Women-led responses to COVID-19: Report 2 from Monrovia, Liberia
Updated: Apr 22
Women and their organisations around the world report COVID-19 and the urgent action they’re taking to protect their communities
Facia Boyenoh Harris is a Liberian/African feminist and humanist. She is an experienced journalist with focus reporting on human rights issues, particularly the rights of women and girls. In 2005, she co-founded, along with five young women, a progressive young women focused organization in Liberia that seeks to promote young women's education and empowerment. Facia is an individual member of the Feminist Humanitarian Network.
Facia reported from Monrovia, Liberia (one week after its index case).
With the Ebola crisis in 2014, we could have been better prepared in our response. If you think back to January, we had no idea of what the impact of COVID-19 would be. This pandemic is particularly hard for women - social distancing, for example - has been difficult to manage in the community.
There are a number of changes that we have had to make to our work because of the Coronavirus.
Funding is a big issue - everything in-country has come to a standstill due to the government-issued state of emergency - lockdown. Donors are taking so long to align funds. This makes our work in the community particularly difficult - how do we print flyers? How do we buy the materials we need? It’s us that the community looks to as immediate responders to provide essential materials, but community-level response doesn’t have direct access to funding.
A big obstacle to our work was that initially no-one knew about the virus - they didn’t understand it properly, and social media has played a huge role in providing information: both true and false. Information is coming through to us and the community now, but it’s very general. In terms of the gendered impact of COVID-19, there’s no information specific to women, and no consideration of how the national response might affect different groups in society differently.
Overall, there hasn’t been any gender analysis of the crisis, such as the economic impacts on women for example - how will market sellers make a living when the markets are no longer open? There’s a real need for gender-specific response - we need access to the table where decisions are made. Right now, we’re doing so much just to respond directly to COVID-19 that our work on gender has to wait until a week later.
To give an example of the need for gender-responsive planning and our immediate response, the government has done contact-tracing of anyone in-country that has tested positive for Coronavirus. The contact tracing means that anyone that has been in contact with an individual that has the virus gets quarantined for 14 days, in centres which can often be far from their homes and support systems.
Some people don’t have the chance to access their possessions before being quarantined. While the government provides some basic supplies, they haven’t taken the specific needs of women into account. So the Liberian Women Humanitarian Network have been making and delivering care-packages for women in quarantine with things like sanitary towels and other hygiene products.
To prevent the spread of the virus we’ve been working to influence change from the grassroots - we started engaging communities in the COVID-19 response before we even knew the virus would reach Liberia. When the first decisions were made about the national response, there was no civil society at the discussion table. We applied pressure to be included for two weeks and finally got an invitation to participate, but it was too late - the major decisions had already been made.
We are the ones in the community that build trust between the people and the government.
At first people thought that Coronavirus was just another government ruse - the only way to convince them of the gravity of the situation is by using the relationship of trust that you’ve built up through years of working in the community. At first, the government used the police to raise awareness about the virus - but people aren’t used to seeing the police in an awareness-raising role, so they didn’t take them seriously. Now we see youth groups taking on awareness initiatives, civil society organizations and women-led organizations had in fact started awareness-raising earlier.
It should be the clinical teams that are called first, then the women’s groups - but women’s groups are usually the last to be consulted, when we should be amongst the first.
We need to think about sex and gender in relation to how global health is delivered to ensure an equitable system: if these systems are not in place before a crisis, it’s difficult to build them into the response. The government cannot go ahead to plan a national response without considering the needs of the different aspects of our existing national context. Government must consider the protection of its people - how will women and others in the labour sector conduct business with the shutdown regulations? How will this affect women, households and the general economy, considering the public health needs as well?
Ebola is very different to COVID-19 in terms of transmission. Whereas Ebola is transmitted through an exchange of bodily fluids, COVID-19 is much more contagious, which makes awareness-raising difficult, as people don’t understand how it is transmitted. In the community, we’ve seen a two-fold response to the outbreak; while some people are too scared to go out into the community, others want to go and respond.
The community initiatives we’ve seen have mainly focused on prevention and hygiene, like making it easier for people to wash their hands. There are groups giving out hand-washing buckets in the community, and we’ve been on-alert educating people about the virus in schools and in the community before we even had any cases in Liberia! Since the onset of the virus, people have been using the radio to communicate and for entertainment to help with social distancing.
Using the radio for awareness-raising is something we’re going to get involved with soon as we’ve just secured a one-hour spot on national radio!
In response to COVID-19 and future humanitarian crises, response should focus on local and national NGOs as they are better placed with understanding of the local context.
Local and national NGOs are better able to respond to the vulnerabilities, inequalities and the special needs of the different groups of people in their communities. They are able to identify the individuals and groups that are more exposed to risks of increased gender-based violence in order to incorporate these groups into the response plan, because they are always present.
The need for global humanitarian response to have a local context cannot be over emphasised at this point, we need action. We know that local civil society, women’s rights groups and community-based groups are better ready - as always - for leadership in the planning, design and implementation of national response.
The Feminist Humanitarian Network is working to facilitate shared learning and support amongst its members on the frontlines of the response to COVID-19 in countries around the world.To join or support the FHN, please email firstname.lastname@example.org