Resilience and determination: women, peace and security in the time of COVID-19

The year 2020 is a significant milestone for gender equality and women’s empowerment, as it marks the anniversary of unprecedented policy commitments and practical action frameworks.1 The COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly disrupted plans to assess the progress of these milestones, celebrate the achievements and set new objectives or goals.

In the 159 days since the first African COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Egypt, we have seen its devastating effects. From the direct and indirect impacts of the virus caused by the measures implemented to curb the spread, such as national lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, we have seen how the pandemic has dramatically changed our lives. More so, it has become abundantly clear that the effects have a gendered dimension, as women and girls across the continent have been disproportionally affected by the virus and the measures implemented to reduce its spread.

African women are at the frontline in protecting their communities against COVID-19. Women across the continent have proven – as they so often do – that they are the backbone of community resilience #BuildBackBetter @pravinami @mollymhamilton1 #C19ConflictMonitor

As these gendered effects quickly revealed themselves, the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU) and civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world responded to the impact COVID-19 has had and will continue to have on women and girls. Responses have included:

  • important analyses to fully understand the gendered dimension of the pandemic;
  • advocating to have women’s representation in decision-making bodies related to the pandemic;
  • mobilising to support women at the grassroots who have taken it upon themselves to help their communities during this time; and
  • providing space to dialogue on and share experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In spite of COVID-19-related disruptions, it is important to map the trajectory of the numerous activities over the past four months related to women, peace and security (WPS). The number of activities that have taken place in fewer than 200 days is overwhelming and there are still gaps in the reporting and sharing of activities, especially at a local level. Therefore, this mapping will only be a sample of what is an impressive spurt of activity over the last few months. In mapping this sample, we pose the following questions:

  1. What do the responses witnessed over the past four months say about WPS respondents?
  2. Has the WPS movement shown its strengths, weaknesses and resilience in this crisis?
  3. Are there any identifiable trends that this crisis will offer us to #BuildBackBetter?
  4. What do these activities demonstrate to us about the leadership in our constituency, about our new best practices and about local peacebuilding?

Leading the global responses to COVID-19, UN Secretary-General António Guterres made an appeal for a global ceasefire and an end to violence against women and girls (VAWG). UN Women also responded swiftly to the gendered impact of the pandemic. Framing its response, UN Women outlined five priorities: gender-based violence, including domestic violence; social protection and economic stimulus packages to serve women and girls; people support and practical equal sharing of care work; women and girls lead and participate in COVID-19 response planning and decision-making; and data and coordination mechanism include gender perspectives. Examples of activities implemented by UN Women include the continued monitoring and rapid assessment of VAWG and COVID-19 in many countries including Libya, Malawi, Morocco, South Africa and Egypt; UN Women’s #HeForSheAtHome campaign, geared towards inspiring men and boys to help balance the burden of care in their households; UN Women South Africa, in partnership with Google and MTN, supporting 4 500 women-owned businesses to access government stimulus funding by offering them virtual learning courses; UN Women Malawi supporting awareness-raising and sensitisation of influencers, youth networks, and faith-based and traditional leaders on COVID-19, and addressing cultural practices that might impact the spread of the disease; and in Timor-Leste, UN Women providing technical assistance to line ministries to ensure the state of emergency declared incorporates gender and protection considerations.

The AU has also shown strong leadership in being actively seized with the gendered impact of COVID-19. On 12 May, in partnership with UN Women, the AU hosted the inaugural meeting of African Ministers for Gender and Women’s Affairs, under the theme “COVID-19 Response and Recovery – a Gendered Framework”. In addition, on 28 May, with the support of the AU, the African Women’s Leader Network convened a virtual consultation on COVID-19 responses to provide a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on women in Africa. At the CSO level, in particular, organisations have been active in producing knowledge and useful analysis of the gendered impacts of the pandemic.

In response to travel restrictions, a variety of stakeholders have resorted to online webinars to bring people together to discuss the gendered trends emerging, to share best practices and challenges, to lobby government and, ultimately, to ensure that the relevance of the WPS agenda is not forgotten.

The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) has taken its plans online to host a series of dialogues of women and youth to converse on issues related to both the WPS and the youth, peace and security (YPS) agenda. ACCORD’s inaugural dialogue, titled “Women and Youth Exchanging Lessons for Peace and Security”, brought together Aya Chebbi, Helen Kezie-Nwoha, Verlaine-Diane Soobroydoo and Natasha Mutuwa in a dynamic discussion on the challenges women and youth are facing, and to share practical solutions to these challenges. For example, during the webinar we heard from Ms Mutuwa about the challenges young women peacebuilders face during the pandemic – notably, the lack of communication or collaboration between young peacebuilders and government. During her remarks, Ms Chebbi offered a solution to this challenge by emphasising the importance of co-leadership opportunities between youth and government.

Figure 1: Timeline of a sample of WPS and related webinars since April 2020

These activities show exciting momentum behind the WPS agenda and women and girls’ empowerment. There has been exceptional leadership in pushing the agenda forward and demonstrating its relevance during these difficult times. Women across the continent have proven – as they so often do – that they are the backbone of resilient communities. From working with local radio broadcasters to help spread messages about the threat of the virus and proper hygiene and working directly with women and girls to educate them about safe hygiene and social distancing measures, to making masks, donating needed supplies, distributing posters with essential information and raising awareness about the virus via social media, African women are at the frontline in protecting their communities.

Is the COVID-19 pandemic an opportunity to #BuildBackBetter? Assessing the responses since the onset of the pandemic by answering the various questions posed will be an important next step. The answers will also assist in assessing how the pandemic will or will not change the future of the WPS agenda, and what adjustments are required to respond to current challenges and to new norms post COVID-19.

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ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.