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
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: "Resources for Women; Women as Resources"
The international humanitarian and aid communities have always worked in contexts where resources, funds and support systems are hard to come by, harder to build and hardest to distribute. The competing needs of numerous groups —all dire and all urgent— are complex to parse through and prioritize. However, years of practice and scholarship have repeatedly shown the stark reality that women and girls tend to both be the ones most impacted by humanitarian crises like conflicts and disasters and the ones who tend to be most egregiously neglected by donors and humanitarian agencies. In addition, women and girls are expected to contribute to their homes and communities.
This expectation is held not only by their own families but by many humanitarian agencies. Humanitarian agencies are not outside patriarchal norms and are as likely to see women as a resource in their families and communities as the contexts within which they are operating. There is a reflexive focus on how women can support the others around them, but extraordinarily little attention is paid towards understanding what resources or support women might need or towards actually providing them with those. The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted the extent of this attitude towards women and women-led organizations and dealt a serious blow to what little progress had been made towards centering the needs of girls and women in programs, funding practices and policies.
Unsurprisingly, the negative impacts of COVID-19 have been disproportionately harsh on women and girls. The pandemic has underscored the roles that women play and are expected to play in their families and communities. The last year and half also saw a resurgence in the prevalence of patriarchal ideas and assumptions around women’s duties and obligations within the household. Women’s unpaid and underpaid labor was simultaneously exploited more and valued less. Consequently, the view that women are resources to be utilized extends beyond the individual level to also impact on how women and girl-led organizations that work to uphold women’s causes have fared in the course of the pandemic.
To understand the wider impact of COVID-19 on women and girl led organizations, we begin by first understanding how the pandemic impacted them on an individual level. VOICE’s We Must Do Better report found that many women and girls were relegated to household chores and care-taking responsibilities during the pandemic. With work outside the home no longer possible, women and girls were burdened with care work and domestic responsibilities. This is a particularly disquieting development for adolescent girls because it is less likely that their families will allow them to return to their educations once schools reopen. The pandemic is reinforcing patriarchal notions of a girl’s place being in the house and encouraging the perception of women as resources to be utilized in the service of others as opposed to human beings with their own dreams, ambitions and agency. These reactive roles also re-situate women and girls as dependent on the men around them financially and logistically, a dynamic that renders them very exposed to abuse.
What Women and Girls Told Us
Organizations reported that many of their communities were witnessing a sudden rise in the number of early marriages. Young girls are forced or coerced into marriage by their families because the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19 has pushed many families back into abject poverty. As a means to reduce the number of mouths to feed, families will often try to marry their daughters off.
A women’s disability rights organization in Somalia reported that, “We have seen discrimination, domestic violence, FGM, forced and early marriages, sexual exploitation, and a shortage of jobs.”
This is corroborated by another women’s organization in Uganda who said “There is an increase in sexual and economic violence. They are seeking protection from abusers because safe spaces are either closed or inaccessible. There is also a lot of violence stemming from partners not providing for the household, leading to an increase in struggles for assets and subduing of women to prove power over them.”
The homes into which these adolescent girls marry often consider them a source of labor. Specifically, young girls and women are valued for their reproductive labor, increasing their vulnerability to sexual and intimate partner violence. Furthermore, VOICE’s WMDB study found that in most countries, women not only performed the overwhelming majority of domestic work but were also at the forefront of many essential healthcare services. This increased their own health risks without a proportional increase in remuneration they received for their work. Women and girls have found themselves in an impossible predicament of a sharp rise in both domestic work and in many cases an increasingly risky professional situation. This perception of women and girls as mere conduits for the service of others extends to how large humanitarian organizations and international donors have dealt with women and girl-led organizations around the world. Respondents to VOICE’s We Must Do Better report said that many of their organizations received no additional support from their donors but were expected to continue their work and in some cases even widen its scope to respond to the pandemic.
A women’s rights organization in Malawi reported that “Many potential donors canceled the granting process due to COVID-19 and they haven’t opened any other opportunities yet. One of [our] donors had already approved their grant, but it took more than two months to have the funds transferred.”
There is a vicious cycle in action. Women were and continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because they already lacked adequate access, in particular, to economic resources. By further withholding or cutting off access to even the meagre resources that they did have previously, the pandemic has shed an unforgiving light on the ways that women and the organizations they lead are consistently shortchanged by those who claim to champion them. For instance, many women and girl-led organizations were expected to carry on with their work on the field while receiving no additional funding to cover items like Personal Protective Equipment or an added financial incentive to compensate for the enormous personal risk women were expected to take.
A women’s rights organization from Bangladesh reported that “Our organization had no funds from 15 February until 15 September.”
Only 22% of respondents to our survey said that they were able to access continued funding for their programs. Most others were still awaiting further updates from funders, facing an uncertain future or had faced outright rejections to their pleas for funding.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many funders still function under the assumption that men will eventually share their resources with girls and women. And so, many of the programs and policies implemented to ameliorate the impacts of COVID-19 have been designed with men as the central and often exclusive beneficiaries. This erasure of women from recovery measures is also a result of considering women’s work as a natural and inexhaustible source for the greater good of their families and communities.
