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Distance Won’t Stop Our Support: A COVID-19 Update

Women for Women International invests in the strength of women’s connections and community, even across distances. Our teams and participants are now using those connections to protect and support one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Our teams prepared for suspension of our in-person programme activities by equipping women with knowledge about infectious diseases and good practices for health and hygiene. As a trusted source in communities for reliable, accurate health information, our trainers shared World Health Organisation guidance on COVID-19 prevention so women could protect themselves and educate others in their communities. 
 
Women learned about social distancing, proper hand washing, and how to cough safely, like in the photo below from our South Sudan programme.
Women in South Sudan practice safe coughing
Women in South Sudan practice safe coughing. Photo credit: Women for Women International
We wanted to share an update with you on how each of our programmes has adapted to continue supporting women during this crisis. Across all our country teams, Women for Women International is collaborating with local health systems and participating in NGO forums to access reliable information and play a part in disease response and “flattening the curve.”

South Sudan

Even before COVID-19, our South Sudan team made use of radio to amplify key messages and engage communities.

Together with participants from our programme, staff co-host a local radio programme that broadcasts discussions on issues affecting women, such as gender-based violence.

As coronavirus approached their country, South Sudanese participants and staff used their radio platform to share health advice and teach people about the COVID-19 outbreak. Our staff has maintained communication with women participants who have mobile phones to reinforce awareness and to relay up-to-date information.

Rwanda

Before the programme’s suspension and a nationwide shutdown, trainers in Rwanda collected telephone numbers from leaders of each women’s group to maintain contact.

Classroom leaders, as well as the leaders of networks of past Women for Women International programme graduates, are staying in touch with staff to provide updates about women on the ground, while passing on crucial news and resources about the outbreak.

Monthly stipends, which are proving crucial to participants, were sent to women remotely through banks. But with the shutdown affecting banks and circulation of cash in the country, and to encourage social distancing, our Rwanda team has quickly adapted and found alternative ways to send women these vital funds. They’ve encouraged women to get personal SIM cards which they can use with a borrowed mobile phone, to receive funds through mobile money transfers. Having a SIM card also means women can stay in touch with each other, and receive information and updates from our trainers. You can help us provide SIM cards to connect women in Rwanda by making a donation today.

Our staff are also working closely with other organisations providing services that women may need. As stress builds in communities, staff can provide referrals to services that help those affected by domestic violence.

Women for Women International - Rwanda programme participant talking on a mobile phone. Photo: Alison Wright
Women for Women International - Rwanda programme participant talking on a mobile phone. Photo: Alison Wright

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Because of the recent outbreak of Ebola in the DRC, our staff have experience sensitising and educating communities about infectious diseases. Before classes were suspended, our trainers reinforced messages about COVID-19 disease prevention with women and men participants in trainings and discussion groups.  

Many women in our DRC programme learn to make soap as part of their vocational training, so our team is supporting their production and looking at how we can distribute their soap to other participants. Our team is also exploring whether women who learned tailoring can help to sew protective face masks, and what resources they would need to contribute to that effort. 

Because mobile phone coverage isn’t always reliable, our teams have to find other solutions to stay in contact with women in our programme.  Women who do have phones become part of communication trees to share information on how their communities are doing. Many of these trees are organised through village savings and loan associations (VSLAs), groups of women which are formed as part of our programme.

These communication channels are allowing our team to continue providing information on referrals to other important health services and support for gender-based violence. Our VSLAs are also looking at how they can support one another besides just communications. Some options they are considering are whether they can exchange or sell food to one another at reduced prices, to facilitate their local economy while also addressing the rising cost of food.  

Iraq

Currently, our country office in Iraq faces the strictest lockdown. Most people are unable to leave their homes or use their cars without authorities stopping them.
 
Stuck at home, women participants spend their time practicing handicrafts and preparing for a future where they can sell their products in the market or bazaars. They continue to support one another by calling each other on mobile phones to check on their new friends they made in the programme.
 
Our staff is directly contacting every woman in the programme; they emphasise to women that our team is here for them. If women have issues relating to food insecurity, domestic violence, gender-based violence, or health, our team refers them to our partners for support.
 
