As you read this blog you are probably settling in what has become a difficult new reality: our lives are being — and will continue to be — disrupted by the global pandemic we are facing. Truth is, this is easy for no one. As our health and freedom of movement are being threatened and restricted, we are all feeling the weight of this global threat on our shoulders.
Yet we also know, as it is true for any emergency and global crisis, women and girls are going to be particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. First of all, women make up a huge majority of healthcare workers (up to 90% in China for example): the gendered nature of the health workforce means a greater risk for predominantly female health workers. Second, mandatory confinement means an increased risk for thousands of women who face intimate partner violence, domestic violence, and abuse from family members. Governments are scrambling for rapid policies to ensure those women are offered protection and support in these challenging times (French nonprofits have called for the government to rapidly create an emergency plan for victims and survivors). Third, the economic impacts of this crisis are going to be particularly felt by women (it just always is), as issues of childcare and employment in a pandemic exacerbate the gender inequalities we know already exist in our imperfect world. Finally, so many programs and services directly supporting girls and women around the world are facing a halt as part of prevention and mitigation measures.
At Batonga, we serve adolescent girls and young women in Benin, West Africa. Last Monday, the first case was confirmed by the government, and since then, that number is following a slow but steady increase. We don’t need to imagine what comes next: we are seeing it all around us. Except that for women and girls in Africa, things might get particularly disastrous. A few days ago, CARE published a new policy brief on the gender implications of COVID-19 outbreaks in development and humanitarian settings. Also, despite incredible leadership and experience on the continent when it comes to handling pandemics (Ebola for one), predictions for African countries capacity to manage this crisis are worrisome, mainly due to the lack of equipment and fragile institutional health systems. The disruption of services and programs in service of young women and girls is also going to put many at risk of increased violence and abuse, all the while isolating them from those who play supportive roles in their lives, such as our Batonga mentors.
Like many of our colleagues, we are rushing to develop immediate actions, as well as medium and long-term strategies, to support the girls and communities we serve. In this process, we are committing to two key things: one, ensuring that girls, women and their communities receive accurate and trust-worthy information to prepare themselves and organize their response. As their partners, we need to be able to deliver that information, not just once, but on a regular basis. We will be providing plastified posters and toolkits to community leaders and Batonga mentors to ensure they can share information widely. We will also give special lessons to the girls in our clubs during meetings this week (we have committed to following the governments’ lead on shutting down schools when the time comes). Second, we are committed to ensuring that local solutions and initiatives have the resources they need to be implemented, and that women in particular, are supported as they take on the leadership in handling the situation on the ground. We will be working with our mentors to ensure their network is equipped with whatever resources they need to support others. We will also be investing in some of the local women-led businesses we have been supported as they take on a strategic role in this situation. Batonga trained thousands of young women and girls in how to make soap, and supported at least one entreprises that has the capacity to produce large amounts of antibacterial soaps. By committing to providing those entrepreneurs with the ingredients they need to produce largely, we are not just supporting their local businesses but also contributing to ensuring there is no shortage of this important commodity in the communities we serve.
African communities have shown their capacity to come together in times of crisis, and African women, like women all around the world, are incredibly resilient and solution-driven. Batonga commits to supporting them through this pandemic as we work to establish co-created community and women-led answers to the crisis on the ground. We will ensure that our team on the ground has all the resources it needs to slow and stop this virus, and keep the girls we serve and their communities safe. We’ll need all the help we can get, and we hope you will join us and continue supporting this important work throughout this disruptive time