Feminist principles are needed now more than ever

Maria Canil, a member of the women's organization Conavigua's board in Guatemala.

As the world is facing a global health pandemic, Swedish government and organisations need to join forces to ensure that women’s rights are at the forefront of our work and development aid, write a series of gender experts from We Effect and Vi Agroforesty.

In a global crisis we often risk becoming gender blind – we risk forgetting our rights-based approach in favour of a short-term, needs-based humanitarian response that could compromise the gains that have already been made. However, we need acknowledge that we cannot continue with business as usual. We need to have an open and honest conversation now about the impact of the crisis on women, marginalized and excluded communities and what this means for women’s and marginalized communities rights in the longer term then we could prevent this crisis from becoming a catastrophe for women and women’s rights.

During the outbreak of the Zika virus the power inequalities that already existed between men and women meant that women already did not have autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives, which meant that women had ‘inadequate access to health care and insufficient financial resources to travel to hospitals for check-ups for their children’ and this compounded the impact of the virus[1].

How the pandemic affects people and societies is a powerful reminder of the impact of social gendered norms that perpetuate gender inequalities all over the world. Gender norms and barriers that prevent women from exercising bodily autonomy and integrity will have serious implications for women during this pandemic. We already see that the number of reports of gender-based violence has increased as women are forced to isolate in homes that might not be safe[2]. In Palestine, the crisis has led to increasing levels of emotional, mental and physical stress for women according to We Effect partner, PWWSD. PWWSD has responded with an open helpline for people in general, but specifically women can access counselling and support to seek protection[3]. One survivor said she felt ‘increasing levels of insecurity, and emotional distress that is also affecting her children, especially her daughters who try to stop their father from abusing their mother’[4].

A Bosnian partner, Vive Zene emphasised the impact that the state of emergency has on communities suffering trauma from years of conflict, ‘Almost all (women we support) have already experienced violence and poverty and are now locked in with their perpetrators or prohibited from going out and making a living or asking for help. For them COVID-19 might trigger memories of past crises they had to go through’.

As governments react with legislation, increased military and police presence and heightened surveillance and targeting of individuals we need to ask questions about what this means for women’s rights in the longer-term? For many women living in states of fragility, states of conflict, occupation or post-conflict, draconian laws that limit freedom of movement will have far-reaching consequences for women’s mobility, access to information, access to women-led spaces and freedom of expression. What does it mean for women’s human rights defenders in Latin America or South East Asia aware that increased government powers might mean they are at even greater risk?

So, what can we do now? To start with we need to document and understand what is happening for women and marginalized and vulnerable communities during this crisis. To do this we need data. We Effect and Vi Agroforestry have launched an initiative #coronavoices to encourage anyone and everyone to share their experiences so we can build a global picture.

We also need solidarity – we need to find alternative ways to maintain collective action and build on the gains we have made to support and affirm feminist spaces. This pandemic has brought into sharp focus our interconnectivity. This is a global pandemic and reminds us of the need for global solidarity and action. Sweden needs to affirm its commitment to a feminist foreign policy, which is more needed than ever. Development cooperation needs to continue allocating resources and supporting gender equality and women’s rights. Development organisations need to take more risks to ensure that women-led spaces are safe, secure and maintained.

We need to re-strategise and learn from what is happening now. We need to start thinking now about what changes we might need to make after this pandemic has subsided to ensure a more gender just, equal and equitable society. What opportunities will there be to transform gender relationships and roles for men and women, ensure community-led housing projects, strengthen our women’s economic empowerment and women’s access to financial services that ensure a critical security net and strengthen our programming, advocate for institutional and legislative reforms on gender-based violence?

Most of all we need to reach out more than ever and make sure that we are asking questions about women and women’s rights. We need to listen, we need to hear, we need to reflect, and we need to act. We need to be louder than ever about the importance of working with feminist principles. We must allow ourselves to be tested as development organisations in this crisis and we must prove our commitment and dedication to women’s rights and gender equality.

We need to continue to hold all governments to account. To demand transparent and accountable decision-making processes that will uphold the rights of all citizens and particularly affirm women’s rights and safety during this pandemic.

Sian Maseko, Global Gender Advisor, We Effect
Camilla Lundberg Ney, Spokesperson on Gender Equality, We Effect
Mariam Ikerwami, Regional Gender Lead, Asia, We Effect
Faith Wayua, Regional Gender Lead, Eastern Africa, We Effect
Daniela Antonovska, Regional Gender Lead, Europe and the Balkans, We Effect
Linn Lukschandl, Regional Gender Lead, Latin America, We Effect
Marjorie Chonya, Regional Gender Lead, Southern Africa, We Effect
Celina Butali, Regional Gender Lead, Vi Agroforestry, Eastern Africa

[1] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30526-2/fulltext?mc_cid=719f7558b4&mc_eid=6bbf508b86

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/28/lockdowns-world-rise-domestic-violence and https://time.com/5812990/france-domestic-violence-hotel-coronavirus

[3] So far (since 22nd March) PWWSD provided 510 consultations, 206 of them directly related to GBV.

[4] Interview with survivor conducted by PWWSD.

Written by

Sian Maseko