Lessons from feminists facing COVID-19 on the frontlines

Through regular check-ins and engagement with our global partners*, the Equality Fund has learned a lot in the last few weeks. Here are some early lessons from the field that will underpin our actions and communications in the months ahead:

1. With global issues, local action drives change.

The ramifications of this global pandemic reach from China to Canada, from the United States to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this case, “global” means that it impacts us all, even though our systems, structures, borders, and social norms are not all the same. Locally-led approaches vary and are, in fact, crucial to managing the spread of COVID-19. Governments must step up with strong actions to protect public health, and it is crucial for women’s funds to support local women’s rights and feminist organizations as they hold governments to account. As grantmakers, we must be aware of the global and hyper-focused on the local. And shouldn’t this always be the case, whether we are addressing a virus, violence against women, or both at the same time?

2. We are all at risk. But some are more at risk.

In some places, the message to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is clear: stay home, save lives. But this is not always possible, particularly when home is a small space shared by many family members. One of our partners in India shared:

It is indeed a very unpredictable and scary situation. Self-isolation at home is impossible for our team members who all live in communities that share a small place with big families and colonies—sometimes a 10’ x 10’ room accommodates families as big as 5 to 10 people. We are looking to find solutions for those who cannot practice self-isolation. For now, the best solution is to work on boosting individual immunity.

The Equality Fund’s partners are concerned for women and non-binary people who regularly experience violence in their homes—now forced to self-isolate with their abusers. Others fear for women and girls who will not be able to access timely care, living in communities that—even in good times—restrict legal access to services like abortion. Partners working in conflict zones remind us that people are even more at risk in a public health crisis when government systems do not normally function in a way that seeks to protect residents. For the LGBTQ+ community, losing access to physical safe spaces can be a matter of life or death. This is of particular concern for an Equality Fund partner in the DRC, who writes:

Our activities continue, and so do our needs for operational funding. Hard times are imminent, and we must be able to support our communities, particularly non-binary folks who are at increased risk for transphobia.

3. Plan, Protect, and Pivot.

As many of our partners must reduce or pause their external-facing programming, a few have developed an internal action plan with guidelines for remote working, resources for staff members, and emergency operations. Our partner in Mexico has provided their staff members with a two-week supply of groceries and hygiene products. For employees who can’t work from home, staff are coordinating different times when team members will be at the office to minimize contact. Some partners are approving paid leave and advancing payment to employees in preparation of tough times ahead. Others have asked to reallocate their grant funding to prioritize emergency distribution of sanitation materials and awareness raising. For example, a collective of sex workers in Senegal asked to reallocate funds to purchase masks, hand sanitizer, and bleach for their members. This is why it is so important for grantmakers to provide flexible funding.

4. Access to information should not be a luxury.

Our partner in Togo shared the following:

As the authorities announce that the virus isn’t in Togo, there is a growing worry amongst the people. We wonder, have we really been spared, or is it just that our country isn’t equipped to detect this virus?

Equality Fund partners are not only asking the larger questions about why information isn’t being shared from the top down, but they are also wondering how to increase awareness of public health information at the grassroots. Some women’s organizations are able to amplify critical messages by targeting hard-to-reach groups and bridging information from government and health agencies. Mama Radio, a feminist radio station, in the DRC, has maintained its programming at minimum staffing levels, saying:

Radio plays a crucial role—to raise awareness, to inform, and to educate—especially in this moment of panic and fear. Rumours about COVID-19 are spread and amplified by social networks. This can cause disorientation and manipulation of community members.

In general, the gender divide in technology means that women and non-binary people tend to have less access to technology and face more digital violence. The Equality Fund’s partner in South Sudan is actively seeking resources for populations—like the women who work in the markets handling food, who are the primary bread-winners for their families, and who do not have access to information about COVID-19. Our partner in Lebanon, while they have suspended all in-person field activities, found that many of the Syrian refugee women with whom they work have adequate access to the Internet. They have been able to distribute official health resources in this way.

5. Solidarity will see us through.

One partner in West Africa writes: “COVID-19 has disrupted all our plans. We don’t feel safe anywhere.” In this time of global pandemic, this is a sentiment that many of us—regardless of cultural context or socioeconomic status—share. We also share a desire to connect despite physical distancing, a mandate to reach out (safely) to those who are most vulnerable, and a vision to create a safer world for each other.

We have deep respect, recognition, and holistic support for the bravery and resilience of our partners who continue to risk their lives on the frontlines. We’re learning from our partners implementing feminist homegrown solutions to global challenges—all while fostering movement-building and feminist organizing.

COVID-19 has highlighted—and exacerbated—gaps and inequities that have existed for lifetimes. In moments of crisis, we have an opportunity to bring our best selves and our best ideas to rebuild the world we want to see. The Equality Fund looks forward to working alongside our partners in the months ahead to do so.

*In this blog post, we are referring to feminist organizations the Equality Fund is currently supporting. These partners are partners of The MATCH International Women’s Fund whom the Equality Fund is committed to continue supporting.

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