A Crisis Within a Crisis: Girls & Women in Existing Humanitarian Crises Face Heightened Challenges Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 emergency response activities 5 April 2020 — Bangladesh. © UNDP Bangladesh/Fahad Kaizer

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, it’s clear we are in the midst a crisis that we have not experienced in our lifetime. It’s upending our health, our economy, and our daily lives. But as I face the challenge of adapting myself and my family to this “new normal,” I imagine the complexities this pandemic will pose for people in the midst of existing humanitarian crises — those who have already had to adapt to a new normal, perhaps many times over.

Even before COVID-19 emerged, the world was facing humanitarian crises in every corner of the globe, with an estimated 48 million girls and women in need of humanitarian assistance in 2020. In vulnerable communities hit by conflict or natural disaster, health systems are stretched to a breaking point and critical services, especially sexual and reproductive health care, are at risk or completely out of reach. Layer on a global pandemic, and much of the already-struggling health infrastructure will collapse — and girls and women will pay the steepest price.

Your pregnancy, your periods, or your needs for contraception do not stop during crises and pandemics. And, as violence against girls and women increases in complex emergencies — even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, as women are sheltered with their abusers with no options — protection and support for survivors of violence is more needed than ever. Women are also on the front lines of pandemic response, taking on the majority of caregiver responsibilities and making up the majority of social and health care workers, therefore facing more exposure and greater risk. We are essential in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding the world after it ends — and the UN system is moving rapidly to make sure our needs are prioritized, even in the most complex crises.

In Yemen, UNFPA, the UN agency dedicated to reproductive health, is providing ventilators and personal protective equipment and shoring up maternal and reproductive health services in 23 UNFPA-supported maternal and emergency obstetric care facilities across the county. In partnership with UNICEF and the World Food Programme, UNFPA has also provided food, hygiene kits, and dignity kits to more than 5,200 people under quarantine — a “whole-of-UN” approach for people who have been hit by multiple levels of crisis.

In Ukraine, UNFPA is distributing essential medical kits with personal protective equipment and antiseptic solution to health care workers around the country, including at the Pokrovsk Perinatal Centre, a health care facility on the front lines of a long-standing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine where health systems were already strained. It also supports the regular delivery of kits that contain all the required tools to provide obstetric and gynecological care, from contraception to natural and emergency childbirth to treatment of sexually transmitted infections and more — and is ensuring these services continue even as priorities shift to pandemic response.

And at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, UNFPA is providing essential services, including psychosocial care for survivors of trauma and violence, via telephone, text message, and WhatsApp. With nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Jordan, the needs of girls and women — especially those who are refugees, and those who are survivors of violence — will continue to grow.

In some regions hit by humanitarian crisis that are now facing COVID-19, UNFPA is the only responder for girls and women. It’s now stepping up to meet the increased needs heralded by COVID-19, prioritizing countries most at risk — including those in fragile and humanitarian situations — not only by ensuring essential sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence protection services continue, but also by strengthening health system capacity, supporting global contraceptive supply chains to prevent stock outs, and tracking the economic and health impacts of the crisis, including those specific to girls and women. The agency is also integral in the pan-United Nations $2 billion coordinated global humanitarian response plan to fight COVID-19 in some of the most vulnerable places in the world.

COVID-19 will not wait for a conflict to end, or for a community to be rebuilt after a natural disaster. It will not wait for a woman to give birth safely, or a girl to finish her education. It’s here now, and the people and communities already in crisis are now facing another. We must protect the health and rights of these communities, and especially of girls and women, while we battle the virus. They cannot wait, and neither should we.

Support UNFPA’s critical response to the needs of girls and women in the COVID-19 pandemic here.

Learn more about the Universal Access Project and get involved at www.universalaccessproject.org.

Executive Director, Universal Access Project — striving for a world where all people can realize their sexual and reproductive health and rights.