From the ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence to the burdens of balancing greater care responsibilities, the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are increasingly clear and well-documented. In many ways, the story of the last year illuminates the ways in which individual women and women-led organizations have, through their daily work, sustained families, communities, and societies at-large through crises.
History cautions, though, that even while women are repeatedly lauded for their resilience during crises, the specific forms of knowledge and skills that they contribute are too often forgotten when periods of crisis eventually subside.
This spring, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program at Columbia University is hosting a virtual exchange, convening grassroots women peacebuilders for several months of online exchange and collaboration. The virtual exchange began in January as participants exchanged stories from their work and shared specific challenges in light of the ongoing global pandemic.
The exchange connects, for the first time, participants from across the WPS Program’s two Africa-based Peace and Social Change Fellowship cohorts, bringing together women’s organizations with a broad portfolio of peace and security work and spanning 10 countries across the continent: Cameroon, DRC, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Over the next several weeks, they will work collectively on co-documenting practices and lived experiences, articulating and curating the ways they have been navigating a variety of themes, from challenging mainstream ideas of how to change policy, to building solidarity and coalitions across sectors, and more.
For this project, the WPS program has partnered with a global facilitation team of feminists from Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Brazil, as well the Columbia Global Center in Nairobi.
Common challenges and COVID-19
During January’s meeting, discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic shed some light on how women peacebuilders continue to be on the frontlines of the pandemic response in their respective countries.
“The COVID-19 pandemic did not curtail women from doing peacebuilding work,” said Martha Mutisi, a facilitator of the program. “It provided opportunities for them to still advance the WPS agenda, to protect women’s rights, and to realize there is strength to be found in solidarity and collaboration.”
Throughout the pandemic, many participants continued to leverage their advocacy work to influence both local COVID-19 response as well as national and international policy development. Several worked alongside local governments and agencies to develop policies to protect women from gender-based violence, which has escalated throughout the world during the periods of lockdown that accompanied many countries’ pandemic response. Sylvia Katooko, who directs the Suubi Center in Kibuku, Uganda, ran a campaign for a seat in parliament, aiming to bring her experience as a community organizer to national policy making.
Other aspects of participating organizations’ work included stepping in to directly provide essential resources, from combating misinformation about the virus to delivering menstrual products to women and girls. Participants testified to how women’s movements responded to food shortages and lockdown measures; in Mombasa, Kenya, women mobilized to deliver food to neighbors who could not leave their homes, and in Accra, Ghana, women set up satellite markets where central markets had been shuttered.
Some organizations needed to create new spaces altogether to address some of the most pressing issues that arose. Crown the Woman, an organization based in South Sudan, launched the country’s first-ever gender-based violence hotline, connecting survivors to response services like hospital transport and legal resources. Another participant, Omima Alfadil, who is a member of the MANSAM (Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups) network in Sudan, recently opened a café in Khartoum. The small business serves as a restorative space for children and youth whose education was disrupted by the dual forces of the pandemic and the country’s transition from its 2019 revolution.
Hope in solidarity and movement-building
Despite the many challenges and differing contexts, a common source of hope stood out: “It was the women who stood up,” as Margaret Sedziafa, who works with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Ghana, put it plainly. Many participants cited the ways in which women and women-led organizations rose to meet the challenges of pandemic, and the sense of security to be found in solidarity and networks as sources of hope for a more just and peaceful future.
“We know that when we step away, the young girls we are mentoring — they will step into our shoes,” said Riya Yuyada, who runs Crown the Woman in South Sudan. “And women like you doing amazing work — you give us hope. We are in this together.”
It is now evident that a range of cross-cutting issues — from social and economic inequality, to racial injustice and gendered violence — have made the COVID-19 crisis more profound, compounding suffering and insecurity, particularly for already marginalized groups. Grassroots women peacebuilders understand that peace comprises more than just the absence of violence. “We know there are pieces of peace,” said Racheal Kavata, based in Mombasa, Kenya. “Whatever we do in our community, no matter how small, it matters.”
To learn how to rebuild from this crisis, spaces for solidarity and collaboration among organizations working on diverse issues such as these will be critical. Over the next few weeks, the collective learning produced from this project — grounded in the perspectives and expertise of 10 grassroots women’s organizations — will shape a better understanding of what peace and security means in these times, and what a just, post-pandemic future might look like.