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Women for Women International response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Women for Women International response to the COVID-19 pandemic

16 Feb 2021 | Update

Last year, we suspended in-person training in all the countries where we work, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. National lockdowns have now been officially eased in most countries, allowing us to restart in-person training in a COVID-safe way.

We’re delighted to be enrolling women into our year-long programme again, thanks to generous ongoing support from our sponsors.

With your help, our country office teams have been able to adapt and innovate in response to COVID-19 in their local context. We have introduced a range of safety measures to protect participants and staff and limit the spread of the virus. These include handwashing stations outside training centres, socially distanced seating and face masks during class.

Over the past year, COVID-19 has made life even more difficult and dangerous for women in conflict settings. Lockdown measures exacerbated food shortages, unemployment and poverty. Rates of sexual and gender-based violence surged, while support services for survivors were cut back.

Through so many crises and conflicts, we’ve witnessed women playing a vital role in rebuilding shattered lives and communities. We know that getting women back into the classroom safely – where they can access skills, resources and emotional support – is vital to kickstarting a sustainable recovery from the pandemic. We are already seeing the positive effects as women are able to meet up in their savings groups, restart their businesses, get referrals to health services, and connect with support networks.

There are so many more women waiting for an opportunity to enrol and start this journey. Find out more about sponsoring a sister through our programme.

A socially distanced training session takes place in Nigeria. Photo: Women for Women International.
A socially distanced training session takes place in Nigeria. Photo: Women for Women International.

We know that getting women back into the classroom safely is vital to kickstarting a sustainable recovery from the pandemic.

22 May 2020 | Update

During the global health crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, the health and safety of the women we serve and our staff is our highest priority. Maintaining that priority meant temporarily suspending all our in-person trainings to prevent spread of the virus. As the health situation changes in some countries, and goverments are able to ease restrictions, our staff will carefully begin to resume in-person trainings in a phased manner. 

We are constantly monitoring the local situation. As contexts around COVID-19 change in some locations and governments can ease restrictions, in-person trainings will carefully and gradually resume so women can continue their journey of transformation. In the face of this dynamic pandemic, we are taking every precaution to ensure everyone’s health and safety, which requires flexibility with training schedules and may mean rolling closures. But we remain committed to supporting women in the middle of crisis.

We've started this process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where we are gradually invited women back to training sessions, practising social distancing. For now, we are prioritising women who have already been enrolled, to continue their training where they left off. Learn more about the re-start of training in DRC.

In places where trainings continue to be suspended, our staff stay connected with the women we serve to help provide acurate health information and connect them with resouces they may need. In countries where it is possible to do so, our staff continue to deliver $10 to women on a monthly basis through different methods, some via cash and some through mobile money transfers of local banks. 

27 March 2020 | Update

Although COVID-19 is rapidly spreading throughout the world, our teams are working even faster to protect women we serve.

Just yesterday, our South Sudan wrapped up in-person trainings, as the country prepares to close schools and borders. But before women left, our team taught them about the best ways to protect themselves from disease and good hygiene habits to teach their friends and family.

Our Nigeria team is doing the same, while dispelling myths about COVID-19, as they prepare to temporarily suspend trainings at the end of today. Across our country programmes, our teams are taking their role as a trusted source for accurate health information seriously, and are finding ways to continue delivering information to women from afar.

With many countries in lockdown, such as Iraq and Rwanda, these remote methods keep people in contact when strict measures limit their movement.

26 March 2020 | Update

With both our Nigeria and South Sudan country offices located further from main cities and travel hubs, our teams in those countries have used this week to prioritise training sessions with women on how to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from the virus. As our teams prepare to suspend in-person activities and shift to working from home, they are preparing women by delivering their stipends and teaching them to practise social distancing.

In South Sudan, though there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the government has taken preemptive and protective action by closing schools and borders. Our team has swiftly shifted to prepare to close the office in compliance with the government and is working together with a World Health Organisation Task Force to take the best next steps.

By the end of the week, both our Nigeria and South Sudan offices will suspend in-person activities to join each of their community’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Because our programme is a trusted, established source of health information in the communities we serve, our staff and trainers are finding the best ways to stay connected with women to ensure they have the knowledge they need.

The weekly radio talk programme that our South Sudan team normally hosts is very popular. Now, staying connected with women and communities via radio will be even more important when in-person training sessions cannot take place.

Our team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has adapted this for their own local context. Without easy mobile phone coverage in many of our communities, radio is proving to be an effective way to share information with women from a distance.

In Rwanda, where the government has enforced a lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, our team is encouraging women to get SIM cards. Even if women don't have their own personal phone, women and our team can use SIM cards to stay in contact while exploring the use of mobile technology to potentially continue sending women their stipends.

Mobile technology and social media have been key for many of our country teams to maintain contact with women we serve. In Iraq, where many women participants have phones, mobile phones and Snapchat are keeping our staff and trainers connected with women to share trusted and accurate health information about COVID-19. In Kosovo, staff use Facebook and Viber to tap into our networks of graduates and participants to provide health information and dispel myths about the disease.

But in Afghanistan, where women have a harder time accessing their own personal technology, our teams are using the bonds women formed in the programme. Through Change Agents (graduates of our programme who become local leaders), Self-Help group leaders, and heads of Village and Savings Loan Associations, our staff are using personal networks to pass on life-saving information.

