No matter where we live in the world, COVID-19 has affected and transformed every area of our lives.
And although it affects everyone, it has also exposed the extreme inequalities that exist in the world. The potential for a catastrophic loss of life for refugees and the poor. A dramatic increase in violence against women and girls. Heightened care burdens – particularly for women. A global deterioration in access to critical sexual health services, like abortion care and contraception. Mounting concerns that the poorest countries will not be able to adequately fund healthcare responses to COVID-19 due to debt obligations.
These issues are complex and long-standing. But responding in the right ways now could put humanity on a progressive new course guided by global compassion and solidarity.
Read on to learn about the three ways that Oxfam is responding right now.
1. We are Protecting Communities at Risk
As COVID-19 continues to spread globally it is people already struggling to survive in poor countries with fragile public health systems who will be at greatest risk of infection and death. The potential for devastation is especially high in refugee camps or countries that are already experiencing conflict or crisis. After all, it’s difficult to practice physical distancing if a family is on the run or is only given 3.5 meters square in a refugee camp.
Oxfam’s decades of expertise in combatting diseases like Cholera, Ebola and Zika has put us in a uniquely strong position to slow the spread of COVID-19, effectively and systematically. Our local teams and partners in 65 countries are helping to protect people now and save lives in the future with vital handwashing stations, training, sanitation kits and clean water. By the time this is all over, we will have reached 14 million people in the fight against the virus.
As always, at the centre of Oxfam’s approach is local partnership and the understanding that emergencies threaten women's safety and health in unique ways. Women in emergencies are at a greater risk of violence and are often left out of critical decisions that affect them, like how vital supplies are distributed, and even where to build the toilets. Working alongside our partners, we focus on meeting urgent needs to save lives while also identifying long-term solutions to restore women's livelihoods, health, safety and leadership.
In some cases, we’re adapting our existing programs to offer emergency pandemic support.
After mass layoffs of domestic workers in Bangladesh due to COVID-19, our Securing Rights of Women Domestic Workers in Bangladesh program has pivoted to provide workers with food and meet other critical needs as they arise during a country-wide lockdown. The workers, who were already living in poverty before the pandemic, are now starving and at great risk of losing their lives. Our support addresses day-to-day needs and also decreases the risk of COVID-19 infection and spread.
In Guatemala, our Camino Verde program is working to expand our focus on economic empowerment of indigenous women to include building community sinks and supplying soap and community radios. Radio is the most effective way to disseminate advice on how to prevent and contain the spread of the virus in these communities, and to share information that addresses the health, social and economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
2. We are Raising the Alarm about Threats to Women’s Rights
Oxfam is making visible the inequality of this pandemic and raising the alarm about the impacts on women’s rights.
Oxfam-commissioned research shows that progress made to reduce inequality over many decades could be lost, and as many as 420 million additional people, or eight per cent of the world’s population, could fall into poverty as a result of COVID-19. Among the most impacted workers will be those at bottom of the supply chains – specifically those in the garment industry.
The women who make our clothes do not make enough to live on – often having to choose between rent and food every month. Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, fashion brands are cancelling clothing orders that are already complete or in process, refusing to pay factories and workers for work they’ve already done. According to police, 20,000 workers in Bangladesh protested in the streets on April 12 demanding wages and saying they were more afraid of starving than contracting COVID-19. Together with our allies, we are demanding that Canadian retailers take more responsibility for the poverty and abuse in their supply chains. We are calling for better protections for the women who make our clothes.
Meanwhile, in the pressure cooker of a global lockdown, we are seeing skyrocketing rates of violence against women and girls. According to independent advocacy groups and United Nations agencies, reports of sharp increases in domestic violence and femicides have been reported in virtually every region of the world. In fact, if the lockdown continues for three more months, 15 million additional cases of violence are expected globally. In a year’s time, that number will balloon to an additional 61 million.
But community-based efforts, supported by Oxfam, are creating alternate support networks for women and girls. Oxfam’s local partners in Bangladesh have already started awareness-raising efforts in their communities through youth agents, who are distributing leaflets on support services still available to women in precarious situations. In Pakistan, Oxfam’s partners are using social media awareness campaigns to encourage women to reach out to trusted women leaders at the community level through text messaging and WhatsApp. This technology is being used for coordination and communication with women who are most at risk of violence in this crisis and is linking them to active helplines, available social and legal support in the community or ways to report perpetrators.
Another key issue that is at risk of erosion under COVID-19 is sexual and reproductive health and rights – namely, protecting and expanding access to critical rights and services. As governments ramp up responses to COVID-19, we must be vigilant against attempts to use COVID-19 as a means to roll back sexual and reproductive health and rights, dismiss this important advocacy work or stop providing essential health information and services.
Oxfam’s Sexual Health and Empowerment (SHE) project in the Philippines works to empower women and girls to secure their sexual and reproductive health and rights in six underserved, conflict-affected regions of the Philippines. COVID-19 is exacerbating gaps in women and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, which were already under threat. Oxfam and our partners are ramping up phone hotlines and supporting community health workers to reach isolated women and girls in need. SHE is also lobbying local and provincial governments to ensure sexual and reproductive health services are available as part of the broader COVID-19 humanitarian response.
COVID-19 is such an unprecedented global health crisis that even the best public healthcare systems in the world are struggling to face the virus. Yet in most countries, health services are under-resourced and deeply unequal. You can only get treatment if you have money.
Oxfam is calling on the leaders of rich nations to cancel the debt payments of developing countries to free up resources and prevent millions of deaths. This will release billions of dollars to pay for nationwide responses to COVID-19 in countries that could not otherwise afford it.
Addressing these critical inequality issues is allowing us to mobilize and respond at every level of need during COVID-19.
3. We are Advocating to Build a Better, More Fair World
The time is now for the world to unleash the most heartfelt compassion we have ever known and step boldly into a feminist future that we have the power to build together.
It is hard to imagine what the world will look like a few months from now. What we do know is that the actions that governments and communities take today have the potential to shape our society for years – and potentially generations – to come.
Global crises, while devastating, can open up opportunities for transformation. Activists, feminists and world leaders remind us that the pandemic is a moment for radical thinking, that we must break with the past. We cannot accept a return to normal. ‘Normal’ hasn’t worked for women, and it doesn’t work for society.
We are already witnessing this change in the form of solidarity initiatives, community support and local organizing. These efforts must be backed up with systemic political and economic change that is transformative and informed by science, justice and women’s voices. For visions of what this could be, we can look to the U.S. State of Hawai’i, Dutch academics, the Feminist Green New Deal Alliance and feminist collectives from the Global South. If we prioritize women’s leadership and gender justice now, we have a chance to end up with a world that is safer and more inclusive for everyone.