Women-led responses to COVID-19: Report from Monrovia, Liberia
Updated: Apr 5
Women’s organisations around the world report COVID-19 and the urgent action they’re taking to protect their communities
Mmonbeydo Joah Harrell leads the Organisation for Women and Children (ORWOCH) in Liberia – an organisation that champions women’s participation in decision-making, prevention of SGBV, women’s access to justice, and dismantling gender stereotypes.
Mmonbeydo reports from Monrovia.
People in Liberia live on a day to day basis – they sell, they eat. They go to market every day to have food. About 80% of the public have no access to running water, so people have to get water from the local well so they have to be in contact with each other.
Our way of life makes it difficult to practice social distancing. The spaces between the houses are narrow and small, which means people in the community will interact. People use motorbikes for transport. The market places are so crowded; and because many Liberians live on less than a dollar a day, they have to hustle to find food. Even the Liberians who will have access to food for a longer period lack access to electricity which makes it hard to store perishable food. This means going to the crowded market every day and being at risk of contracting COVID-19.
On Sunday, March 21, 2020, the Minister of Health announced a State of Emergency to take immediate effect. Under the new measures, schools, churches, mosques, video clubs, beaches, barber shops, flights, salons, street selling, and parties with more than 10 persons are disallowed - including weddings and funerals. Banks and restaurants are to operate with not more than five persons in the hall.
On Sunday, when the measures were announced, officers were seen visiting churches and enforcing the state of emergency asking people to go home. However, people are not sticking to the measures. According to the 2008 census conducted by the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services, 85.5% of the Liberian population is Christian. Huge numbers of community members are coming together to pray. Many of those still holding and attending services believe that praying together is the remedy to the virus.
Some people are scared. Some people walk around with masks. But also, among the community, people think the virus won’t affect them. Many people in the market feel that the crisis is not real. They think it is an invention by authorities to get more money.
People tend to hide when they feel ill, they don’t trust the health professionals. People trust community members more so we need to make sure communities themselves are prepared.
Our experience has set us up to be one of the best prepared nations in terms of response. During the Ebola scourge, community task forces were set up to reinforce health protocols.
People relocated to new communities to avoid contact tracing when their relatives got sick thereby increasing transmission to new communities. It is the community taskforce that prevented any new arrival settling before they had investigated Ebola infections in the community this person had come from.
When the COVID19 scourge began, ORWOCH and HOPE under the group Women Leading in Crisis Alliance with women to reactivate post Ebola structure and the community leadership to reinforce the government measure put in place. The women in these communities lead the response. The post Ebola structure provide support in terms of experiences and advice. The community leadership provides support in terms of the authority. So far, one community has been effective in ensuring neighbourhood bars and community crusades has stopped.
The women in these communities are leading the response. The post-Ebola structures provide support in terms of experiences and advice. The community leadership provides support in terms of the authority. So far, one community has been effective in ensuring neighbourhood bars and community crusades have stopped. The women-led taskforce also monitor SGBV incidences in the community and report them to us and the authorities. We follow up to ensure the government is paying attention.
A 2018 Oxfam perception index report on Challenging Social and Masculine Norms Supporting Violence Against Women in Liberia found that 62.5% of the respondents partially agreed or totally agreed sometimes a woman deserves to be beaten – it was normal for men to beat their women.
From experience, we know it is during humanitarian crisis that perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence go with impunity and cases are compromised. We want to ensure we are prepared so that this does not happen.
We have to make sure that we utilize community platforms to provide psychological support to prevent domestic violence – for both perpetrators and victims. Community platforms are important to providing access to both offenders and survivors so they have the online support they need.
The women leading the community taskforce share their contacts so we are always online with them and can provide support remotely. In one instance, we were informed by a taskforce member that a 14-year-old girl had been raped. The mother was underprivileged so she was going to compromise. The family of the rapist had promised the girls’ family some money. Because of this report, we were able to ensure that the case was reported and the Minister of Gender got involved after our social worker reported that the two one stop centres were closed.
We need to reach more communities – the focus is on leadership – women’s leadership and participation in decision-making spaces. We want to ensure that women are heard during the crisis but we are limited in terms of funding. We have developed a proposal to ensure the work being done in Montserrado is replicated in other counties. Whether the proposal will receive the required attention remains to be seen.
Already we are seeing women take their own action to prepare their communities.
Women in rural communities cannot afford buckets for hand washing. We encourage them to explore innovative locally made sustainable products to continue washing their hands and ensure their communities are safe.
I am worried about the economic impacts and the health implications for women – how many women in maternal conditions are accessing transportation? Already, Liberia has one of the highest maternal mortality-rates in the world. The economic hardship on especially female teachers is devastating – at this time teachers are unpaid, especially those from private institutions. Most of the elementary teachers are women.
On Saturday, the government demolished stalls of marketeers who are mostly women; this means more women without access to food. The government said it wanted to encourage social distancing. However, the women who depend on the stalls to feed their families will now have nothing to give their children – more hungry children. The government will need to provide social safety nets for these women. But, in a country already suffering the effects of an economic downturn with the aftershocks of COVID-19, this seems highly unlikely.
Probably, if women were involved in the decision to destroy those stalls, more innovative means of tackling the problem would have been found.
In these crucial times, we need the participation of all to end the spread of this scourge as we did during the Ebola crises. Women are primary caregivers and the government, donors, and communities need to support a women-led, civil society organisation humanitarian response by providing funds and needed tools. But not only at the frontlines, also in the board room where the key decisions are being made – especially ones with long term economic impacts that limit women's opportunities.
Obviously, we need a bottom to top approach for inclusion of women in these spaces. Denying women the opportunity to be involved in surveillance, detection, and prevention mechanism only increases the spread of the virus. From previous pandemics, we must, right now, begin to also think about developing a procedure for dealing with rape and other forms of gender based violence.
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