Graduates of our programme are also stepping up to be part of prevention methods: in Bosnia & Herzegovina, women’s associations have started sewing face masks to support hospital workers and police, who are also on the front lines of this pandemic. In many of our countries, such as the DRC, graduates continue to produce soap, which is even more essential in these times.

20 March 2020 | Update

The increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while still low, has led to government restriction of public gatherings and events. We are complying by temporarily suspending in-person trainings  at our DRC office, although office operations continue for the time being.

Our country offices in Nigeria and South Sudan are still in full swing but are monitoring the situation in their communities closely. As the number of cases increases in Nigeria, our team is prepared for the possibility of temporary suspension.

Innovative methods of health education during the crisis

During suspension, each of our country teams are finding new and innovative ways to stay in touch with women in our programme, so they can share important information about the situation with participants. These methods vary by community: in South Sudan, our programme participants and staff host a public radio programme to share health information with their communities. Our DRC staff also use public radio to broadcast COVID-19 prevention and response information, along with lessons from our usual health and hygiene module, so everyone in the community can use it to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbours.

Our teams are also innovating by combining technology and the personal connections women build through our training programme, such as community groups for advancing women’s rights or village savings and loans associations (VSLAs). Community leaders or heads of VSLAs use cellphones to pass on information about the evolving situation. These social connections have become a lifeline for ensuring women’s health and safety.

Our staff across all our programme countries are experts in their communities, the local contexts, and language. They are crucial to maintaining these networks and protecting women and their communities. In countries where the situation requires us to close our offices, staff have transitioned to working from home. During this time, all staff continue to be compensated as part of the Women for Women International team.

Globally, we are all facing an unprecedented crisis. Women for Women International is proud of the connections we’ve built in local communities and around the world, and that we can work together to support some of the world’s most vulnerable women during this crisis that affects us all.

17 MARCH 2020 | HOW WE ARE SUPPORTING WOMEN SURVIVORS OF WAR DURING THIS GLOBAL HEALTH CRISIS

The global news agenda is full of information, as well as misinformation and uninformed opinion, about the COVID-19 pandemic. We do not want to add to this deluge of information without good reason, but we feel that it’s important to let you, our committed supporters, know what we are doing and how we are responding to this global health crisis.

As cases of COVID-19 increase worldwide, Women for Women International is monitoring and assessing the situation, so we are ready to take steps to protect the health of women we serve in countries affected by conflict, the staff in those countries who deliver our programme and our staff around the world who raise vital funds for this work.

Why are women survivors of war particularly at risk from COVID-19?

Poverty, conflict, and gender discrimination make the women we serve most vulnerable to infectious diseases. The unequal share of domestic duties which fall on women around the world is being exacerbated by this global pandemic. This is as true in London and New York as it is in Kabul and Kigali.

In many communities where we work, traditional gender norms require women to be responsible for family health. As primary caretakers, women are most vulnerable to contracting disease when it spreads.

We most recently saw this in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an Ebola outbreak in Goma, North Kivu, threatened to spread to South Kivu where our programme operates. Though COVID-19 and Ebola differ in many ways, they both pose a high risk to women living at the intersection of poverty and conflict. Our Congolese staff team is experienced in leading communities through Ebola and is sharing their knowledge with our staff in other countries in case COVID-19 spreads further.

Across Europe and the US, there is a high level of concern about whether our healthcare systems have the resources and capacity necessary to tackle this pandemic. For women in war-torn countries, the stakes are higher. We work with the most marginalised and hard to reach communities, mostly in rural or remote areas. Health clinics are scarce or non-existent and life-saving health services may be hours away.

How can women survivors of war help to address the COVID-19 pandemic?

Being at the frontlines of the fight against disease also means women need to be leaders in defending against it. We have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to give the women we serve the information and tools they need to stay safe.

One of the four modules of our programme focuses on Health and Wellbeing. Topics include educating women about infectious diseases, how to prevent them in their household, and what to do when people get sick. Women learn about maintaining good hygiene for themselves and their family, sanitation practices, waste management, and other factors that can protect people from infection, such as good nutrition.

Protecting our staff and the women we serve around the world

As the public health situation escalates in Europe and the United States, with many areas declaring a state of emergency and more people practising social distancing, we have taken the decision to move our UK, US and Germany based teams to full remote working. The main reason for this is community protection; we do not want our staff to be travelling on public transport, exposing themselves and those around them to unnecessary risk of infection. As a global NGO, we are well set-up for home working and already use many technological solutions to allow us to communicate effectively with colleagues around the world, so this shift to remote working will have little impact on our day-to-day running of the organisation.

We are also assessing the risk posed to women and staff in the countries where we run our programme; their safety and security is our first priority. Women for Women International has convened a response team that is paying attention to the evolving crisis globally to take the best course of action. The severity of the outbreak in Iran threatens the public health situation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and there have also been reported cases in Rwanda. Our team has made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend in-person trainings in these three countries, for the safety of women participants and our staff. We continue to monitor the situation in all other countries where we work. 

As well as reviewing the risk in our programme countries, we are also closely monitoring UK government advice regarding social gatherings and the impact this might have on our events programme. 

During this time of uncertainty, we are grateful for our community of supporters around the world, who believe in a vision of humanity where women around the world can exercise their rights – including the right to good health. We will stay in touch with you through social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), our email newsletter (sign up here) and through updates on this page as the situation changes.

If you have any questions, please contact us on supportuk@womenforwomen.org.