Instead of acknowledging women’s unique needs to provide them with more resources, women’s immense contributions to their homes and communities are held up as evidence that women do not need resources because they are the resource.
What This Means for Women and Girls
The central takeaway that respondents left us with is the fact that when women are viewed merely as instruments to be deployed for the wellbeing and progress of others, their basic and indelible humanity is disregarded. Their rights, needs and choices are sidelined if not completely ignored. More worryingly, by demoting women to effectively worker-bee status, the humanitarian and international development sectors often fail to credit the skills, knowledge and intellectual rigor that women and girls bring to the organizations they build and lead. When donor agencies and humanitarian organizations simply consider women and girls as field agents who execute programs and policies designed by others, they fail to invite women to the table as equal partners. Women and girls who lead organizations on the ground are rarely consulted by larger agencies to help identify their needs, direct resources and plan programs. This is both a disservice to women and girls and a chief cause of exacerbating existing inequities further. By acknowledging the rich and diverse set of capabilities that women bring to the humanitarian space, aid and humanitarian agencies should commit to investing resources that empower women to build and effectively employ those skills.
Women and girls in their families and communities, and women- and girl-led organizations find themselves situated in an impossible position; they can clearly see the needs around them, and their traditional roles are to take care of others. In the context of a terrifying global pandemic, it is impossibly hard-hearted – unthinkable - to refuse to extend care to those around them. Organizations that have grown out of activism cannot refuse to try to meet the needs of the women and girls they serve. In the face of this commitment, they find themselves hugely exploited, their labour, knowledge, and skills appropriated and deployed without resource or support as an indirect basis of the humanitarian response. Programs are designed and implemented on an assumption that women will provide care and will voluntarily provide services and support in their families and communities, regardless of their own needs.
Aligned with this frame of reference, there is also an assumption the women- and girl-led organizations will ‘find a way’ to sustain their already under-funded services without additional resources. These organizations and services are not recognized as needing to be resourced; rather, their foundations in ‘activism’ confine them – in the eyes of the international community – to working ‘voluntarily’, out of their ‘passion’ for their work. That this is an exploitation of women is not considered relevant. Within the patriarchal expectations of women’s ‘selflessness’, any demand or request, even, for resources is understood as inappropriate, self-serving, and a betrayal of ‘activism’, undermining still further the work of women- and girl-led organizations.
The unpaid work of women- and girl-led organizations in humanitarian crises has never been costed or valued financially. It is, however, a parallel process to the ways in which women’s domestic and reproductive labour is an invisible contribution to GDP.
There are three crucial and non-negotiable steps that humanitarian aid organizations and donors need to take as they continue to attempt to curb the damage caused in the wake of the pandemic.
All humanitarian agencies should unequivocally commit to recognising women as human beings who need resources and are not themselves resources. Services for women and girls must be fully accounted for in planning, and resources ring-fenced to ensure that their needs are met. This means prioritising sexual and reproductive health services, GBV response services, and access to and control over livelihood opportunities and resources. Women must not be disappeared into ‘the household’ while men retain control of distributed aid, whether food, non-food items, or any other necessity. Distributions of resources and opportunities must prioritise women, in recognition of their own needs, as well as their responsibility for providing for others.
International organizations must recognize that in most parts of the world, women are socially expected to care for other people in their homes, families and communities. Women are lauded for being ‘selfless’ and encouraged to disregard their own needs. Humanitarian organizations must not take advantage of this tendency and must thoughtfully design programs that don’t rely on women to provide unpaid or underpaid labour. It is integral that humanitarian agencies make this a codified core principle of their programming to ensure that their donors also understand that women’s abilities and time cannot be instrumentalized to build cheaper programs under the guise of benefitting the larger community. The idea that women should voluntarily serve their communities is a harmful one and international organizations must be taking all possible measures not to appropriate or exploit women’s labour and skills.
It is vital that humanitarian aid organizations bolster their support of women and girl-led organizations that focus on women’s issues in times of crisis. Humanitarian aid agencies and their donors must recognize that for too long women and girls and the organizations they lead have been expected to run programs and deliver results on shoestring budgets and grossly inadequate resources. Instead of upholding this status quo, they must provide women with the resources and support they need to ensure that they can run their organizations and live their lives with dignity and choice. Funding and resources for women-led organisations must be ring-fenced from the beginning and used to ensure that these organisations are sustained.
Links across the research briefs
Throughout the research, and the issues raised by the organizations participating, it is clear that none of these issues are separate from the others, and as such, none of them can be addressed discretely. The resources challenges faced by women- and girl-led are related not only to the pandemic and the increase in needs and the need for resources, but the ways in which specific people are valued and recognized as in need of resources and services, and who is helped responsible for providing them. COVID-19 is a health crisis, and health crises happen in socio-political contexts; health, and health issues, are intimately connected to who is expected to provide care, and for whom.
Women- and girl-led organizations are, in addition, finding themselves the final line of defense for women in their attempts to replace their precarious incomes, and sustain themselves and their children. They are also trying to meet the needs related to the predictable increases in violence against women and girls; within this landscape, women – and women-led organizations – are understood as a resource that will provide for others without being resourced or supported. At the same time, there is virtually no care for the women providing the services, all of whom are exposed to the same risks as the women they serve.
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