Pandemic threatens communities ravaged by war and crisis, global support needed

16 April 2020

Outreach workers in Syria are raising awareness about the pandemic. © UNFPA Syria
Outreach workers in Syria are raising awareness about the pandemic. © UNFPA Syria

AZRAQ CAMP, Jordan/HOMS, Syria/UNITED NATIONS, New York – “I invested the first four days of the lockdown calling beneficiaries to inform them of the availability of virtual support,” Orouba Amin, a counsellor in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, told UNFPA.

Ms. Amin has spent 11 years providing psychosocial care to survivors of trauma and violence, from refugees escaping the horrors of war to women and girls escaping sexual abuse and exploitation. Today, her work comes on top of a new threat: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Around the world, as governments implement lockdowns and movement restrictions, women’s centres and safe spaces are closing their doors, even as evidence mounts that gender-based violence may be increasing.

Countries are also seeing their reproductive health services being curbed as resources are diverted to the pandemic response. Where reproductive health care remains available, movement restrictions and fears of the virus are keeping women from seeking care.

Challenges for vulnerable women and girls in humanitarian settings, including pregnant women, are exacerbated under the pandemic. © UNFPA Syria

Humanitarian crises are particularly hard for communities imperiled by these conditions. Many are already struggling with poverty and limited access to health services. Infection-control measures are even harder to implement in densely packed settlements with limited water and sanitation resources.

These challenges are greatly exacerbated for pregnant women, who require family planning supplies or need protection from violence.

Nowhere to hide

In Jordan, where nearly 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a curfew has been imposed to slow transmission of the virus.

That has been an added hardship in Azraq Camp, where an average of seven people are crowded into each “caravan”, or prefabricated shelter. Shop owners are struggling to import essential food items and commodities, and livelihood options are scant with people sheltering at home. Families are facing increasingly difficult choices as they try to put food on their tables.

These are the “most difficult of times,” said Ms. Amin. Image courtesy of Orouba Amin

And as social life increasingly takes place online, so does sexual harassment, one woman told UNFPA.

The camp’s safe spaces for women and girls, run by the International Rescue Committee with support from UNFPA, have been closed.

Ms. Amin and her colleagues are racing to find new means of providing services to women and girls in need.

Right now, she is providing a lot of counselling via telephone. But many women lack the privacy needed to speak on the phone about sensitive issues. Others do not have their own phones.

Counsellors have adopted strict protocols when reaching out to these women to ensure their safety. If a spouse or partner answers the phone, counsellors may say they are calling to provide infection-control advice and hygiene tips – information they do supply.

Ms. Amin also provides assistance via text message and WhatsApp.

“One of the women texted me on the dedicated WhatsApp number, and when I responded to her, she said, ‘I’m fine now, as I know that you are there for me in case I need you.’ This meant everything to me,” she said.


Families are struggling to purchase hygiene supplies to prevent infection, Ms. Bulad said. © UNFPA Syria

In humanitarian situations, women’s vulnerability to violence and exploitation escalates. And even before the pandemic, hundreds of women and girls in humanitarian and fragile settings died each day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Now, as health systems and protection services are stressed by the pandemic, conditions for women are poised to worsen.

UNFPA has urgently called for funding to the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, with a requirement of $120 million for UNFPA to ensure the health and safety of women and girls affected by humanitarian crises. In addition, UNFPA has appealed for $67.5 million to support COVID-19 preparedness efforts through March and April.

This amount – a total of $187.5 million – will go towards strengthening health systems, providing critical medical supplies to health staff, shoring up sexual and reproductive health services, and ensuring continuity of services for survivors of gender-based violence. It is separate from the humanitarian funding needed for UNFPA’s ongoing support to crisis-affected countries.

Flexible funds ensure that UNFPA can implement an agile humanitarian response plan as conditions on the ground evolve.

UNFPA is already ramping up efforts to address the pandemic in humanitarian settings.

In Syria, outreach workers are trying to raise awareness of the pandemic, infection-control measures and women’s rights. The country is also under curfew.

It is an uphill battle, said Ghadeer Mohammed Ibrahim Qara Bulad, director of the Women’s Development Project at the Islamic Charitable Association. “The majority of the families we visit are awfully poor and cannot even buy sterilizers,” she said.

She has also seen widespread gender-based violence, and fears it will only intensify. “During my visits, I saw a woman being beaten by her husband during the curfew,” she said. “I think the percentage of gender-based violence will increase, and increase dramatically.”

But, like other humanitarian workers, she and Ms. Amin are unwavering in their dedication.

“We need to bring together all efforts to accomplish [our goals] with the least material and human losses,” Ms. Bulad said. originally published a version of this story.

Dana Kirkegaard
Support UNFPA's flexible humanitarian response plan during COVID-19.

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