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7 Ways in Which Women in Conflict-Affected Countries Are Being Hit Hardest by COVID-19

1. Women put themselves at risk caring for the sick in countries where access to health services are non-existent

In conflict-affected countries, most primary caregivers to the sick and elderly are women. This puts women at the frontlines of prevention and treatment within their households, making them more susceptible to infection and illness.

Weakened health systems and poor infrastructure severely limit access to medical care. Afghanistan has just 7.26 doctors, nurses and midwives per 10,000 people and health spending in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is just $32 per capita, compared to over $3,300 per capita in the UK. As the poorest countries are forced to divert scarce medical resources to respond to COVID-19, women will be among the first to suffer from gaps in routine services, such as sexual and reproductive healthcare.

"Health is made at home and it is our responsibility to take leadership together using training we got from Women for Women International with our husbands to ensure we practice good hygiene to fight this Coronavirus." - Jennifer, South Sudan

Women for Women International staff distribute soap and stipends to participants in Yei, South Sudan.
Women for Women International staff distribute soap and stipends to participants in Yei, South Sudan.

2. Women's livelihoods are endangered and they are going hungry

Women in conflict affected settings are typically engaged in informal, low paid work, which is being hardest hit by the economic fallout from COVID-19. As traders and small business owners cannot work remotely and isolate themselves, they face the choice of risking infection or exposing their families to financial hardship and hunger.

Food is already becoming scarcer in some areas due to closed markets and rising costs. Because they typically eat last, women are the first to feel the effects of reduced consumption.

"Most of time I spend staying home with my two children who are both staying home after the ban on attending class. The main challenge is how to feed them with less mobility and less economic activities." — Nabintu, DRC

3. Women lack savings and safety nets to fall back on

Due to their reduced earnings, lack of control over resources, and limited access to financial services, marginalized women have fewer financial safety nets to tide them over during emergencies. Women who began saving during our training program and formed savings groups together are finding themselves better equipped to weather the crisis.

"The subject which I am finding most useful from the program in this situation was the training on savings. Before COVID-19, I managed to build savings which are now helping me to survive with my small doughnut business. Despite the rising costs of flour and cooking oil, business is booming as people still need food at this time." - Atosha, DRC

4. Women are taking on more childcare responsibilities 

With the closure of schools, an increased burden of childcare falls on women, leaving them with less time for economic activities. This risks pushing them and their families deeper into poverty.

"Peace has just come and schools were opened and children are supposed to go school, but Coronavirus says 'no - stop your peace and this is the end to your children’s education.'" - Ayikoru, South Sudan

5. Women have less say in decision-making

Prominent female leaders such as Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern have been praised for their effective, measured responses to COVID-19. Yet the vast majority of women have little access to decision-making forums that guide COVID-19 response and recovery. This is especially true for marginalized women in conflict-affected countries.

When women are not included or consulted, policies will be less effective. Families and communities turn to women, as the traditional caretakers, to be trusted experts on health. They can be educators and leaders in disease prevention – yet too often, women are ignored due to lack of political representation.

The closure of markets in many areas has left women unable to sell their products or buy materials for their businesses. 

Shireen, Women for Women International-Iraq participant, runs a sewing business from her home. Many self-employed women and traders are being hit hard by the closure of markets. Photo: Alison Baskerville
Shireen (Iraq) runs a sewing business from home. Market closures hurt self-employed women & traders. Photo-Alison Baskerville

6. Women are at greater risk of domestic violence

Women in conflict settings already face elevated levels of gender-based violence, especially intimate partner violence. Now, with rising stress and financial pressures, domestic violence is increasing exponentially. Stay-at-home measures mean that many women are trapped in abusive and violent situations. At the same time, services for survivors are becoming even harder to access.

7. Women are becoming more socially isolated

Prior to COVID-19, women affected by conflict were already vulnerable to isolation – especially refugees and displaced women who left their communities behind. Due to social norms and insecurity, women are more likely to be confined to the home and lack opportunities to socialize with people outside of their family. Although harder to quantify than other essential resources like money, food and shelter, support networks are critical to survival – that is why the Women for Women International training programs focuses on bringing women together in groups of 25 where they form friendships and build collective resilience. With lockdown measures in place and gatherings prohibited, women are again finding themselves cut off from support networks, with negative effects on their mental health and overall resilience.

However, our program participants are finding ways to stay in touch and support each other – those with mobile phones have been calling and sending text messages.

"Before this program, the only people outside of my immediate family who I really knew were my in-laws. But now I have made friends. I call them to check up on them, and I am very happy to have a wider support network." - Zainab, Iraq


Participant from Iraq program. Photo Credit: Emily Kinskey

Download our policy briefing to learn more about how COVID-19 affects women in conflict-affected countries and how Women for Women International is responding.