The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but it has been especially hard for people who are marginalised in society, such as women living with disabilities and women and girls living in remote and rural areas.
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction calls for an all-of-society approach to reducing disaster risk, which is inclusive and accessible to all. Governments across the region are supporting more collaborative approaches that are transforming the way all voices are heard in disaster response. But more can be done to further this work and ensure that we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to address the systemic causes of vulnerability and make disaster risk reduction gender-responsive, inclusive and accessible to all.
As we look forward to International Women's Day, UNDRR is celebrating the work of women working in disaster risk reduction who are speaking up for marginalized groups and changing the way governments respond to COVID-19 to ensure that no one is left behind.
Nepal: “We are framed in one approach,” says Pratima. “Our needs are diverse; we are not a homogeneous group.”
Pratima Gurung is an intersectional activist from Nepal. She leads the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN) and is a faculty member at Padma Kanya College in Kathmandu. During the COVID-19 pandemic she has helped marginalized communities by pushing government to adapt messages and support so everyone can understand and access critical health services.
“When we see the on-the-ground reality in our communities, most girls and women are not educated,” Pratima says. “They are not aware about their rights. They even do not know what their rights are.”
Pratima says it’s critical to have women in leadership roles during disasters like the pandemic so they can connect and empower indigenous and women with disabilities.
"For us women, our roles are very important in our society,” Pratima says. “We have to tell our sisters and tell our daughters to tell our community what their fundamental rights are.”
Pratima says that being an outspoken activist and advocate for indigenous and disabled women does come with a determined opposition.
“Our country is heavily dominated by the patriarchy,” Pratima says. “I’ve been harassed in the public forum when I speak on behalf of women or when I speak on behalf indigenous peoples.”
Photo: UN WOMEN/Tahir Watto
Pakistan: “I believe that we all are in this pandemic together and if we fight through it collectively, we might beat it together too,” says Sahar. “Let's try to look towards the light to get us through the darkest period of our lives.”
Sahar Iqbal is a farmer in Pakpattan, in Southern Punjab province. She works with women to convert waterlogged land into productive fields so they can earn better wages. What started as a group of 25 has now grown a collective of more than two hundred women.
Sahar says the pandemic has helped them focus on sharing new skills in the community.
“During the lockdown, through the internet we explored new opportunities for employment for our community,” she says. “We trained them on fish farming and taught them about making vermicompost out of biogas slurry which we have used in organic farming.”
Initiatives like Sahar’s will help drive the pandemic recovery in Pakistan and ensure that women farmers are not left behind. Through collective agricultural efforts and capacity building, COVID-19 recovery efforts can prioritize women’s economic empowerment and build resilience to reduce the impact of future disasters.
Solomon Islands: “Women in Solomon Islands are the backbone of any family and the country as a whole,” Mary Alalo says.
She works to help communities in the Solomon Islands build their resilience against disasters and climate change risks. The work Mary does involves supporting the government strengthen national multi hazard early warning systems for early disaster warning and evacuation plus building the capacity of selected vulnerable communities to direct community infrastructure support.
“Women are the key beneficiaries of the work,” she says. “By involving women in the planning, designing and implementation of community infrastructures like water supplies, community halls, foot walk bridges, shoreline protection and evacuation routes.”
This infrastructure helps improve the welfare of women and their families in preparing for and responding to disasters like flooding, saltwater intrusion, storm surges, droughts and coastal erosion. Solomon Islands is ranked 4th in the 2019 World Risk Report as a country that is most at risk to disasters.
The model of prioritising women's perspectives has been adopted by other development projects and Mary is part of a network that works on building more resilient communities to cope with disasters and climate change risks.
Mary and her colleagues make women’s participation essential to the whole process. The close consultation with communities has built up their trust, which allows disaster response to reach women and girls more effectively.
“It's important we make it mandatory that women should be a part of the community consultation,” Mary says. “Then the men have no choice but to make sure women are there.”
The women-centered approach even shapes the scheduling of training and workshops on public health messages and resilience techniques that Mary and her colleagues have organised during their radio awareness programs and community consultations.
“Whenever we do training, we have to do it at night when women have finished their home duties, then they can participate,” Mary says.
“As a woman working in this field, I feel happy that I am supporting our communities to really understand how they can build their resilience.”
Mary says more women are taking roles in disaster risk reduction and development projects and this shift makes it easier to connect with women in the community. "When we started the project, I was the only woman on the team and now we have three other women,” she says.
COVD-19 has meant that Mary has taken on greater responsibilities in by monitoring community infrastructure works as international engineers could not return to Solomon Islands due to the pandemic.
Mary is a Project Coordinator with Community Resilience to Climate and Disaster Risk in Solomon Islands Project (CRISP). The project has benefitted more than 69,000 people in the Solomon Islands.
