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We Are Fighting Two Enemies at the Same Time: a Deadly Virus and a Deadlier Hunger

By Bea Cordia

NEW YORK (IDN) – COVID-19 has shattered the entire world. As a result of what some people have called the ‘Great Lockdown’, economic activity has plummeted, borders have been closed, and national health systems are on the edge of collapse.

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, more than 250,000 people have died from the highly contagious disease, which spread across geographical, racial and ethnic borders. The worst, however, is yet to come.

In conflict-affected countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of pressure. As stated by the UN and other international organizations, tackling this ‘enemy’ is doubly hard in these fragile states, where the spread of the disease may result in escalating violence, stalled peace processes, and weaker governance.

The global health crisis has not created these issues; it has simply exacerbated many preexisting political and institutional failures in countries dealing with or emerging from conflict.

Amidst these challenges, women have played a critical role responding to COVID-19 and dealing with the humanitarian aspect of the crisis as frontline healthcare workers. In addition, they have also provided psychological and emotional support to those in need, and have combatted the spread of misinformation.

“It’s very simple: women know what their communities want and need, and what solutions work them”, Chouchou Namegabe, a passionate radio journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), explained in an event organized by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) on April 24.

Namegabe is the founder of the South Kivu Women’s Media Association (AFEM), an organization dedicated to sharing the stories of rape survivors and raising awareness of the widespread use of sexual violence by rebel groups.

This platform also prepares women from all backgrounds to work as journalists in the DRC, a country that currently battles two different viruses: COVID-19 and Ebola. The latter was thought to be under control in the Eastern part of the country, but new cases were confirmed just days before the deadly pandemic was declared over by the WHO.

Along with other women’s groups, AFEM has played a key role in raising awareness of COVID-19 and sharing simple, concise information on health-related issues, especially how to prevent contagion.

Using local radio and TV stations, a group of women journalists shared some gender-specific guidelines for women on how to leave their homes safely, while others reached out to local farmers and send them COVID-19-related information via text messages.

Namegabe’s organization also turned to local media to warn Congolese women not to use inappropriate materials, such as bras and diapers, to make their own masks—the official ones are very expensive. “Since these women don’t understand the national guidelines, we used a more accessible language to keep them safe”, she explained.

From the beginning, women leaders in the DRC found a powerful ally in Dr. Denis Mukwege, a world-renowned gynecologist, human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate from Bukavu.

In a video message released on March 25, he called on the entire national community to “become fully involved in ensuring an effective response to the pandemic” and shared a series of prevention measures adjusted to women’s needs.

Dr. Mukwege’s gender-sensitive recommendations were praised by women’s groups throughout the country, which has been under lockdown since the president, Félix Tshisekedi, declared the state of emergency on March 24. This situation has aggravated the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, as people, especially local farmers, increasingly struggle to find food and maintain their source of income.

“Our country is fighting two enemies at the same time: the virus and hunger”, Namegabe explained, echoing the scientists and policymakers who warned about a potential famine coming to the DRC after the pandemic.

The luxury of social distancing

In Syria and Bangladesh, COVID-19 has severely aggravated the situation in refugee camps, where thousands of people survive in overcrowded tents with no access to food or basic health services. In these spaces, official guidelines are simply impossible to follow: entire families live together in tiny spaces, food is scarce, and refugees cannot maintain personal hygiene. Under these conditions, social distancing is a luxury that very few can afford.

In the camps located in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, the authorities have been distributing soap bars among the Rohingya refugees, but the latter don’t have access to water to wash their hands regularly.

Government officials have also distributed rice, beans and oil among the refugees, yet other essential foods are needed to maintain people healthy. Women, for their part, have very limited or no access at all to gynecological and other women’s basic health services and products.

“People are scared of the virus, but they feel like they’re going to die from starvation before COVID-19 hits”, Wai Wai Nu, Executive Director of the Women Peace Network, explained during the event.

