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COVID-19’s total burden of disease extends beyond those who get sick, and this has potentially deadly consequences for women and girls.


This guest blog was written by Julia Zulver, Tara Patricia Cookson, Lorena Fuentes, Alejandra Vera and Jackeline Alba from Ladysmith.  A team of feminist researchers guided by the principle “no research about us, without us,” they help international organisations collect, analyse and take action on gender data. 

Governments around the world are restricting access to commercial, social, and health services in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19. However, this well-intentioned public health strategy may have severe and even deadly costs for women.

In every recent crisis, whether humanitarian or economic, levels of sexual and gender based violence soar. This means that restricting access to income and key services has a direct negative impact on women’s safety and security. 

We are seeing this in real time in Colombia’s northern border region, where the government is responding to the Venezuelan economic crisis and the resulting largest mass migration in contemporary history. We’ve been using WhatsApp to connect vulnerable women in migrant and host communities with services that prevent and respond to sexual and gender based violence. This USAID and Ladysmith-funded project, called Cosas de Mujeres, forms part of a larger initiative called Gender Data Kit that seeks to shed light on women’s more ‘hidden’ experiences.

Recently, a woman who messaged the Cosas de Mujeres platform was actively being assaulted by her male partner. She wanted information about where she could go for treatment for her injuries, and where she and her young daughter could find safe shelter. But we struggled to help her because most of the services to attend her were closed as the country has entered to complete lockdown.

The closure of these services is in line with public health mandates being imposed all over the world to promote social distancing to “flatten the curve.” After closing the border between Colombia and Venezuela on 14 March, the Colombian government instructed humanitarian agencies to halve their service offering. Later, they imposed a strict lockdown in Cúcuta (where one of the major fluxes of migrants occurs) and around the country, limiting people’s mobility. In practice, this means that a soup kitchen that provides the deeply important service of ensuring people are fed, and that serves thousands of people a day, is now shut down. Health clinics that serve the migrant population and also their vulnerable host communities are on the edge of collapse. So too are most of the services offering support for survivors of SGBV. 

The woman who messaged us isn’t the only case like this we’ve seen. Over the last two weeks, we have seen an uptick in women expressing their fear of sleeping on the streets with their children as shelters shut down, fears around the virus itself given their lack of access to healthcare, and expressing severe emotional and psychological distress. Many of the women writing in are mothers, and their concern is for the whole family. 

A woman walks on the outskirts of a makeshift suburb of a Colombian city, which is inhabited largely by returned Colombians and Venezuelans.

“What are we supposed to do for work? I’m a mother. With the coronavirus, who is going to help us? Food, or anything? How can we work? I have children, and I provide care for my mother and my father. We live all together and I can’t pay my rent.”

“Please, where can I go for cash transfers? Where are they giving them out now? I’m Venezuelen where I am supposed to go? Is there a telephone number I can call if I’m feeling symptoms of the virus? Please, help.

“We’ve been receiving food vouchers from the NGO…I got them last month and I need to know if we will get them this month…please do you have this information? Please help, we are Venezuelans and now is when we need this help more than ever.” 

The border closure means that migrants and refugees–including those who come to Colombia daily to source much-needed food and medicine–are forced to cross through illegal trochas, exposing them to sexual violence at the hands of armed groups.

We also work in solidarity with La Corporación Feminista Mujer, Denuncia y Muévete (of which Alejandra Vera, author here, is the director). In recent days, this feminist organisation has received an alarming increase in calls from vulnerable women who are living in overcrowded conditions with abusers who subject them to sexual, physical, psychological and economic violence. Many are obliged to live with past aggressors, who returned to the family because of the public health decree enforcing shelter-in-place. 

And amid Covid-19’s response, these women don’t get the support they need. When they attempt to denounce the violence to public officials, they are told that: “the services are closed,” “what you are denouncing doesn’t constitute an emergency,” “you have to put up with the aggressor because of the movement ban,” and “woman, try to create a peaceful environment, so your man doesn’t get angry.”

Gendered costs of the global COVID-19 response 

Governments all over the world are scrambling to respond in humane and practical ways to limit the burden of disease caused by the Covid-19 virus. This global pandemic is a perfect example of why gender analysis needs to be a critical part of all humanitarian and emergency crises, regardless of whether or not they seem to be directly related to “women’s issues.” 

There are important lessons to be learned from previous health crises. Take, for example, the Ebola crisis in Western Africa. Experts have argued that the secondary impacts of the outbreak were more costly than the numbers of Ebola deaths themselves. For example, one of TIME’s people of the year, Salome Karwah, survived Ebola but later died in childbirth when fellow health workers were afraid to touch a survivor of this disease. This was due in part to the spread of misinformation and a weakened healthcare system. 

