VOICE REPORT: We Must Do Better

A Feminist Assessment of the Humanitarian Aid System's Support of Women- and Girl-Led Organizations during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

March 11, 2021

VOICE’s “We Must Do Better” report represents the first attempt at a global feminist assessment of the experiences of women and girls, and the organizations they lead, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It looks at their lives holistically to see how the pandemic impacts their organizations and communities, and how humanitarian responders engage with them, if at all. 

This research provides a platform for 200 feminist organizations and individual women and girls in 41 countries from six regions to share their experiences during the pandemic, and to speak to their needs that have not been met––despite being promised.

The work sought to understand how their organizations are being affected, and the ways in which they are (or are not) being supported through the pandemic. We asked about their frustrations, and how to alleviate the burdens they carry. We looked at how gender inequalities manifest in crisis; what impact lockdowns and economic downturns have on women and girls; and the relationship between the pandemic and the violence they face.

The VOICE survey enabled them to look at their domestic lives, as well as the supportive roles they play in communities, and the connections between the two domains. It recognizes the dual aspects of women’s lives–– that women in leadership are not living ‘outside’ the dynamics they are trying to change, and they are often situated much like the women they serve.

The survey covered issues of access to resources for their organizations, health, wellness, and other kinds of social care, their exposure to violence, and their access to supportive networks. The findings are organized around three major themes that emerged: giving and receiving care; resources and assets; and social expectations and norms.

The study shows how precarious the progress toward gender equity has been, in every sphere of life. Women and girls are realizing, painfully, that they had not so much gained their rights within patriarchal contexts, but rather concessions that were granted only until a crisis struck, and then quickly withdrawn. The pandemic may not discriminate, but families, communities, and governments certainly do.

The humanitarian aid sector contributes too, in spite of its commitments to crisis-affected populations—denying women and girls their rights to participation, consultation, and services, and in some cases subjecting them to its own types of violence. Response strategies have failed to engage women- and girl-led organizations to explore what a gender-transformative health response might look

Many of the organizations responding to this Survey noted that they have not been invited to participate in the planning for COVID-19 response, in spite of humanitarian agencies’ mandates to do so. The pandemic makes it more apparent than ever, so we are taking this opportunity to make it known: the humanitarian system needs do better.

The loss of women’s incomes, resources, freedom of movement, friendships and networks come in addition to the increased household burdens, demands for support from children and other family members, and the care for those who are sick. The closure of schools, the difficulties in obtaining food, and increased sanitation needs are burdens disproportionately carried by women.

In May 2020, UNFPA and other actors forecasted major concerns about increased violence against women and girls (VAWG). Yet funding for addressing VAWG accounted for only 0.48% of the overall funding appeal of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (as of August 2020), a shockingly small share, given the increased need that had been observed. Women working to support women and girls find themselves having to “do more with less,” effectively working harder than ever, for free, without the resources to change the modes of delivery in the context of social distancing. Women leaders are legitimately concerned that now, having done their COVID-19 response work with minimal support, they will be expected to continue to work on these terms in the future. At the same time, demand for their unpaid caregiving is also increasing within the private domains of family and community. In both domains, their own needs are made invisible and disregarded, even as the risks to their health and safety have increased.

While some donors have recognized the needs of women- and girl-led organizations and have made important efforts to accommodate the necessary changes, and to support organizations in their efforts to sustain services, most have not found supportive donors. A year into this pandemic, many organizations are still waiting to hear about funding decisions, and half of the respondents have not received any additional funding to help them respond. As the needs of their service users increase, and the needs of staff for PPE and other resources also increase.

Organizations have also reported donors reducing or cancelling their grant-making. Others have had difficulty in getting donor funds transferred, since banks have been closed. For some, the changes in funding have been catastrophic.

Reliance on individual donations also becomes more precarious as grantors have fewer resources and increasing needs of their own. Organizations that rely on officers’ side-jobs to stay afloat in lean times are now less able to do so. Not only are women’s and girls’ organizations shut out from access to and conversations with donors, their self-financing mechanisms are also under threat.

When asked what kinds of funding support efforts they need, the majority of respondents noted wanting opportunities to build donor relationships; support in engaging in advocacy for funding with the UN and other donors. They also noted wanting to have access to funding mechanisms and requirements that reflect what is feasible for their organizations to engage with.

Agencies continue to lag in their efforts to localize or better yet, to decolonize aid, which requires ceding control, addressing power imbalances, and investing in local organizations, especially in women- and girl-led organizations.

VOICE and UNICEF Webinar: "We Must Do Better" Listening Session

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