A Crisis Within a Crisis: Grassroots Feminist Organizations Press On During COVID-19 in Lebanon
Women Deliver Humanitarian Advocates in Lebanon save lives and ensure no one is left behind during COVID-19
We know that there is an urgent need to place a gender lens on COVID-19 responses everywhere, including in humanitarian settings where girls and women are often most at risk. This is true in Lebanon, where the pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities and sharpened the sting of the ongoing economic crisis.
In response, grassroots feminist organizations in Lebanon are stepping up and continuing their vital work while taking action against the pandemic. Despite new challenges and strained resources, these organizations have remained unwavering advocates and service providers for girls and women across the country, including refugees, LGBTQIA+ persons, and migrant workers.
We cheer on the Humanitarian Advocates – five grassroots feminist organizations in Lebanon – at the forefront of efforts to apply a gender lens to COVID-19 responses in their country. Here are four ways these organizations are saving lives and ensuring no one is left behind during this unprecedented pandemic.
The team at the Lebanon Family Planning Association (LFPADE) continue to provide sexual health information and services in Lebanon. (Photo from February 2019).
1. Upholding lifesaving services for girls and women, including for their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)
As the world responds to the COVID-19 crisis, funding and access to SRHR, including modern contraception, safe abortion, and maternal health services must be prioritized. In Lebanon, grassroots feminist organizations are filling service gaps to ensure SRHR – the bedrock of gender equality – is still upheld.
The Lebanon Family Planning Association for Development and Family Empowerment (LFPADE) is keeping both of its medical centers open during this challenging time, providing reproductive health and pediatric services to marginalized communities. While COVID-19 has affected health seeking-behavior, the organization reports that there are still many girls and women who continue to seek these services. Therefore, the centers have adapted the necessary cautionary measures, ensuring safe distances in the waiting room and providing hygiene kits and information to its patients on COVID-19.
Meanwhile, although Marsa Sexual Health Center has recently closed its office for general appointments, staff continue to accept emergency appointments, including for STI testing and referrals. At a time when SRHR services are dwindling due to COVID-19, these activities are a critical lifeline for girls, women, and other marginalized communities.
The team at Women Now for Development provide women’s empowerment and leadership courses in Bekaa, Lebanon (Photo from Feb 2019). These sessions are now held virtually.
2. Sharing critical health information with marginalized communities
In many displacement settings – including refugee camps and informal settlements in Lebanon – girls and women often lack access to the critical health information they need to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19. In response, grassroots feminist organizations are adapting and expanding their work to keep communities safe.
The Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO) is using platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook to reach out to people living in Bourj-el-Barajneh refugee camp with necessary information about COVID-19 prevention, symptoms, and treatment. PWHO staff are going door-to-door to ensure the hardest-to-reach receive timely health information, hygiene kits, and temperature checks to monitor symptoms of COVID-19.
To reach girls and women where they are, Women Now for Development shifted its empowerment and protection services and programs to virtual platforms. To support girls and women living in informal settlements throughout Lebanon, they are providing informational sessions around prevention, symptoms, and treatment of COVID-19. The organization has also played a leading role in addressing the mental health impacts of the pandemic on already vulnerable people, as well as distributing aid to families and women-headed households. Finally, the team has worked hard to keep their open library running by sending PDF books via messaging apps to girls and women in these settings.
A leaflet for RDFL’s 24/7 hotline for girls and women who experience gender-based violence (Photo from February 2019).
3. Addressing gender-based violence and women’s psychosocial needs
Evidence from around the world shows that gender-based violence (GBV) like domestic violence is increasing dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis. In Lebanon, grassroots feminist organizations are running domestic violence helplines, women’s shelters, psychosocial support systems for survivors, and so much more.
The Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering (RDFL) continues to operate its hotlines for those experiencing GBV at a time when these services are more lifesaving than ever. Reports from RDFL and other feminist organizations indicate that since the outbreak began calls to the hotlines have nearly doubled – demonstrating how critically needed these services are during the pandemic.
To ensure everyone can access the support they need, social workers at PWHO are also working within refugee communities to provide psychosocial support and referral information, despite challenging Wi-Fi access and resources. Meanwhile, the team at the Marsa Sexual Health Center has also recently shifted to offer therapy virtually, particularly for LGBTQIA+ individuals and other marginalized groups who might not otherwise have access to safe and non-discriminatory mental health resources.
Dr. Olfat Mahmoud, founder of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization, advocates for greater support for women-focused CSOs in humanitarian settings at CSW 2019. (Photo from March 2019).
4. Advocating for the health and rights of girls, women, and other vulnerable groups
Grassroots feminist organizations are unwavering advocates for the health and rights of their communities – and this work hasn’t stopped during COVID-19. Instead, it has become more important than ever.
In Lebanon, Marsa Sexual Health Center is leading new campaigns that spotlight the impact of COVID-19 on people living with HIV, and those at risk of intimate partner violence during quarantine. Similarly, RDFL has raised the alarm on the increased levels of violence against girls and women during this pandemic through various media platforms, including by advocating on national TV, radio, and newspapers. At the same time, Women Now for Development has continued with their campaign against child marriage in northern Lebanon, moving their weekly research meetings to a virtual format to sustain this important work.
Together, these organizations are showing that while COVID-19 may have moved much of the world to the standstill, progress on gender equality cannot wait.
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We have always known that grassroots feminist organizations are frontline responders, skilled service providers, trusted community leaders, and so much more. During COVID-19, this is even more evident.
Now, more than ever, we must ensure these organizations have the funding, support, and leadership opportunities they need to sustain their vital work.
As Olfat Mahmoud of PWHO explains: “We need to keep trying, trying to support the people, being there.” As a global community, we must do the same.