5 ways to learn from local women humanitarians who are responding to the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence

by 30th Sep 2020
Azraq camp in Jordan is home to over 35,000 Syrian refugees Azraq camp in Jordan is home to over 35,000 Syrian refugees

On 17 March 2020, the Jordanian government introduced measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in Jordan. Under such measures, Jordanians were only able to leave their homes between 8.00am and 6.00pm. Every day at 6.00pm, a curfew siren would be sounded, after which point no one was permitted to leave their property. The punishments for breaking such measures were severe as the Jordanian government imposed one of the strictest nationwide lockdowns in the world, with lawbreakers facing arrest and up to a year in prison.

As we know from previous health crises (such as the Ebola epidemic and SARS/Zika outbreaks) and emerging research on the impact of COVID-19, pandemics exacerbate gendered inequalities and other socio-economic and political inequities. I spoke with the Arab Women Organisation of Jordan* (AWO Jordan), a women-led organisation that partners with CARE, to understand what we can learn from women-led organisations as they navigate the impacts of the coronavirus in their humanitarian contexts and take steps to support vulnerable women and girls at risk of gender-based violence (GBV). Below are some of the key lessons that women leaders from AWO Jordan shared with CARE International UK.

1. Women and girl humanitarians and their organisations have better access to information than international humanitarian actors like the UN and governments, and can help improve GBV response in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Given the hidden, often invisible and sensitive nature of GBV and the challenges of addressing it, access to local communities and building trust is integral to any GBV-related programming and awareness. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many national governments were overwhelmed or simply unable to provide the information needed to support people, especially women and girls, experiencing GBV – namely domestic, family and intimate partner violence. As people went into lockdown, homes became intensified sites of GBV and other gendered harms e.g. lack of access to education for girls and lessened economic independence for women, especially those heading households. Women-led organisations such as AWO Jordan attempted to meet women’s and girls’ needs as they were more familiar with the (changing) landscape and able to access information on factors contributing to GBV.

One of the critical insights provided by AWO was around how women who found themselves stuck at home with an abusive partner who could no longer access cigarettes (or other negative coping mechanisms) were at a heightened risk of violence. This is important to note given the World Bank statistics that the prevalence of smoking among Jordanian men (aged over 15) was at 70.2% in 2015.

AWO Jordan also highlighted how an already male dominant society was intensified by the militarised environment of the lockdown, as the Jordanian military were called upon to enforce the nation-wide curfew. Already vulnerable, many women and girls found themselves without access to services to support their recovery from violence or information on where to seek help or access protection.

Therefore, women-led organisations’ knowledge in contexts like Jordan can help other actors, especially government and political leaders, community organisations, international aid agencies like the UN and INGOs like CARE, to better respond to women, girls and other survivors of GBV.

2. Women and girl humanitarians and civil society leaders and their organisations, whether women’s rights organisations or women-led organisations, can educate on ways of adapting programmes and service delivery during crises.

Despite the restrictions posed by COVID-19, women-led organisations quickly adapted their GBV programming, case management and service delivery to support Jordanian and Syrian women and girls experiencing GBV.

From 16 March, all AWO centres in the governorates of Irbid, Mafraq and Zarqa, in addition to the main office in Amman, were closed and AWO staff began to work remotely. Because of the curfew, it became difficult for women to report violence and to receive support. However, AWO staff adapted their service delivery and programmes to work under the new social distancing and curfew regulations. AWO staff used remote technology and new ways of working to deliver services including GBV case management and counseling conducted via phone. Importantly, AWO staff adapted to new challenges as women were receiving support within the confines of the home in which the perpetrator (usually a husband or male relative) was almost always present. To overcome these very difficult challenges, AWO staff began to ask service recipients to use codewords to indicate risk of violence, for example a reference to the need to prepare dinner soon would suggest that the perpetrator was nearby.

