The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has driven an unprecedented increase in hunger across the world, according to the United Nations’ assessment of humanitarian needs in 2021, released this week.
They are more likely to go without food so others in their families can eat. And, for them, hunger leads to other dangers: Girls are being forced into child marriages; women are resorting to transactional sex, and human trafficking is on the rise.
“There has been a surge in kidnappings. A lot of young girls have gone missing. It’s heartbreaking and scary.”
“There has been a surge in kidnappings. A lot of young girls have gone missing,” said Ashlee Burnett, 23, an advocate and poet in Trinidad and Tobago. “It’s heartbreaking and scary.”
Organizations like Burnett’s nonprofit, Feminitt, are stepping in to help women while the international humanitarian community struggles to raise funds to respond. Burnett’s six-person staff worked long hours without pay to create online resources that connect women facing abuse with help. Burnett said they may not be reaching huge numbers of women, but it's more than the government is doing.
“They haven’t put things in place, like proper protective policies, even now, to protect women and children,” she said. “There’s a recovery committee that seeks to only focus only on the economy, but not understanding that we have to have these laws revamped, we have to take care of our most vulnerable.”
‘They are not protected’
Governments and humanitarian groups are not responding forcefully enough to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on women and girls in part because they lack representation “at the decision-making table,” said Hilary Mathews at CARE, an international nonprofit focused on gender issues.
Mathews said CARE reviewed 73 COVID-19 reports by UN agencies and the World Bank — and almost half of them failed to mention women’s and girls’ specific needs. CARE also looked at national committees set up by countries to respond to the fallout from COVID-19. They found that 74% of those committees had fewer than one-third women members, and only one group was “fully equal,” she said.
Another bigger problem is money. The Norwegian Refugee Council just released a report that said international donors only provide a fourth of the funding necessary to protect marginalized people worldwide, even as gender-based violence spirals out of control.
“Tens of million [sic] of the most vulnerable on this planet are under attack from men with guns and power and they are alone. They are not protected.”
The council’s secretary-general, Jan Egeland, said at a Dec. 1 online meeting of global humanitarian groups, “Tens of million [sic] of the most vulnerable on this planet are under attack from men with guns and power and they are alone,” adding, “They are not protected.”
At that same meeting, William Chemaly, who coordinates international humanitarian assistance, said that the most effective response would be to funnel resources to local organizations with the most access to people who need help, but the challenges are plenty.
“Those who have the best possible access on the ground to deliver assistance have the worst access to resources,” he said. “We need to change that.”
Some local actors aren’t waiting for international help. In Queens, New York, 26-year-old Aatish Gurung heard from undocumented friends struggling to buy groceries, who couldn’t afford menstrual products.
“What I thought was, ‘Someone has to do something about this,’” he said. “And my parents — they always tell me, ‘If you want something, go for it’ — like not to wait for someone else to do it for you.”
So, he reached out to the global nonprofit Period; within two weeks, it sent him bulk packages of tampons and sanitary napkins. Gurung used his network as a long-time advocate, and with the help of volunteers, distributed the products to hundreds of Bhutanese, Nepali and Tibetan immigrants.
“It was really amazing to see people coming together even during these hard times,” Gurung said.
In Nepal, 27-year-old Rukumani Tripathi had just graduated as part of the Midwifery Society of Nepal’s first class of midwives when the lockdown hit. She and fellow graduates handed out their personal phone numbers to pregnant women who couldn’t go to the hospital.
Eventually, donors helped establish a 24-hour toll-free number that provides free counseling for hundreds of Nepali women.
“We never thought we could make this big impact in the society [sic] and we could help women even though we are at home.”
“We never thought we could make this big impact in the society [sic] and we could help women even though we are at home,” Tripathi said.
And in Romania, 18-year-old Sofia Scarlat’s gender equality nonprofit, Girl Up Romania, saw a surge of messages from women and girls asking for help dealing with online revenge pornography.
“Everybody moved into the online world and all the violence that women and girls dealt with face to face moved online with us,” she said.
Scarlat said there’s not much help from lawmakers in Romania to address online harassment, and police don’t pursue justice for victims. So, her team worked with journalists to uncover a network of thousands of people online sharing revenge pornography of Romanian women and girls. As a result, Scarlat said she became a target of harassment and threats.
“It’s really remarkable and very saddening that around the world, so many young advocates are having to risk their safety in order to do the jobs of people who are literally being paid to carry out these tasks,” she said.
Scarlat doesn’t regret her activism, though — she said when women and girls face hunger and violence and aren’t getting the help they need, it’s the community’s responsibility to do something about it.