unable to offer face-to-face support in any capacity and will therefore be running increased hours on their helpline. They can now be reached Monday to Friday, 11am to 4pm.
A Living Wage
Public health emergencies can have a tremendous, sustained impact on livelihoods. This can be particularly true for women, who are more likely to be engaged in informal or low-wage activities or migrant work. The global pandemic has caused chaos and suffering for millions of garment workers across the Global South. Many factories in garment-producing countries have closed due to a shortage of raw materials from China and cancelled orders from clothing brands across the world.
“I have talked to some workers and they were saying ‘more than the virus we might die of hunger’ because they don’t have access to food”
The Clean Clothes Campaign is asking brands to ensure that workers who contract the virus are allowed to take sick leave without repercussions and continue to receive wages throughout self-isolation. There have also been reports of garment workers being forced to work in cramped conditions, without protective wear, despite governments introducing social distancing policies across the globe.
Although our Living Wage Project will be able to continue remotely throughout this crisis, the women and girls that it is working to empower will be severely impacted by the short-term decisions being made by brands and retailers, not only for their own personal safety, but for their livelihoods in the long-term.
Image: A Female Garment Worker/Labour Behind the Label
The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network
For the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, their preparations to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on both their members and their activities are still speculative at this stage. In the MENA region, there are comparatively few confirmed cases right now, but states have taken early-stage measures to prevent the spread of the virus including social distancing and curfews. However, the Network has over 130 local members in more than 15 countries across the region, so the impact will vary greatly.
The pandemic could result in a number of challenges for the local, female journalists in the Network including limited job opportunities and a greater demand for mental health support during this difficult time, which will be even more difficult to provide remotely.
However, the Network is working hard with donors and partner organisations to ensure that they can respond flexibly to the needs of their members as best as they can and to strengthen the capacity of their remote activities.
To support the Network and the journalists who are at the frontline, reporting stories of global importance from some of the most dangerous places in the world, head to their website.
It is clear that COVID-19 is continuing to spread throughout India, and at a rapidly accelerating rate. In addition, Maharashtra state is emerging as the epicentre for the pandemic in India.
Educate Girls reached out to us to inform us of the steps they are taking to ensure the safety of both their staff and the communities that they serve. They confirmed that the implications of this lockdown will be severe on the communities they work in, particularly on girls. This is because most of the communities are severely marginalised and zero mobility and loss of income streams will put immense pressure on families.
Not only have they created an internal task force and provided a helpline number to assister their field team members, but they have committed to additional financial support for employees and are working with contacts at the District level Government officials, village-based influencers and parents of out of school children to ensure there is no drop in their communication. Finally, they will continue to deliver trainings whilst all teams are working from home and hope that this will enable them to emerge improved and ready to deliver better.
Evidence suggests that during past public health emergencies, resources have been diverted from routine health care services toward containing and responding to the outbreak. These reallocations constrain already limited access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, such as clean and safe deliveries, contraceptives, and pre- and post-natal health care. As a charity that exists to support vulnerable young people and their communities, our project partners Irise are enormously concerned about the impact COVID-19 is having and will continue to have on their community in East Africa.
“We know that our work is likely to be disrupted, and as one of our funders and partners, I wanted to assure you that we are putting in place a series of mitigation and adaptation plans as we learn more about the impact and scale of this pandemic.
We are worried about our staff. The majority of our team are women and face a disproportionate burden as primary caregivers to their children and wider families.
We are worried about the communities they serve who are struggling to access accurate health information and adequate healthcare.”
The organisation is running an emergency appeal to protect their staff and communities from COVID-19 and its impact. This special fund will be set aside to keep their staff and their families safe and enable them to access healthcare and other support over the coming week. This fund will ensure that every Irise member of staff’s income is secure and that they will get help to access healthcare if they need it, so that they can focus their energy on supporting families and communities during this difficult time.
For more information about our projects, click here.