Women humanitarian leaders, who can closely understand the capacities and needs of the people they work with, and their organisations show all humanitarian actors, especially those of us with larger budgets and more resources, how to modify GBV programming and service delivery during crises.

3. Women humanitarians and their organisations, both women’s rights organisations or women-led organisations, can educate on ways of adapting communication to target ‘hard to reach’ communities.

When COVID-19 broke out, an important challenge was around sharing information in ways that both limited the rise of, and risks around, COVID-19 and GBV.

In Jordan, AWO staff continued their work on the ground and changed how they communicated as the crisis evolved. They used smartphones and various social media platforms to raise awareness, contact GBV survivors and provide necessary information.

Most importantly, because of their proximity to the beneficiaries of their services, they were able to communicate clearly and frequently. They were able to consult with at risk groups about issues concerning the pandemic and GBV as well as the best way to develop messages and disseminate them. They also ensured a feedback mechanism was in place for continued feedback to adapt messages as the situation evolved. As a result, remote communication to provide services to the beneficiaries was successful despite challenges.

4. Women-led organisations emphasise the importance of better flexible funding to allow for a more effective response to GBV within crises.

Despite their continuous work on the ground, women-led organisations have been seriously underfunded within the global response. Most of the funding for COVID-19 under the Global Humanitarian Response Plan has gone to a narrow range of health interventions, UN agencies and host governments.

In Jordan, AWO staff expressed great concern over inadequate coverage of overheads’ costs, including staff salaries and office supplies. As a result of the lack of funding, they also spoke of limited access to personal protective equipment as well as potentially letting go of some staff by the end of 2020.

Notably, without external support when submitting funding proposals, women-led organisations did not stand a chance at obtaining the funding that was available as they were competing with larger INGOs that had greater support for proposal management. Therefore, COVID-19 has demonstrated how critical it is to prioritise flexible funding directed at women-led organisations to assist their tireless efforts in serving vulnerable women and girls at risk of GBV in crises.

5. Building back better means working with women humanitarians and their organisations to build back better and more durable programmes.

One of the main issues raised by AWO Jordan was what they perceived to be global programmes that were not able to endure during seriously challenging crises.

It is important to note that the global nature of today’s health crisis has evidently revealed how INGOs within the ‘global north’ do not have the same level of experience of working and adapting within crises as local organisations in humanitarian settings. Given their knowledge of working within crises, women-led organisations can use their experiences to provide invaluable information to their INGO partners on how to navigate crises by designing programmes that can adapt quickly and efficiently. In short, the current pandemic has highlighted the need for a shift towards support for capacity-sharing, rather than the top-down model of capacity-building.

Therefore, as we prepare to build back better for a post-coronavirus society, we must design a stronger, joint, and more equitable system that works with women-led organisations to build programmes that can better respond to GBV in crises.

*The Arab Women Organisation of Jordan (AWO Jordan) is a non-profit women-led NGO, which contributes to the creation of a large movement for women’s rights and gender equality by uniting the efforts of women activists and strengthening their solidarity. CARE and AWO Jordan are in a strategic partnership to implement the three-year Voices and Partnerships against Violence project. This project aims to create feminist partnerships between CARE and women’s rights organisations to increase the effectiveness of GBV-related programmes, policies, and systems in humanitarian contexts through enhancing the role of local women-led organisations.

Zainab Moallin

Zainab Moallin was formerly an Advocacy and Policy Intern at CARE International UK. She worked on CARE’s Gender in Emergencies and Humanitarian programmes in Syria and Yemen. She worked most closely on CARE’s Voices and Partnerships against Violence project which aims to create feminist partnerships between CARE and women’s rights organisations to increase the effectiveness of GBV-related programmes, policies, and systems in humanitarian contexts through enhancing the role of local women-led organisations. She previously worked as a Research Assistant to Dr Joanna Lewis on the use of precolonial history to safeguard political outcomes during decolonialisation and its immediate aftermath. She holds an MSc in International Relations from the LSE.