Communication is relatively easy in Iraq, so staff and women participants can communicate by phone, through chat applications, such as WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, or social media.  Many women participants have even actively contacted our trainers and staff to check on their health and well-being!  With these lines open, our staff are looking at ways to continue teaching women remotely, with information supplemental to the curriculum via mobile phone, apps and social media.  For example, they are exploring Facebook groups to remotely connect women together in their circles of 25. They will reinforce programme topics like the importance of savings and household financial management, crucial knowledge in times of crisis. 

By maintaining these connections, we can break the isolation of women being at home. They feel happy to be part of the Women for Women International family and are eager to reconnect again in person when the crisis is over.  

"I am very thankful for what we learned from you about how to manage our spending and saving money. It has come in handy in these difficult days. We spend the money that we have saved on essential things"
Bahar, Women for Women International - Iraq participant

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Some of the graduates from our programme are stepping up and using skills from their training to protect their communities. Women’s groups have started sewing face masks to be used by hospitals, police officers, the elderly, and local government workers.
 
With all in-person activities suspended, participants and staff are staying in contact using social media and mobile technology, such as Facebook groups and Viber. Our staff is staying in touch with presidents of women’s associations, which graduates of our Women for Women International programme have developed and maintained over many years. 

Afghanistan

Before staff transitioned to working from home, they delivered women’s stipends and prepared women to be strong through this crisis and prepare to rebuild their lives through their vocational activities. Those who are learning agriculture received fruit trees that need to be planted this season, so they would not have to skip a year of growth.
 
Our team is working to provide women with hygiene kits that include masks, soap, hand sanitiser, gloves, and brochures with important messages they can refer to about coronavirus.
 
When possible, trainers are in touch with current participants, Change Agents, savings group members, and community protection committee members. Our team shares critical information about COVID-19, provides referrals to health clinics if needed, and asks women about their health and well-being. If trainers hear issues on these calls, they share it with the local Afghanistan team’s COVID-19 response group.
 
The unfortunate reality is that many women do not have their own personal phones in Afghanistan because of poverty as well as societal restrictions on women, so our team is exploring other ways to share critical information with women, such as sending out voice recordings, so women can safely share updates with other women living near them.

Nigeria

Before training was suspended, our Nigeria team was able to provide all participants with their monthly stipends through financial institution partners and is searching for solutions to continue delivering critical resources.  

Our colleagues in Nigeria are able to maintain contact via mobile phone with a few women leaders in each of the classrooms. In the communities where we work, science-based information about disease often clashes with superstitions. As a trusted source of knowledge, our trainers play a critical role.in sharing accurate information to reduce the spread of disease.

For women living in places without reliable mobile phone coverage or who don’t have phones, our team has collaborated with participants and graduates to balance communication and social distancing. Those with phones speak with trainers to review COVID-19 information and reemphasise training, and they can meet with women in more remote areas to remind them about their lessons.
 
From many of our programmes, we’re seeing what we’ve always known: women’s income is integral to the family’s resilience. Before markets close as part of a wider shutdown, our team is helping women prepare by building savings, adapting their businesses and stocking up on essentials. 

Kosovo

With classes suspended, our teams continue to connect with women and provide support through mobile groups formed through Facebook and Viber. Same as many other countries, inaccurate information about the coronavirus is all around, and these groups allow trainers to speak with participants about accurate information about coronavirus transmission and prevention.
 
Trainers encourage women to continue with their income generating activities. Where possible, Women for Women International will provide materials and input that support their income generating activities, especially related to agricultural production, so women can continue working, meeting market demands and making money during the crisis.
 
Even during crisis, women show hope and preparation for the future. Women who produce handicrafts have continued production to one day sell them when markets reopen. For higher-level women business owners, the team is exploring ways of organising online trainings via Zoom.
We are proud of the quick and innovative thinking that our teams have shown, and of the solidarity that women participants have built with each other. Women for Women International is a global community that is coming together across distances to help women and their families make it through this uncertain time. Just as our teams and participants are staying connected and supporting eachother, we hope you will stand with them.

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