AHA! TownHall Explores Gendered Aspect of Peacebuilding during COVID-19

On December 9, the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers organized a South Asia regional townhall meeting for peacebuilders and AHA! project partners and beneficiaries. Subject of this event was the role of women as peacemakers, and the gendered aspect of peacebuilding during Covid-19. There were some 70 participants and the event was facilitated by Ms Muna Khayal Khattak, lecturer of International Relations at Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan. Many of the participants are working as peacebuilders in communities across South Asia that are most affected by the pandemic’s effect on women and girls’ wellbeing. Through an interactive four hours with inputs from practitioners across the region, the following topics stood out:

Similar to previous health crises, the corona pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, which naturally is felt most by those already left behind and living in socio-economically difficult situations, which often affects women and girls particularly. There was an agreement amongst participants, that the situation has been getting worse for women across the board. Countries of South Asia, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have not been doing particularly well on gender equality before the crisis, but lots of the progress that has been made over the last decades is in peril due to the pandemic. Many improvements made on women’s empowerment and gender equality are now in serious danger because of the effects of the Coronavirus and it is evident that inequalities between women and men have increased over the last 10 or so months.

One dimension of where women have been disproportionately impacted is the economy. In South Asia, more women work in the informal sector than men. The informal sector has been hit hard by the pandemic, leading to many women losing their incomes with severe consequences for their livelihoods and economic independence. But that also means a significant loss of social status that was often hard fought for over decades, with women confined to domestic spaces, unable to participate in public life and pushed back into unpaid domestic work.

The closure of schools also hit women hard, as most teachers are women, often losing their incomes and leaving them with the burden of childcare, which almost exclusively affects women. Leading to the second dimension: education. Girls and women are strongly affected by school closures as previous health crises, such as the Ebola epidemic, show that they often don’t return to school after the crisis is over – or as one participant put it: “girls are the first to leave schools and the last to come back”. That in turn, together with the higher economic vulnerabilities, also has an impact on early and child marriages, as well as teenage pregnancies, in all of which steep increases have been observed across South Asia since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Participants also mentioned the steep reported increase of domestic violence – sexually, physically and mentally. Women and girls are at the same time less able to consult relevant authorities and make use of safe shelters due to the limitations of movement due to lockdowns and other regulations. Courts are often closed and less accessible for affected women and families, making legal interventions impossible.

The enormous strain the pandemic has had on health services however, has led to many more difficulties affecting women and girls. It was mentioned that women were the first to lose access to healthcare when the pandemic broke out as mobility of women and girls was disproportionately limited and gendered aspects of health care were and are treated with secondary importance. Increased mental and physical stress, in combination with an absence of adequate health infrastructure to cope with both has led to a strong increase of women suicide rates across South Asia. Moreover, with more than 50% of health workers being women, they were also the ones absorbing most of the impact on hospitals and the health sector in general.

Yet, despite women being so disproportionately affected by the pandemic, one of the biggest divides has emerged in political decision-making processes at all levels. Particularly COVID-19 related political processes and institutions, such pandemic task forces, are hugely male dominated. That is despite the fact that women overall have better education than man in South Asia, and particularly so the relevant sectors for policy level COVID-19 responses. Similarly, leadership in the health sector is still largely male dominated despite the majority of health workers being women. But women also had decreased access to overall health care, including reproductive health, putting them in a much more vulnerable position.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the digital space in today’s political, social and economic realities. With women and girls being left behind in digitalization processes, this pandemic has exacerbated existing divisions across the board and shown the enormous gender aspects of the so-called digital divide. With much of the current peacebuilding efforts centring around online activities, those hardest to reach seem even further away.

Peacebuilding theory and practice therefore must react to the realities on the ground for women and girls through adaptive strategies aimed at closing gender gaps and maximum gender inclusivity. Such efforts must include women and girls, religious and traditional peacemakers, political decision makers as well as the international community. This discussion aimed at identifying major fault-lines that have emerged on the gendered aspects of peacebuilding during the pandemic.

Recommendations that have been made include economic empowerment programmes at all levels to help women regain economic independence, with a priority on those most vulnerable and often left behind. The digital divide should be decreased and overcome through providing women and girls with necessary skills and increasing internet access, particularly in rural and remote areas. Health facilities, including mobile health stations for hard to reach areas, should be established with the capacities to provide adequate healthcare to women and girls, including mental health. Safety mechanisms for women affected by domestic violence of all sorts should be established, sufficiently funded or expanded and safe spaces created to shelter affected women and families.

Religious and faith leaders need to be included in efforts to reduce discrimination of women and girls, challenging stereotypes across the region. The civil society sector, already under increased scrutiny before the pandemic, should be empowered to provide services and support efforts against hate-speech and discrimination. Women’s political participation and leadership should be increased at all levels. Access to education should be increased to make it easier for girls to attend schools and child marriages should be stigmatized and specifically targeted through programmes. Toxic masculinity and misogyny should be countered, especially on social media, which has emerged as the key platform for such. Sex-disaggregated data should be collected to evaluate the fuller and long-term impact of Covid-19.

Overall, the empowerment of women’s rights groups, women empowerment organizations, and civil society organizations has been identified as a key mechanism to counter the mentioned problems.