By Marcy Hersh & Olfat Mahoud | Thomson Reuters Foundation | 1 May 2020
As COVID-19 threatens refugee camps, humanitarian responses must not forget the needs of vulnerable women and girls
Olfat Mahmoud is the Founder and Director of the Palestinian Women's Humanitarian Organization in Lebanon.
Marcy Hersh is the Senior Manager for Humanitarian Advocacy at Women Deliver.
In Bourj-el-Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon, residents now joke: “Perhaps COVID-19 will forget about us too.”
Their sprawling settlement – home to up to 45,000 refugees – has no known cases of COVID-19 so far. Yet despite this grim humor, advocates agree that it is just a matter of time before the pandemic reaches all refugee camps, and those hardest hit will be girls and women.
For refugee girls and women everywhere, the feeling of being “forgotten” is rooted in an unacceptable reality: for decades, their perspectives have been an afterthought in humanitarian action.
Across the globe, most displacement settings have been left totally unprepared to protect the most vulnerable – particularly girls and women – from the new threat of COVID-19.
As world leaders and humanitarian responders take on COVID-19, the needs of millions of displaced girls and women must be upheld.
These are some of the key issues that they should consider:
Consider gender in COVID-19 responses in humanitarian settings
This pandemic must be a wake-up call to address inequalities in displacement settings – such as refugee camps, detention centers, and informal settlements – which keep girls and women from protecting themselves against COVID-19. For example, adopting frequent handwashing practices will be difficult if they find it unsafe to visit latrines or water distribution points in camps due to risks of gender-based violence.
Prioritize gender equality in health systems
What happens if a refugee girl or woman shows symptoms of COVID-19? For many refugees, health services are difficult to access, especially for girls and women already facing mobility restrictions in communities.
COVID-19 does not discriminate, so healthcare to mitigate the spread of the disease should follow suit. Governments must invest in stronger health systems for all. This includes exploring innovative ways to reach displaced girls and women where they are, such as mobile health services and telehealth information.
Safeguard services for sexual health and protection from gender-based violence
While we scale up health services to respond to COVID-19 in refugee communities, we must also ensure access to lifesaving sexual and reproductive health services – the bedrock of gender equality.
The need for sexual and reproductive health services during COVID-19 is even more acute in crisis settings, as intimate partner violence increases under lockdowns.
To meet these rising needs, funding to address gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights must not be disrupted. This includes working with local women-focused civil society organizations to implement preparedness efforts and the Minimal Initial Service Package for Reproductive Health in Emergencies – a set of priority actions to save lives at the outset of every crisis.
Prevent asylum delays that may put girls and women in danger
Basic human rights – including the right to asylum, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – must also not be put on hold because of COVID-19.
We are already witnessing how fears of COVID-19 have fueled xenophobic rhetoric to blame refugees for the spread of the virus or its economic fallout, resulting in delays and denials in asylum processes and other threats to safety.
These delays can have a serious impact on girls and women in need of critical and immediate care – including those who are pregnant or survivors of gender-based violence – and impede access to the health and protection services they need immediately.
Governments and international organizations must work together to adopt stronger solutions to respect international protection standards during COVID-19.
Engage with women-focused organizations in humanitarian settings
Our strongest allies and partners in all this work are local women-focused civil society organizations in humanitarian settings. In Bourj-el-Barajneh camp, grassroots groups like the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization are already ensuring girls and women are not forgotten.
They are sharing information about COVID-19, providing hygiene kits to help prevent infection, referring survivors of violence to protection services, and so much more.
Now, more than ever before, we need to find innovative ways to channel funding and resources to such groups. This means dramatically increasing the percentage of localized aid – currently less than 9% of all humanitarian funding – and ensuring this funding is flexible, long-term, and tailored to the unique needs of organizations operating in crisis situations.
Women-focused civil society organizations have always been powerful leaders and change-makers – it’s time to let them lead.
For too long, the needs of refugee girls and women have been left behind in emergency response efforts. Few know this more than the resilient Palestinian women who have resided in Bourj-el-Barajneh camp for over seventy years.
Throughout those years, they have advocated with refugee women around the world to demand: “Nothing about us without us.”
During COVID-19, it’s time for all of us to join them in a new rallying cry: “Nothing without us will work.” In the face of a pandemic that knows no border or citizenship status, there is no other choice.