Pandemic threatens communities ravaged by war and crisis, global support needed
- 16 April 2020
AZRAQ CAMP, Jordan/HOMS, Syria/UNITED NATIONS, New York – “I invested the first four days of the lockdown calling beneficiaries to inform them of the availability of virtual support,” Orouba Amin, a counsellor in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, told UNFPA.
Ms. Amin has spent 11 years providing psychosocial care to survivors of trauma and violence, from refugees escaping the horrors of war to women and girls escaping sexual abuse and exploitation. Today, her work comes on top of a new threat: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around the world, as governments implement lockdowns and movement restrictions, women’s centres and safe spaces are closing their doors, even as evidence mounts that gender-based violence may be increasing.
Countries are also seeing their reproductive health services being curbed as resources are diverted to the pandemic response. Where reproductive health care remains available, movement restrictions and fears of the virus are keeping women from seeking care.
Communities afflicted by humanitarian crises are particularly imperilled by these conditions. Many are already struggling with poverty and limited access to health services. Infection-control measures are even harder to implement in densely packed settlements with limited water and sanitation resources.
These challenges are greatly exacerbated for women who are pregnant, require family planning supplies or need protection from violence.
In Jordan, where nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, a curfew has been imposed to slow transmission of the virus.
That has been an added hardship in Azraq Camp, where an average of seven people are crowded into each “caravan”, or prefabricated shelter. Shop owners are struggling to import essential food items and commodities, and livelihood options are scant with people sheltering at home. Families are facing increasingly difficult choices as they try to put food on their tables.
And as social life increasingly takes place online, so does sexual harassment, one woman told UNFPA.
The camp’s safe spaces for women and girls, run by the International Rescue Committee with support from UNFPA, have been closed.
Ms. Amin and her colleagues are racing to find new means of providing services to women and girls in need.
Right now, she is providing a lot of counselling via telephone. But many women lack the privacy needed to speak on the phone about sensitive issues. Others do not have their own phones.
Counsellors have adopted strict protocols when reaching out to these women to ensure their safety.
Ms. Amin also provides assistance via text message and WhatsApp.
“One of the women texted me on the dedicated WhatsApp number, and when I responded to her, she said, ‘I’m fine now, as I know that you are there for me in case I need you.’ This meant everything to me,” she said.
In humanitarian situations, women’s vulnerability to violence and exploitation escalates. And even before the pandemic, hundreds of women and girls in humanitarian and fragile settings died each day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Now, as health systems and protection services are stressed by the pandemic, conditions for women are poised to worsen.
UNFPA has urgently called for funding to the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, with a requirement of $120 million for UNFPA to ensure the health and safety of women and girls affected by humanitarian crises. In addition, UNFPA has appealed for $67.5 million to support COVID-19 preparedness efforts through March and April.
This amount – a total of $187.5 million – will go towards strengthening health systems, providing critical medical supplies to health staff, shoring up sexual and reproductive health services, and ensuring continuity of services for survivors of gender-based violence. It is separate from the humanitarian funding needed for UNFPA’s ongoing support to crisis-affected countries.
For both UNFPA’s humanitarian appeal and its COVID-19 response plan, flexible funds are needed to ensure an agile response as conditions on the ground evolve.
UNFPA is already ramping up efforts to address the pandemic in humanitarian settings.
In Syria, which is also under curfew, outreach workers are trying to raise awareness of the pandemic, infection-control measures and women’s rights.
It is an uphill battle, said Ghadeer Mohammed Ibrahim Qara Bulad, director of the Women’s Development Project at the Islamic Charitable Association in Homs. “The majority of the families we visit are awfully poor and cannot even buy sterilizers,” she said.
She has also seen widespread gender-based violence, and fears it will only intensify. “During my visits, I saw a woman being beaten by her husband during the curfew,” she said. “I think the percentage of gender-based violence will increase, and increase dramatically.”
But, like other humanitarian workers, she and Ms. Amin are unwavering in their dedication.
“We need to bring together all efforts to accomplish [our goals] with the least material and human losses,” Ms. Bulad said.