Communities worldwide are facing a complex emergency unlike any in my lifetime.
In the United States and internationally, pain and outrage at racism, police brutality, and profound inequities have brought millions to the streets.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on worldwide, ravaging lives, livelihoods, and entire economies. We know that these crises are deeply intertwined—with the harshest impacts on Black, brown and indigenous communities everywhere.
What can we learn about the emergency response of grassroots women’s organizations that can strengthen our collective action, both in surmounting this crisis, and going forward?
The answer is clear: In setting priorities and developing action plans, we need to listen to the women who know best what their communities need and how those needs change over time.
We know that women are there—in their communities, saving lives, listening hard, and meeting the needs of those they serve as best they can, in emergency after emergency. And women leaders are also informing local and national officials, who may lack eyes and ears in the most vulnerable communities, about the most pressing needs at a given moment and about how best to deliver the vital information, goods, and services not yet received.
My organization, WomenStrong International, has witnessed this remarkably adroit response up close, through the responses of our 19 member organizations working with women and girls in 16 countries. These organizations were founded to educate, empower and prevent violence against women and girls and to ensure access to maternal and reproductive health services. They are now doing so much more, serving as a lifeline for women and their families as COVID causes governments to close schools, clinics and other essential services.
Many WomenStrong members—among them, The Girls’ Legacy, in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Women’s Justice Initiative in Guatemala—are working tirelessly to stay connected to their girls and their families, so that the girls are not isolated or harmed and will return to school when it is safe to do so.
Both organizations, realizing that vital public health messages about preventing the spread of COVID was not reaching their communities, quickly became essential to the public health response by translating them into the local languages and disseminating them into the Harare slums and Guatemalan highlands via text messages, posters and flyers, and such older-fashioned public service announcement modalities as blaring loudspeakers and community radio.
These and other women’s groups—including members Rwandan Women’s Network, Girl Up Initiative Uganda, and Black Women’s Blueprint in Brooklyn, New York—have transformed themselves almost overnight into humanitarian organizations, distributing desperately needed food and hygiene products along with essential public health information.
Women’s Justice Initiative has also partnered with sister community-based organizations in Guatemala focused on nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, and girls’ education.
At first, their focus was to ensure that accurate COVID-19 related guidance reached their constituents quickly. Now, longer term, they have worked to produce and broadcast a series of 20 half-hour radio shows to share critical information on maintaining family nutrition, obtaining contraception, and addressing violent incidents or threats—as the disruptions to normal life, supply chains and services continue.
Early on, women’s organizations anticipated an increase in abuse and domestic violence as a result of increased home isolation, a troubling trend soon reported by many of our other members from Cambodia to Rwanda to Mexico to Brooklyn. Many have set up hotlines, using informal chains of personal contacts, text messaging and telephone dial-ins to learn of, counsel and sometimes intervene on behalf of girls and women dreading or enduring violence in their home or neighborhoods.
Now, as America’s protests swell, all our U.S. members have shouted out ever louder for justice and accountability, centering their calls on the disproportionate impacts of state-sanctioned violence on women’s lives.
Over and over in our work, we’ve seen women’s organizations secure greater gains by working together, learning and sharing what works, and amplifying their findings more broadly. This is one of the reasons I founded WomenStrong. It’s something we have witnessed during this tumultuous period, as women leaders working in coalition have brought to bear the best expertise to address the complex needs of girls and women in crisis.
Recognizing the critical role that grassroots women’s organizations play, smart international and government agencies have been tapping their expertise, to advise them as to who’s in greatest need, what should be done, and when, where, how and by whom. This is the model that now needs to be fully built out before the next emergency: women’s organizations, working at the community level, networked together, to inform our collective response.
It is an ecosystem built on trust and expertise, where women-led organizations that have earned the confidence of their communities can inform larger women’s organizations, as well as local and national government, about women’s and girls’ most urgent needs and how best and to whom assistance should be delivered.
At a moment when trust is crucial but must be earned, it’s time for all humanitarian, development and human rights organizations, all levels of government and all of us to learn from the wisdom of local women leaders and their organizations about what works on the ground.
Only then can we hope to see tangible improvements in the lives, health and safety, now and going forward, of women and girls worldwide.