COVID-19 Exposes International Aid System’s Failure to Protect Women and Girls: ‘We Must Do Better’

COVID-19 Exposes International Aid System’s Failure to Protect Women and Girls: ‘We Must Do Better’

The pandemic has shown the critical state of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in conflict and crisis settings around the world, and the aid industry’s failure, yet again, to protect them or support their leadership. VOICE is an organization committed to eradicating violence against women and girls and revolutionizing the aid system with a distinctly feminist approach.

We knew before this pandemic there was a shocking lack of commitment to women’s organizations and to addressing violence against women and girls. At VOICE, we have seen this time after time, emergency after emergency. Our organization works in natural disasters, famines, civil wars and other uprisings, also known as humanitarian crises. No matter the nature of an emergency, we see that the rates of intimate partner violence, rape and other forms of sexual assault, even child marriage and female genital mutilation often go through the roof. COVID-19 turns out to be no exception.

Our latest report, “We Must Do Better,” documents the impact and effects of the humanitarian system’s failure to meaningfully respond to violence against women and girls (VAWG) during the COVID-19 crisis with the necessary funding and support that women- and girl-led organizations have said they need. We asked them ourselves—with a survey of over 200 feminist organizations and individual women and girls in 41 countries from six regions.

Our survey asked about their frustrations and how to alleviate the burdens they carry. We looked at the impact lockdown and the economic downturn have on women and girls; and how the pandemic has affected the violence they face. We assumed the pandemic would bring with it a host of gendered challenges, including violence, and we wanted to know how women and girls around the world were coping, and what extra support they were getting, if any.

Here Come the “Humanitarians”

For this research, we were particularly interested in how the humanitarian sector––which includes the U.N. agencies, the international non-governmental organizations, the donor countries and the foundations that are responsible for disaster response––had adjusted their approaches during COVID-19. We wanted to gauge how well they are serving women and girls, who not only make up the bulk of the frontline responders to the pandemic, but are also seeing their domestic burdens increase as they take care of children out of school, sick relatives and isolated neighbors.

The humanitarian ‘duty-bearers’ have made many global commitments to uphold the rights of women and girls in emergencies, but to put it bluntly, in our experience, they usually fail. More evident, the aid industry’s response exposes the ways in which the humanitarian aid system is inherently racist, colonial and a perpetuator of the same violence it claims to protect women and girls from.

COVID-19 Exposes International Aid System’s Failure to Protect Women and Girls: ‘We Must Do Better’

These lofty claims can be substantiated by plenty of history. The aid system protects perpetrators of sexual violence within its ranks. We don’t have to look far in the past to find a sexual abuse scandal involving an international aid entity in a country experiencing crisis.

This industry also centers white, Western voices in response, often while shutting out the voices of local women and girl leaders who know best what to do in their communities. Their tendencies to take up space, withhold resources, and limit local organizations’ access to spaces where decisions are made, all amount to colonial practices. When we say “we must do better,” we know there’s a lot of work to be done.

We Thought COVID-19 Might be Different

With COVID-19, for the first time in my career, people were finally talking about violence against women and girls due to crisis. The pandemic cut women and girls off from work, school, family and friends, and put them in lockdown with their perpetrators. Normally, we have to fight to get violence against women recognized during emergencies. I thought maybe this emergency would be different, now that the violence was obvious.

In May 2020, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other actors forecasted concerns about increased violence against women and girls. Yet when the international community sat down to write its Global Humanitarian Response Plan, it was a battle to obtain an explicit objective dedicated to gender-based violence. As ever, violence is a lower priority, even as rates soar.

We agree that access to services like shelter, water and sanitation, food, and health care are lifesaving. But not being raped or being physically abused is lifesaving to us, and women and girls around the world.

We could have written a similar report in response to all the recent epidemics, including SARS, Ebola and Zika. Evidence shows that women and girls are at increased risk of multiple forms of violence, not only in public health emergencies and conflicts, but also after volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, oil spills, floods, ice storms, tsunamis and hurricanes.

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Listen to Women and Girls—and Let Them Lead

VOICE is working with women and girls, and the organizations they lead, because we know that when they have the chance to lead, communities have better outcomes. It’s no coincidence that countries like Germany and New Zealand, led by women, have some of the best COVID-19 results in the world, in stark contrast to the countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. that are faring the worst.

Even though women are the majority of frontline responders in the COVID emergency, and despite the fact they are the most impacted, their solutions and their voices are not being centered. Yet, they are the ones with the solutions, and they are the frontlines of crisis response around the world. Their organizations should be leading, and we should be listening.

This sector has promised, in fancy ceremonies in New York and Geneva, to “localize” its work, by getting more funds to local actors, and giving up some of the control foreigners exert over how the money is spent. Well, now is the time to make good on that promise. We have seen the urgency of the pandemic, and right now women-led organizations need to be trusted, and given multi-year flexible funding through partnerships that are grounded in their local expertise and knowledge.

And while we are doing that, we need to fix the system that doesn’t prioritize the needs of women and girls. The humanitarian system, including U.N. actors and international non-governmental organizations, must always advocate for and ensure there is a focus on around violence against women and girls in their plans. All life-saving issues, including addressing violence against women and girls, must be prioritized.

We are re-imagining an aid system that is designed and led by the same women and girls it serves. Join us in building it!

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Mendy Marsh, is the co-founder and executive director of VOICE, a cutting-edge feminist organization accelerating a global revolution against systemic violence, powered by women and girls. VOICE is transforming humanitarian aid with a distinctly feminist approach, and speaking truth to power and patriarchy in the process. Before VOICE, Mendy worked at UNICEF for almost ten years where she handled the Global Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies portfolio.