Photo: UN WOMEN/Ni Ketut Rediten
Indonesia: “The coronavirus pandemic is difficult for everyone,” says Desi. “With the current situation, I may not be physically present, but I want to still be there to give mental and emotional support.”
Ni Ketut Rediten ‘Desi’ is a counsellor and advocate for people living with HIV. She works for the Provincial Health Office in Sanglah Public Hospital in Bali.
“Many women living with HIV are the breadwinners,” she says. “With the pandemic, they can’t earn money anymore to help the family. The financial hardship is even more challenging when they run out of medication.”
Desi says her network is a major source of her strength.
“My HIV-positive peers are my source of energy that keeps my spirit up,” Desi says. “When this pandemic ends, I want to have a get-together with friends from the HIV community. It is a safe space where we can share our feelings and talk about things that we can’t openly discuss outside the community.”
Desi is a member of Indonesian Positive Women Network, a national network for women who are living with HIV. She is a counsellor of the network’s Emak Club (Moms Club), which helps pregnant women living with HIV, and has been fundraising and helping to distribute food and basic commodities to people living with HIV who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19.
Photo: UN WOMEN/Pappu Mia
Bangladesh: “We are afraid because we have nothing,” says Mobina Khatun.
Mobina is a Rohingya volunteer in the Ukhiya sector of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She says the pandemic has created anxiety in the community because services were already limited before COVD-19.
“We live in a very congested area where there is limited access to medical treatment,” she says.
As social norms and gender roles in Rohingya communities limit women and girls’ access to information, leaving them more vulnerable to the virus, Mobina and more than 20 other women volunteered and formed networks to raise awareness on COVID-19 across all camps.
To prevent this disease, we need to provide more awareness on personal cleanliness, hand-washing and the do’s and don’ts when one is sick
She conducts socially distanced door-to-door visits and tells women how to protect themselves by hand-washing, physical distancing, and what to do if they or their family members get the virus.
Photo: UNFPA/Genesis Faderogao
Philippines: “The needs of young people do not stop because of lockdown,” says Genesis.
Genesis Faderogao works with Community and Family Services International that supports women and girls with sexual and reproductive health services in Pasay City, Metro Manila. When COVID-19 shut everything down in March, Genesis and the Community Support Workers found a way to safely deliver condoms with an online service. Their work delivering contraception during the pandemic has helped the community avoid a surge in unintended pregnancies and been a critical support for the LGBTQI community.
Genesis and her colleagues target vulnerable young people in the community to talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights.
She says it was crucial to get young people from the community so they were already trusted and part of the neighborhood.
“Community support workers are residents of the community we serve,” she says. “They know the young people, the sex workers and LGBTQI communities who needed condoms.”
Photo: Sonia Gupta
“The pandemic caused anxiety and insecurity among older people,” says Dr. Sonia Gupta, “especially about chronic problems like diabetes and hypertension. Everybody was concentrating on COVID-19 but no one thought about the problems older people are suffering from.”
Dr. Sonia is part of a mobile medical outreach program in Madhya Pradesh led by HelpAge India and supported by UNFPA. She says the fear of getting the virus and the reduced income from lockdown left many older people without any support.
“They don't even go out.” she says. “Some of them cannot get to the hospitals in the city. We provide services at the doorsteps.”
Dr. Sonia and her colleagues continue to go to great lengths to ensure that older people in rural India are included in the pandemic disaster response. Her motivation to become a doctor is rooted in a lifelong commitment to help older people with chronic diseases.
“We had 12 brothers and sisters and my mother died from diabetes when I was six years old,” Dr. Sonia recalls. “She suffered from a chronic disease and I realized that nobody was there to look after the older people, so I decided I'll serve the older people in my life if I get a chance.”
Photo: IGAA Jackie Viemilawati
“The need for mental health and psychosocial support is high because we need to reframe coping mechanisms during a pandemic,” Jackie says. “It's not an everyday situation that everybody is adapting to. People need to change their coping strategies and they need support.”
Before the pandemic Jackie was working on a project to provide mental health psychosocial services in marginalised communities and widen the access to more vulnerable groups. She says the pandemic has hit women especially hard, as job losses have shifted gender dynamics in many households.
“It does impact women,” she says. “Uncertainty, unpaid care work and the risk of gender-based violence has increased.”
With the increased need for support services and the reduced access because of COVID-19, Jackie is part of a project to weave psychosocial support into all aspects of disaster response from midwives to first responders.
“The challenge is to integrate this psychosocial support perspective in order to support people to get through this together,” she says. “Just because your responsibility is in education or health, you are making an interaction with people. So, you are also giving psychosocial support.”
She says she has seen of progress in including psychological support in disaster response and they are building on existing networks and experience from previous crises.
“Compared to before, it's now much stronger in the integration,” she says. “There's progress on how to integrate sexual reproductive health and gender-based violence and mental health in the integrated services.”
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