The UN has also registered a spike in casualties in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps as the Burmese military continues to target civilian population, especially women. “COVID-19 must not be a reason to stall the justice system. Human rights cannot take a back seat as long as the Rohingya keep suffering and being victims of international crimes”, she added.

The lack of Internet access in the camps has made it even harder to keep the situation under control, spreading fear and frustration among the refugee population. Digital technology has proven to be one of the most effective tools to manage and leverage information on the crisis, and Facebook has become one of the main sources of information for people around the world. In the camps, however, people often don’t have access to a phone—and Internet connection is very limited or even inexistent.

In this context, the international community has supported local voices in pressing local authorities to make health structures and services available to the most vulnerable, particularly refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Activists have also urged the Burmese government to remove the Internet blackout, which prevents the Rohingya population from accessing information related to the virus.

In Ukraine, where over 1.5 million people have been internally displaced due to the armed conflict, COVID-19 has evidenced the country’s outdated and underfunded healthcare infrastructure. Hospitals are particularly inaccessible for the elderly living in non-controlled areas and for women IDPs, who account for 58 percent of the total number in Ukraine.

Many of these women were separated from their families and live alone with their children, a situation that makes them especially vulnerable.

After Ukraine and Russia committed to implement a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine by the end of 2019, there was an increase in the number of cases of gender-based and sexual violence, particularly at the domestic level. As in other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for these women, whose economic vulnerability often forces them to go back to the perpetrators.

State-led responses to the pandemic, however, have not been responsive to this spike in domestic violence, treating it like a ‘secondary’ issue to be addressed in the aftermath of the crisis. Ukraine’s efforts to combat COVID-19 have also been undermined by the lack of accurate information regarding the outbreak, such as the number of confirmed cases in the country.

A unique opportunity for change

2020 was supposed to be a year to celebrate the achievements on gender equality on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). However, COVID-19 has proved that there is still a long road ahead for women’s empowerment, as global crises like this one continue to have a disproportionately impact on women and girls.

The current pandemic has undoubtedly aggravated many of the problems affecting developing and conflict-affected countries, weakening health and political systems and stunting opportunities for the most vulnerable. Women activists, however, have also drawn attention to the unique opportunities this outbreak presents for advancing gender equality and women’s rights.

In Syria, for instance, COVID-19 could give a decisive push to the country’s transition to democracy. “This situation may advance the Syrian peace process and give visibility to women’s critical role in peacemaking at the local level”, explained Rajaa Altalli, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria.

“However—she added—it is up to the actors to come together, reach an agreement, and promote human rights in the country”.

Over the past years, Syrian women have played a key leadership role in advocating for the protection of IDPs and the release of thousands of detainees in the country. Since 2012, female activists have also called for women’s greater participation in the peace process, a request that they have continued to make during the pandemic.

Rather than restricting their activity, Syrian leaders have remained active during the past months, working together towards creating comprehensive measures for advancing women’s rights and protecting vulnerable groups.

The current crisis also offers a unique opportunity to recognize and praise women’s central role in their communities, as well as their leadership skills. “Women’s civil society is the glue that keeps societies and groups together. COVID-19 may have undermined the women’s movement in some ways, but the strength of its network, as well as the quality of the dialogue, is still there”, Oksana Potapova, co-founder of the Ukrainian NGO Theater for Dialogue, explained.

Women’s groups and activists are also seizing the moment to emphasize the need to collect and analyze gender-disaggregated information. “Without this data, we won’t be able to fully assess the role of women’s frontline workers during the pandemic, and we won’t have the tools to advocate for a more comprehensive approach of the WPS Agenda”, she added.

In her view, civil society organizations should not miss the momentum to advocate for integrating feminist and gender analysis into their work, and including solidarity and cooperation—two values that have driven the world’s response to COVID-19—at the core of all decisions.

“This is the only way we can ensure sustainable policies and structures that prioritize investment in women and girls over other sectors, such as military spending”, Potapova explained. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 May 2020]

Image credit: AFEM

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