16 Days of Activism:  Briefs from VOICE's Research Report "We Must Do Better"

A Feminist Assessment of the Humanitarian Aid System's Support of
Women- and Girl-Led Organizations During the VOCID-19 Pandemic

Research Brief: "The Value of Women's Work"

Table of Contents:


The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been immense, with long-term repercussions and social consequences. The crisis has triggered the largest global recession since the Great Depression. Nearly all countries have instituted lockdowns or curfews at various stages; global supply chains have been disrupted; commercial travel has declined; and the closure of educational institutions continues. Globally, the shape of work and social lives has been altered in ways that could not have been foreseen, and these extreme changes have had specific and critical implications for women and girls. In August 2020, as part of VOICE’s work in centering and amplifying the voices of women and girls, we initiated the We Must Do Better research series, with the aim of creating space for women and girls to share their own experiences and perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first report, We Must Do Better, is an overarching 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 has impacted their organizations and communities and how humanitarian responders engage with them, if at all. We invited 200 feminist organizations and individual women and girls in 41 countries to share their experiences during the pandemic and speak of their needs. The work sought to understand how their organizations are being affected and the ways in which they are (or are not) being supported. 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 how the pandemic has affected the violence they face.

This series of research briefs takes a more in-depth look at the themes identified in the original report, exploring more concretely the following areas;

Who Cares for the Carers?
Resources for Women; Women as Resources
Adapting Programming in the Context of COVID-19
The Value of Women’s Work

Across all the themes, the research illustrates how precarious progress has been towards gender equity; it has become painfully visible that women and girls have not so much realized their rights within patriarchal contexts, but had been granted concessions which have been quickly withdrawn in the face of a global crisis. While COVID-19 may not discriminate, families, communities, governments and the machinery of aid certainly do; the themes explored in this series echo the long-term feminist analyses concerning the appropriation of women’s work, the ways in which women are understood and situated as resources, and the lack of care and concern extended to women who are expected to provide care for others.

The Brief: "The Value of Women's Work"

This paper considers the ways in which the work of women is valued – or not – in the contexts of emergencies, and what this means for the kinds of programmatic interventions that are essential in order to support not only sustained service delivery but to support the women and girls who are working and volunteering in those services. This is integrally connected to the analyses of women as care-givers, the ways in which women and girls are understood as resources in their families and communities, and the reliance of the humanitarian architecture on the unpaid and invisible work of women and girls. This paper is concerned with understanding the vital but deeply undervalued invisible and unpaid work taken on by women and girls that enable the undertaking of "productive" work by others?

The paper examines the value of women's work, and how - despite often being relied on for information and to provide services – women-led groups and organizations are still undervalued and overlooked in terms of tangible support. Women and girl-led organizations described how the wider humanitarian sector relies heavily on them to provide VAWG services, sustain grassroots networks and alliances, provide information and guidance – just to name a few – and at the same time their work is undervalued, and devalued.

What Women and Girls Told Us

Throughout the data, women- and girl-led organizations consistently described similar themes, across regions and countries.

"We barely have time for our families because you are needed to respond almost everywhere hence we do get burnt out sometimes.”

"It has been extremely difficult for our female staff to work from home as many of them do not have access to quiet space to work from home. Although the program helped each staff have access to computers and internet at home, but many of them do not have access to power"
(Kabul, Afghanistan)

Aligned with what women talked about in relation to questions about resources and about care, in terms of work, women talked overwhelmingly about the increases in terms of demands of them. They found themselves more "in demand" than ever but less supported at the same time. Women described a debilitating sense of loneliness and lack of support due to lockdowns and fears of spreading and/or contracting COVID-19. They had become isolated from their support networks (for example, parents, friends, seeing co-workers in person, etc.). This, in turn, has had a drastic impact on their mental health and well-being. Women described how before the pandemic, they reached out to friends and families and community-based organizations for support (financial and otherwise). The impact of the additional demands on them were not recognized or understood as additional work

"The way we did everything had to be modified, we are used to holding workshops and face-to-face activities, organizing everything to be able to give quality trainings in a virtual way increased the workload. As well as the follow-ups on the psychological and economic situation of the users of the association, and the search for budgets in order to be able to provide financial and food aid to those who needed it most."

Responses described the sharp increase in the violence faced by women and girls that their organizations were called upon to respond to and provide support for. Types of support required have included legal, psycho-social, mental, case work management, provision of safe spaces, and more. They described the need and demand for capacity building and entrepreneurship training beyond the VAWG sphere to support women facing financial difficulty, requests for hygiene supplies, support with comprehensive sexuality education and awareness, and other similar needs. This has placed immense pressure on them as individuals, all while they continue to navigate their complex home situations with increased care responsibilities, at the same time as this additional work is not valued by their families, their communities, or the humanitarian infrastructure.

