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Q&A: How COVID-19 response plans sideline women

‘Women are half of the population, but still their issues are not prioritised.’

A woman covers her face with a shawl as she waits for relief goods to be distributed near a community centre during coronavirus movement restrictions in Kathmandu on 4 June 2021.
A woman covers her face with a shawl as she waits for relief goods to be distributed near a community centre during coronavirus movement restrictions in Kathmandu on 4 June 2021. (Prabin Ranabhat/SOPA Images/via Reuters Connect)

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Violence against women has soared during the coronavirus pandemic, but the frontline groups best placed to respond are often excluded from humanitarian planning.

These are the warnings from new research by the Feminist Humanitarian Network, which includes dozens of local women-led organisations around the globe. The study explored how the pandemic has affected women in eight countries, through the eyes of frontline aid groups.

The women’s organisations found an “alarming” rise in gender-based violence in each country. They also reported being sidelined when it comes to decision-making and funding – leaving concerns like women’s healthcare access near the bottom of the agenda.

Sumeera Shrestha has seen these trends escalate in Nepal, where a devastating coronavirus wave has overwhelmed the health system and strained aid resources. Shrestha is executive director of Women for Human Rights, Single Women Group – an NGO that works with marginalised people, including women widowed by conflict and disasters.

“Women are half of the population, but still their issues are not prioritised,” said Shrestha, who is also a Feminist Humanitarian Network member.

Shrestha spoke to The New Humanitarian about rising threats to women, dwindling funds for women-led groups, and what happens in an emergency when their voices are missing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The New Humanitarian: Violence against women has been described as a “shadow pandemic” during the coronavirus surge. What have you seen in Nepal?

Sumeera Shrestha: We are fighting two pandemics together. COVID has triggered an increase in gender-based violence. There are more cases of domestic violence. Every day, there are cases of sexual violence and rape. Recently, there are cases of women forced to commit suicide.

All the structures that are in place [to address gender-based violence] are not functioning properly during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are different hotlines that women can dial in an emergency – for example, the National Women Commission has a hotline; the Nepal police have a directorate for women and children where different cases of GBV are recorded. During the pandemic, these structures are less functional because people cannot go, or because of the fear of infection from COVID. People hesitate to seek services in these kinds of institutions.

So at this point in time, the resources for GBV are really sidelined. It also gives more power to the perpetrator, seeing that now the system is dismantled. There is no quick access to services or any justice process. 

The New Humanitarian: How have women’s rights been de-prioritised in humanitarian planning during the pandemic?

Shrestha: There’s always limited funding for women’s rights organisations, whether at a country level or from international donors and organisations. Our work is always dependent on a small budget. 

Now, because of this pandemic – at the local and ministerial levels – they are pulling funds for women’s organisations and using it for ambulances, for medical purposes. There could be different approaches. The central government has medical priorities, but the local governments could provide relief support to women’s groups. 

People are not prioritising sexual and reproductive rights, especially for maternal health and newborn babies. All the hospitals are now being changed to COVID hospitals. There are important things – like [sexual and reproductive health], maternal health, immunisations – that have really been overlooked. 

The New Humanitarian: Many local aid groups in Nepal are struggling because there has not been a lot of new donor funding, despite the severity of the second wave. How is this affecting women-led organisations in particular?

Shrestha: Having funds from international donors for women’s rights groups is always a challenge – not just during the pandemic. The small chunk of funds we get are subcontracted [through international NGOs and UN agencies]. We don’t get to work directly with donors. Donors have a very high compliance and due diligence processes. It’s very difficult for women’s organisations – who work very closely with women in communities – to fulfil all these bureaucratic requirements. So, most of the time, women’s rights organisations are excluded from funding altogether. It’s not just during the pandemic – it’s all the time.

“Most of the time, women’s rights organisations are excluded from funding altogether. It’s not just during the pandemic – it’s all the time.” 

Now what’s happening is that during the pandemic, the funds for these women’s rights organisations are getting very minimal. If we have been working with [international] partners for many years, we can ask to revise existing funding. If there was funding for workshops, for example, we can ask to change it to some kind of relief funding. It’s like we are playing with the small funds that we had, rather than having additional funds for the COVID response.

The New Humanitarian: Women-led groups also talk about being sidelined in response planning. In what ways are they excluded?

Shrestha: Women’s rights organisations have very limited access to the humanitarian cluster meetings with humanitarian agencies, donors, governments – very limited. The women’s rights groups are working in the field, but they have very little access to these kinds of meetings to know what are the plans, to know what funds are available.  

If funds are already limited, and they don’t have access to the humanitarian coordination meetings, then the bigger impact that women’s rights organisations could actually bring becomes undermined. Their power gets undermined.

When they are not part of this kind of planning, the responses are going to be very different than what is required, and definitely not serving the needs of the women we are working with.

The New Humanitarian: What does it look like on the ground when these needs aren’t met? How do women-led organisations approach humanitarian work differently than groups with a more general focus?

Shrestha: We have feminist values. Other groups are doing things in general: When there are earthquakes or disasters, the basic fundamentals like food, shelter, and clothing, which are very important.

But the minute details – besides providing food, clothing, or shelter – are also important. It’s different with women’s rights organisations, who have a feminist lens. We know that during humanitarian crises, the situations are different for women, different for children, and different for everyday people.

During a humanitarian crisis, it is more likely that gender-based violence will rise, and the referral systems are weak. The vulnerability will ramp up. We look through it from these kinds of lenses.

During the pandemic, everybody will say, “Isolation centres are necessary for COVID patients”. But we fail to understand that for single women – who may live with their children in one room in urban centres – she cannot afford to pay for isolation.

“The bigger impact that women’s rights organisations could actually bring becomes undermined. Their power gets undermined.” 

Even if she is taken to the isolation, what will be the situation for the children who are left at home because there is nobody to take care of the children, and now she cannot be with them because she is COVID-affected?

In this COVID situation, the stakeholders – like government authorities and funders – think of vaccines and PCR [polymerase chain reaction testing]. But certain groups cannot afford healthcare. Because they cannot afford it, they don’t do it. And because of that, the level of infections have increased. The families suffer. If we can prioritise women’s rights, it would have been easier.

Or in earthquakes: When the houses collapsed, family members worked together to clear up the rubble. But many single women could not – because they had small children, or because some are very elderly, their children left, and they didn’t have anybody to help.

These are the minute details that women’s rights organisations look into, to understand the very important realities of these persons.

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