Whether it’s access to leadership positions or safety and security in their own homes, women around the world face barriers to equality. Poverty and conflict exacerbate these conditions – 70% of people living in poverty worldwide are women and girls, and women are disproportionately affected by conflict and violence. Women must be included and empowered to make decisions for progress to be realized in the battle against inequality.

Fortunately, our Charity Alliance partner Women for Women International works with women in eight different countries to reclaim their agency and invoke positive change for themselves and their communities. Through localized training programs, women living in conflict settings learn to transform their lives and achieve their goals.

Women for Women International understands that with the right skills, knowledge and resources, women can change the world.

Women for Women International operates in some of the most conflict-affected places on Earth, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – a country facing extreme poverty, violence and weak health systems that can be a dangerous place for women. They have operated in the DRC for 16 years, continuing its programming and standing up to help women and girls throughout many hardships, including several Ebola outbreaks, as recently as this year. The charity is all too familiar with the impact that disease can have on communities and the women they serve.

Armed with knowledge and insight from these experiences, Women for Women International has decided to gradually re-open their signature in-person programs in the DRC after closing them in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.  For countries facing extreme poverty, “lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are a luxury that most people can’t afford,” explains the charity’s vice president of global programs, Marie Clarke. Re-opening these programs allows Women for Women International to continue providing vital training and information sharing with the women in their programs. It is also uniquely equipped with the tools to safely re-open with minimal risk to staff, volunteers and patients given their experience working during Ebola outbreaks.

Women for Women International’s insights into operating programming during Ebola outbreaks will likely prove vital in the months ahead. So, what are some of the lessons that they’ll be taking with them into this COVID-19 context?

  1. Infectious diseases disproportionately affect women. In the 2018-2019 Ebola outbreak, reports regularly showed that women comprised the majority of both probable and confirmed cases, as well as the mortality rates. Women’s day-to-day responsibilities of household chores (fetching water, selling in markets and gathering supplies) and their status as caretakers increased their exposure to the disease. COVID-19 is no different – women comprise 70% of the health and social sector workforce globally today, putting them at a higher risk of infection while being relied on for their care and expertise. Reaching these women is imperative – which is why Women for Women International is prioritizing re-opening their programs.
  2. Knowledge sharing is essential. Women for Women International’s training facilities are well-prepared to do its share to prevent the spread of disease – there are already handwashing facilities and supplies in place, for example. However, perhaps even more crucial is the effective spread of correct information. The charity’s staff know how to communicate with local communities and share information on prevention techniques. Additionally, pulling from its experience with Ebola, Women for Women International established radio broadcasts and cellphone communication trees to spread information to the general public about how to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.
    A woman wearing a mask and washing her hands.
  3. Trust can make or break a response. Deep-seated mistrust has disastrous consequences in the DRC during Ebola outbreaks. Corruption across all levels of government affects the way communities respond to information provided by health authorities, at times when prevention information is essential. It is imperative that communities in DRC have trusted resources and partners, like Women for Women International, who they can count on for information and guidance during this pandemic. The charity’s signature program provides women with basic health education that keeps them safe.
  4. Community-based approaches are the most effective ways to connect with at-risk communities. Because gaining trust is such an enormous challenge, community-based efforts offer the opportunity to share information in clear, culturally-sensitive ways. Information is the cornerstone of addressing COVID-19, and communities are more likely to access this tool when it is delivered by sources they trust. Women for Women International programs are led by local women. These leaders and teachers are from the very communities in which they work, and can act as that trusted source for vulnerable communities during the pandemic.
  5. Health systems have to be prepared. Infectious diseases pose serious challenges to the development and well-being of countries like the DRC, where health systems aren’t strong enough or have enough resources to handle them. Just as we saw health systems overrun with Ebola in 2016, and hospitals run out of space for coronavirus patients here at home, countries like the DRC require serious financial and technical investments in order to address the threat of COVID-19. Women for Women International connects program participants to health services where possible, helping protect participants and their families.
    A woman making soap outside.
  6. Response efforts draw attention away from other important issues. The 2018-2019 Ebola outbreak in the DRC distracted many from concurrent measles and cholera outbreaks, two diseases that have killed thousands and continue during the 2020 Ebola outbreak and COVID-19 pandemic. Sexual and gender-based violence is a daily threat to women living in DRC, and overrun health systems prevent women from receiving basic primary care. While the international community has been hard at work to address the threat of COVID-19, it is important to remember the other serious health challenges that women and their families face in the DRC and around the globe.
  7. Collaborating with other actors is an effective tool. Whether it’s facing Ebola or COVID-19, Women for Women International understands the power of partnerships. Working with governments, other NGOs, health authorities and civil society helps bolster the charity’s efforts to keep communities safe and neutralize the threat of infectious diseases.

These takeaways will be helpful to the international community as they reflect on the ways that programming can be adapted to better address the issues we face today.

While writing this blog post, I was struck by a quote Audry Shematsi, county director of Women for Women International – DRC, who provided many of the insights in this piece:

“Ebola is an unpleasant neighbor, we have to know how to live with it.” 

Her pragmatism and experience are needed during these uncertain times and can inspire us to take meaningful action to support this work:

  • Pledge your support for Women for Women International’s See Her Support Her campaign. Women need our assistance to ensure they are able to lead safe and fulfilling lives. Sign the pledge to help address challenges women are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Interested in the intersections of gender, global health and economic development? Subscribe to Global Impact’s newsletter, where we highlight the great work of our nearly 100 Charity Alliance Partners as well as employee engagement opportunities, ways to support disaster response, corporate social responsibility, and more. The newsletter is a great resource for those working across sectors and want to get themselves or their workplaces involved in philanthropy.
  • If you’re working in the private sector, join Women for Women International’s Leadership Circle. Get exclusive access to field staff’s updates about the charity’s programming around the world, invitations to special events, and the knowledge that you’re helping women earn incomes and stand up for their rights.

We have a lot to learn from history. All of these lessons are crucial as we look to our current efforts to address COVID-19 and beyond. Guided by the past, the work that Women for Women International is doing now to protect women and girls in the face of the current pandemic will help define the path forward in addressing systemic inequalities for women around the world.