Women-led responses to COVID-19: Report from Nairobi, Kenya
Women’s organisations around the world report COVID-19 and the urgent action they’re taking to protect their communities
Eunice Githinji is the Executive Director of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) – a national NGO that works through community structures in a number of counties in Kenya to ensure community-based protection of communities forced to flee including refugees and internally displaced persons, at the same time advocating for their rights. RCK provides critical legal services to ensure that forced migrants have access to justice and live in dignity. RCK uses a gender lens in its work and has a number of programs focussed on protecting the rights of women and girl refugees, internally displaced persons, and vulnerable women and girls from the host community, including survivors of gender violence in Kenya.
Eunice reports from Nairobi, where she is working from home.
The number of cases in Kenya is now 225. The government is now engaging in contact tracing and in isolating and testing potential cases. They’ve also converted hospitals to prepare for COVID-19 - some into treatment facilities, and some into quarantine facilities.
The government is also distributing information to the public through the media – there are hotlines to call for assistance in case of COVID-19. They have issued a number of directives through the Ministry of Health. One is limited movement. They have banned group gatherings and face to face meetings. They are promoting hand hygiene and social distancing.
The government has made 14 days isolation mandatory for those who enter the country and those who come into contact with confirmed cases, and put in place a curfew from 7.30pm to 5am in the morning.
The measures have had a lot of impact on our work. All of our staff are working remotely. For instance, there are only a few staff who are still working in refugee camps, mainly those from host communities, and we have had to recall others due to limited capacity for evacuation should that need arise. Aside from social distancing, we also realised that these staff wouldn’t be able to move out of the camps due to restrictions on public transportation moving forward.
So we’ve limited our staff to those who are from the host community in the camps.
We cannot hold our legal clinics in the community at this time, which will have major impacts on protection of refugees, especially vulnerable groups such as survivors of GBV, elderly people, and people with disabilities.
But we are receiving information about what is happening in the community through our existing community-based protection structures/mechanisms, who also provide basic legal and counselling support. They also refer cases to RCK staff who are advising clients remotely where required.
We provide counselling and information on COVID-19 over the phone. This is really important. There is a lot of uncertainty amongst refugees. One of the greatest challenges has been a lack of correct information and misinformation through the social media.
Press briefings are broadcast – mainly on television and radio – and those who don’t have TVs or radios don’t receive this information and may have to rely on social media or friends and family. As well as living in camps, lots of refugees live in informal settlements in urban settings, and access to information is even further limited. But there is a lot of access to social media. Because of the panic COVID has brought, many people are just sharing misinformation.
Our key role at this time is providing the right information, and advising our staff and the refugees and host communities on their safety. We are doing this with the available resources. For instance, refugee and host community women who are in our Economic Empowerment programme are able to communicate with and support each other in their economic activities through an established peer support WhatsApp platform and also to receive business mentorship through this forum. The women were supported by RCK to establish businesses through entrepreneurship training and with seed funding.
We’ve been working hard to affirm to our clients that we are still here, that we can still provide basic support through the community structures who can link RCK experts to our clients over the phone and phone meetings. Our staff, including counsellors and advocates, are on standby and they’re able to provide support.
At this stage, court sittings are suspended until the 14th of April. We are keeping our clients up to date with decisions like this to ensure that they don’t think they’ve been forgotten. We are also following up with police stations and other detention centres to monitor any increased arbitrary arrest of our clients.
My greatest concern is that gender-based violence increases during times like this and then there is silence because the modes of communication have been compromised. We need to strengthen our community protection support system such as by having more telephone handsets, for community workers so that we can engage many of them – those we have trained in the past but haven’t been engaged because we haven’t had the resources. We need to bring on board more protection monitors and community-based counsellors. We need to continue getting first hand information on protection and human rights concerns in real time so as to reach as many clients as possible.
Currently we are too focussed on the health and sanitation concerns (keeping distance, personal hygiene etc) and for good reason, but I think we are likely to forget other protection needs if we do not use an integrated approach to ensure none of the other sector needs are ignored – and that the needs of affected women and girls and other excluded groups like people with disabilities continue to be given due attention.
For me, the humanitarian system needs to recognise that if women leaders worked more closely within it they would be able to ensure that the most excluded groups are being reached.
We need to ensure that as many stakeholders are part of the COVID-19 discussions as possible, including refugees and the communities that host them– and also local actors like RCK. If the voices of affected and or excluded groups are not there, then the decisions that are made around strategy won’t meet their needs.
It’s also good to recognise that grassroots groups of women are really resourceful. We will be looking at the “big guys” coming to the table but we always ignore particularly the voices of women organising at the grassroots level and the fact that they are already responding to the COVID-19 challenge – they are already doing something. Let us harness and strengthen it.
There is a need to strengthen and upscale local capacities. This needs to be done to ensure that the voice of women and excluded groups doesn’t go unheard. It will further ensure continued support and protection to communities in need of support.
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