"It is a big lie; all that they say is that they are going to give aid to mothers who are heads of households and adolescent mothers. It is a facade they do to show that they really helping, but it's not like that."

The responses shared by women around their needs and concerns were sharply telling of the demands on them; very few talked about the fear of contracting COVID-19 outside of the context around considerations for who would take care of them, fulfill their work, or discuss their communities and staff. Instead, the focus was on the burdens of work they were grappling with, in the face of the seemingly insurmountable challenge of lack of resources. When asked what services and activities they were looking to expand, the answers primarily centered around basic needs and service provision – the bare minimum.
Women shared their need to be support in carrying out more sustainable and long-term work "and no repetitive projects focusing women's roles on house chores.” They talked of the struggle with the digital divide and providing services and support virtually, something that was not always effective or possible, making it difficult and in some cases impossible to fulfill the demands being made of them. Others talked of the struggle to relocate funding that had already been received due to inflexibility on the part of funders and the inability to access more funding for unplanned expenses such as PPE and hygiene equipment. They saw a loss of the gains made on women's rights through their work and highlighted the lack of funding available for them to access. They discussed the difficulties in mastering new forms of work, lack of face-to-face communication with colleagues, and the psychological struggle stemming from the uncertainty of when things will recover. All of these concerns spoke to how invisible and unvalued women’s work has been in this crisis, both domestically in their households and more publicly in their communities and by humanitarian actors.

"Because our organization does not have core fund or reserve fund, the number of our project personnel [has] decreased after closure of some projects.”

A further issue raised included the failure of the international response to integrate the concerns of women and girls – as individuals and as their organisations and their work with women. There has been little recognition of their work, and no value attached to it within the policies and programming priorities, reinforcing the sense that the work is both invisible and effectively disposable. This kind of dismissal of the work of women and girls is profoundly dispiriting to them, since it indicates a serious lack of value given to both them and their work.

"The emergency response has not been able to mainstream gender in the fight against COVID 19,"

"Some didn't provide emergency services due to fear of COVID-19 while others (health care providers) passed snarky comments when they did".

Women talked about a myriad of gendered issues being faced by women and girls in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including domestic violence, increased unpaid care work burdens, lack of access to information, struggles to access health services, re-allocation of women's health services to more general COVID-19 response, and increased job loss and economic security. The connections underpinning these responses were built on were around the realities that women’s needs, perspectives and experiences have been largely ignored and sidelined from the emergency response to COVID-19. 

It was also noticeable that for some respondents, the questions themselves became a space for women to talk about the issues they were facing, with no mention of support; that the survey itself was the only place women had to talk about this was indicative of the lack of value attributed to their work. Others described how women's issues were treated as secondary, and they, in turn, were unable to fill in the support gaps due to a lack of resources stemming directly from this.

Women-led groups and organizations reported having been mainly ignored and sidelined in networks and decision-making processes around the pandemic as a whole, not viewed as equal partners who have skills, expertise and insights to contribute – a further indication of the ways in which their work is deeply undervalued. The majority referenced "big fish" like WHO that have been instrumental in shaping response processes. Of the groups they were a part of, women described how rarely the leaders of organizations consulted, if at all, and how tokenistic and surface-level the existing ‘consultations’ have been . Involvement seems also depend on which donors were funding and how they had been able use personal channels to get some kind of access; the overwhelming conclusion was that these processes have been ineffective, and their level of access. Some referenced personal channels and networks they had developed, and the majority described the ineffectiveness of the limited inclusion that did happen.
"The agenda is drawn by the donors and the government, then the women's groups are called in to rubber stamp," said one respondent while another said, "In our case [it was] through personal channels, by Internet mailing list.” Significantly few respondents described a meaningful engagement in the planning and strategizing process. Of those who did, international organizations were not referenced as these took place at the local level.