Similarly, when we talk about COVID-19, we should be aware that the total burden of disease extends beyond mortality rates. In fact, the secondary impacts of an outbreak can be more difficult to measure, because they manifest in a number of complex and different ways. One of these hard-to-measure secondary impacts is SGBV. 

It is not only that the impacts of the actual disease need to be measured, but that our responses are also designed and evaluated from a gender perspective. Even well-intentioned public policies can have hidden costs for women. Measures to reduce the spread of the virus, such as the closure of healthcare services, women’s shelters and economic support services have very specific gendered impacts. When soup kitchens close their doors, for example, and women don’t have the abilityto feed themselves and their families, they may be more likely to engage in survival sex, which further exposes them to COVID-19, and stay with abusive partners. If they are turned away from shelters, they are more likely to sleep on the street, which exposes them and their children to even higher risks of sexual exploitation and violence.

Even “shelter in place” directives may have unintended consequences. This is because home can be one of the most dangerous places for women and girls. Drawing on research from around the globe, UN Women’s recent report, “Families in a Changing World”, found that 17.8% of women and girls have experienced violence from intimate partners and other male family members in the last twelve months.

As the crisis evolves, we are becoming aware of vulnerabilities that are compounding and intersecting. The messages we receive show that women’s (irregular) migration status, income level, distance to services (which are often in the centre of town), health problems and disabilities, and the number of people they care for (children and elderly relatives) make the current context of complete lockdown all the more difficult for them.

To be sure, the health, wellbeing and economic security of men and boys will also suffer as services are slashed and mobility reduced. During fieldwork we met a single father at a soup kitchen who expressed deep shame at not being able to find decent work to buy food for his family; he and his daughters will surely suffer now that the services he relied on are no longer available. Another man living with HIV expressed his fears of not being able to access the antiretroviral medications he currently receives from an international charity. He lives with, and is the sole provider for, his elderly mother. We know that as men and boys suffer, so do the women and girls they live with. 

What Should Be Done?

To be sure, nobody has all of the answers for how to respond to COVID-19, and even less so on how to protect the rights of women and girls within the response. In a fast-moving outbreak like this, it was immediately important for the public health community to get messages out responsibly. Now we must continue to reevaluate and reassess our responses as time elapses, including their unintended impacts.

In Colombia, humanitarian responders are making valiant efforts to be as present as possible, working within public health guidelines. In La Guajira and Cesar, the UNHCR has established phone lines to provide orientation and assistance for migrants and refugees.

Some organisations have staff working and responding from home, even if there are no shelters available or outreach efforts currently being conducted. Two of these organisations helped us respond to the woman on the phone, but their capacities to do anything are limited given that there are no shelters right now. However, much larger and more comprehensive measures are needed to ensure women’s right to live free from violence, even in this emergency context.

We are urging governments, donors, and international agencies to consider the following measures:

  • Ensure and fund shelter options for women. The Canadian authors of this blog were proud to see our government announce a fiscal stimulus policy that shores up economic support for workers and small businesses, while also earmarking $50 million to support women’s shelters. This is in direct acknowledgement of the necessities of women during times of crisis.
  • Economic resources made immediately available so that people can feed their families and pay their rent. Colombia has made its cash transfers through the Familias en Acción and Jóvenes en Acción programmes unconditional in order to deal with the unexpected burdens of the pandemic. And for migrant populations, non-perishable food items, toiletries, sanitary towels, clothing and a great deal of empathy are also critical.
  • Brainstorm ways to ensure that people have access to services, including those that respond to and prevent SGBV, while following public health recommendations. The Community Health Impact Coalition held a call this morning with 95 community-based health organisations from all around the world to discuss what current needs are, and start critical conversations around sharing knowledge and making coordinated efforts to respond. We also know that women are often on the frontlines of service provision, and it is therefore critical to keep them protected from the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic as well.
  • Rapid Needs Assessments that collect usable gender data, as suggested by UN Women. As organisations repsond, they should be collecting gender data on their communities and their response efforts. This extends beyond sex-disagregated data on COVID-19 cases to also include data on community health workers and other unpaid carers, who are disproportionately impacted. Bearing in mind that the gender gap works both ways, needs assessments should also include data on the vulnerabilities faced by men and boys, to ensure that no one at all gets left behind.



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Pathways’ Perspectives: What has the Covid-19 crisis taught us about social protection?

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