COVID-19 has changed the way of life for people around the world, at the personal and professional levels. This is salient for those working on issues of gender integration, gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response, social inclusion, and women’s empowerment. There are many gendered dimensions of the pandemic for experts to consider and address, including potentially reinforced gender norms, increasing rates of domestic violence, lack of women in decision-making positions for the COVID-19 response, and the effects on the women who make up 70 percent of the global health force.

EnCompass team members leading work in the realms of gender equality, GBV prevention and response, and social inclusion are, of course, also responding and adjusting to changes in their work and lives. With team members working on projects at varying stages of implementation across different regions of Africa, we saw an opportunity to share a picture of the pandemic’s effects on gender-related programming realities across cultures. We interviewed four of our gender experts in Benin, Ethiopia, Lesotho, and Uganda to gain insight on how their projects and countries are being affected:

  • Antonine Bibi, Gender and Youth Specialist for the USAID Private Sector Health Partnership Activity (PSHPA) in Benin
  • Heran Tadesse, Senior Gender Advisor for the USAID Transform: Primary Health Care Project in Ethiopia
  • Joy Angulo, Gender, Adolescent and Youth Advisor for the USAID Maternal Child Health and Nutrition (MCHN) Activity in Uganda
  • Mamello Molapo, Senior GBV Advisor for the USAID Karabo ea Bhopelo (KB) Activity in Lesotho

They shared how their lives and work have changed during this crisis, how the USAID-funded programs they work for are adapting and learning to support positive change for country governments and citizens alike, and what they expect for the future, as lock-downs and quarantines begin to ease.

Gendered and Programmatic Challenges in the Pandemic

We learned about primary challenges, such as capacity-strengthening efforts that have been paused or curtailed because in-person workshops and meetings are either not possible or must be altered to comply with strict social and physical distancing protocols. Project teams have been trying to pivot to the online space, but this is not always possible when stakeholders and counterparts do not have reliable access to Internet or mobile devices.

“COVID-19 has affected my work directly, in the sense that we’re not able to engage in person with people. One of our main activities under KB is to raise awareness among adolescent girls and young women in dialogues and small groups that try to build their capacity and knowledge about the social and cultural issues that are root causes of GBV … Being unable to assist in these ways means we need to consider new approaches to achieve the mandate of this program.” —Mamello Molapo, Lesotho

“Training activities were delayed because workshop organization became difficult due to restrictions imposed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. No gathering of more than 10 persons was possible. Virtual training was considered, but the private clinics we need to train do not have the necessary Internet facilities.” —Antonine Bibi, Benin

Restrictions on travel and in-person meetings are especially a challenge in terms of programs’ ability to reach the most vulnerable community members and counterparts, who are in need of services and information. Others need support to continue providing services, as in the case of healthcare workers and GBV referral system actors. Social media, TV, radio, and SMS have been effective in disseminating awareness messages to communities, but it is important to recognize that the people those messages hope to reach have widely varying access to these technologies.

Our field colleagues have also observed the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has on women and girls in their countries, echoing global discussion and findings. Combinations of work-at-home arrangements and work stoppages or job losses have increased women’s unpaid labor burden and added stress to households. Two of our team members highlighted men’s struggle with stay-home orders as particularly challenging. They noted that many families are facing increased stress, likely resulting in increasing domestic violence and intimate partner violence, but current reporting is largely anecdotal and data collection, too, is hindered by the crisis.

“Existing problems are really exacerbated by the coming of COVID. … The GBV issue, whether intimate partner violence or early marriage—these situations are also exacerbated. There is no real evidence or data … it’s all coming anecdotally.” —Heran Tadesse, Ethiopia

There is a need for specific data collection efforts on rising GBV cases and for strengthening GBV prevention, response, and referral systems and services for survivors.  Team members described how they are working to maintain a gender lens in their programs’ COVID-19 response efforts and address the amplified impact on women and girls.

Envisioning Programming Realities in the Post-Lockdown World

What does the return to a potentially more familiar way of working look like? We aren’t sure. But, each of our team members referenced, on the one hand, challenges in shifting to primarily technology-based interactions and, on the other hand, possibilities and emerging opportunities as their project’s and stakeholders strategize new ways to effectively carry out their work.

“As we are beginning to open back up, there is a lot that needs to be done. This pandemic has revealed a number of equity issues that we thought had been taken care of. As a project, we will continue to support the Government of Uganda to coordinate and address gender, youth, and social inclusion, bringing together stakeholders from across government ministries to design culturally sensitive and gender-transformative approaches.” —Joy Angulo, Uganda

As our colleagues and their programs and partners work to continue work amidst COVID, they are learning how much is possible. They are learning how to pivot large, in-person interactions to produce the desired impact and outcomes while maintaining social distancing measures. Despite challenges, our team members see opportunities in harnessing new ways to communicate and disseminate information via technology, and in inspiring government ministry counterparts and stakeholders to consider new approaches.

Join Us in More In-Depth Discussion of the Gendered Dimensions

In the coming days and weeks, we invite you to visit our blog often as we share these stories of our field colleagues and their countries’ responses to gendered aspects of COVID-19.

In the meantime, we hope to see you at tomorrow’s first Gender 360 Summit: 2020 Virtual Series session, focused on the intersectional impact of the pandemic on gender equality and social inclusion. EnCompass is proud to be a co-sponsor for this session with FHI 360 and other organizations.