What This Means for Women and Girls

What is particularly saddening about analyzing these responses is the painful similarity to previous findings from pasty pandemics such as Zika, SARS, and Ebola. Thus it should not be unexpected to realize that gendered dynamics continue to play out in situations of crisis and pandemic.  As Conrad and Barker explain, "illnesses are particularly embedded with cultural meaning—which is not directly derived from the nature of the condition—that shapes how society responds to those afflicted and influences the experience of that illness". As we analyze these findings, we see just how true this is and yet how little we have learned from the past.  
The increased demands on women's time and work both within and outside of the home is a stark example of the gendered imbalance in care work as a whole. While it is true that during crises, epidemics, and pandemics, women tend to take up more caregiver responsibilities than usual, often at the expense of their health, inequality in caregiving is not an issue limited to pandemics and crisis alone. Their work is not viewed as valuable or "productive", instead only understood as an enabling process for others to do productive, and thereby valued, work. Any value that is expressed is done through often patronizing language that glorifies and valorizes women's suffering and sacrifice, not tangible resources or support. 

This, in turn, we see has a direct impact on how women prioritize their time and energy – and this is almost always done at the expense of their own health and safety. Women providing services, and working in organizations to support women and girls, find themselves caught in the crucible in both private and public domains; they are living the experiences in their own lives that they are supporting women within their public roles and work, and they are, in their public and working roles, expected to provide similar kinds of unpaid public care to the care they are providing within their private domains of family and community. In both of these spaces, their own needs are made invisible and disregarded; the parallel processes of becoming resources in both environments take a severe toll on the lives and well-being of women and girls.
Despite the clear evidencing that women and girls face gendered impacts from pandemics and other emergencies, their needs and specific issues are still not considered. The gender issue is seen as separate from the mainstream functioning, and the needs of women and girls within this context are not valued as a priority. Be it the allocation of resources, the inclusion of women and girls in decision-making processes, or even space for them to share their struggles – their realities are side-lined and asked to wait their turn. This turn never comes despite being highlighted over and over again over the years. This is profoundly frustrating and reminds us of the minimal consideration given to this issue despite the overwhelming evidence to show it is indeed a huge issue. The exclusion of women's groups from networks, groups, and decision-making processes also brings to light how international organizations and the UN rely on women-led organizations for information, to provide the VAWG services, to sustain women's groups, to tell them what they should be doing, but do not translate this into any tangible recognition of their value. 

The central tenet of "less money, more work" or "do more with less" ran strongly through all the responses given. The levels of demand on services increased exponentially, but without the resources or the support to change the modes of delivery in the context of the socially distanced provision, made available to meet those needs. Women whose levels of caregiving are increasing in their private lives are meeting similar demands for their skills and work in their public roles, with little or no support in either domain. An overwhelming number of women described their want and need to be more connected networks/groups, which indicates extractivism from international NGOs and little work having been done over the years to make groups connected and self-sustainable. Women-led groups and organizations continue to be trapped in the project funding cycle with no long-term capacity building and self-support being offered.

What is the value of women's work? Little or none evidently.

Over and over again in their responses, women shared how they are expected to give everything with nothing in return. They described the enormous emotional and physical burdens placed on them to hold everything together in a crisis, only to find themselves out in the cold when decisions are being made. Their needs and realities fail to be reflected time and time again, and indeed at the end of this pandemic seems the 'new normal' has them in a worse place than before.


·      Include women-led groups in a meaningful and engaging way across the board in all planning and advocacy, focusing on resources, services, and reducing isolation.

·      Bring these experiences and analyses to the attention of donors and those who can influence the shape and priorities of aid, and use practice-based evidence to support their demands

·      Ensure a feminist perspective and analysis in main-streamed in the whole process from planning for the crisis interventions, crisis interventions to post-crisis recovery

·      Create spaces and opportunity for women to talk about and analyze their experiences as women in their private lives as well as women in their public and working lives and to consider how their strategic needs and interests can be addressed

·      Reframe support and resources available to women's groups to avoid extractivism and ensure long-term sustainability and capacity building.

·      Increase funding available to women-led organizations and groups with a specific focus on flexible funding for grassroots, and unregistered groups and collectives.

Links across the research briefs

The absolute resistance to valuing the work of women in their personal and professional lives underpins and is deeply connected to the ways in which women are understood as a resource, and as the source of care for others without recognition of their own needs for care and support. 

The fundamentally patriarchal framing of women – and women’s organisations – as infinitely available, as an apparently endless source of care, support and provision for others, at the same time as being made invisible through the lack of value ascribed to it. The lack of value extended to the work of women has its roots in the lack of value ascribed to women, within patriarch norms and standards.

When the humanitarian architecture further instrumentalizes the work of women and women’s organisations, it becomes both extractive and exploitative, further entrenching the disempowerment of women and women’s work. It reinforces the ways in which the gains women have made over the last decades are revealed to be precarious concessions, and not the realizations of rights as human beings and the respect due to them.

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