As COVID-19 Situation Evolves, Health and Safety of Women and Staff Take Priority

With the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic and the rising number of cases globally, Women for Women International is continuing to take actions that secure the health and safety of the women we serve and the local staff who support them.

Coughing demonstration in South Sudan

Updated March 27, 2020 – 4:12PM EDT 

Although COVID-19 is rapidly spreading throughout the world, our teams are working even faster to protect women we serve.  

Just yesterday, our South Sudan wrapped up in-person trainings, as the country prepares to close schools and borders. But before women left, our team taught them about the best ways to protect themselves from disease and good hygiene habits to teach their friends and family.  

Our Nigeria team is doing the same, while dispelling myths about COVID-19, as they prepare to temporarily suspend trainings at the end of today. 

Our participants in South Sudan practiced safe ways of coughing without spreading for themselves and to teach others while social distancing.
Participants in South Sudan practiced social distancing safe ways of coughing for themselves and to teach others.

Across our country programs, our teams are taking their role as a trusted source for accurate health information seriously, and are finding ways to continue delivering information to women from afar.  

With many countries in lockdown, such as Iraq and Rwanda, these remote methods keep people in contact when strict measures limit their movement.  

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Updated March 25, 2020 - 3:17PM EDT

With both our Nigeria and South Sudan country offices located further from main cities and travel hubs, our teams in those countries have used this week to prioritize training sessions with women on how to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from the virus. As our teams prepare to suspend in-person activities and shift to working from home, they are preparing women by delivering their stipends and teaching them to practice social distancing.  

In South Sudan, though there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the government has taken preemptive and protective action by closing schools and borders. Our team has swiftly shifted to prepare to close the office in compliance with the government and is working together with a World Health Organization Task Force to take the best next steps.  

By the end of the week, both our Nigeria and South Sudan offices will suspend in-person activities to join each of their community’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Because our program is a trusted, established source of health information in the communities we serve, our staff and trainers are finding the best ways to stay connected with women to ensure they have the knowledge they need. 

The weekly radio talk program that our South Sudan team normally hosts is very popular. Now, staying connected with women and communities via radio will be even more important when in-person trainings cannot take place.    

Our team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has adapted this for their own local context. Without easy mobile phone coverage in many of our communities, radio is proving to be an effective way to share information with women from a distance. 

In Rwanda, where the government has enforced a lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, our team is encouraging women to get SIM cards. Even if women don't have their own personal phone, women and our team can use SIM cards to stay in contact while exploring the use of mobile technology to potentially continue sending women their stipends.  

Mobile technology and social media have been key for many of our country teams to maintain contact with women we serve. In Iraq, where many women participants have phones, cellphones and Snapchat are keeping our staff and trainers connected with women to share trusted and accurate health information about COVID-19. In Kosovo, staff use Facebook and Viber to tap into our networks of graduates and participants to provide health information and dispel myths about the disease.  

But in Afghanistan, where women have a harder time accessing their own personal technology, our teams are using the bonds women formed in the program. Through Change Agents (graduates of our program who become local leaders), Self-Help group leaders, and heads of Village and Savings Loan Associations, our staff are using personal networks to pass on life-saving information. 

Graduates of our program are also stepping up to be part of prevention methods: In Bosnia & Herzegovina, women’s associations have started sewing face masks to support hospital workers and police, who are also on the front lines of this pandemic. In many of our countries, such as the DRC, graduates continue to produce soap, which is even more essential in these times.  

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Updated March 19, 2020 – 4:22PM EDT  

As in-person trainings at our country offices go into temporary suspension, our teams across the world are adapting and innovating to keep communication open with women we serve. We adapt our communications based on local contexts. Many of our teams in Africa find radio programs useful for reaching women. In the Middle East, cellphones may be a better solution. 

The increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while still low, led to government restriction of gatherings, events, and convenings within educational institutions. In compliance, in-person trainings and field activities at our DRC office are temporarily suspended, though office operations continue for the time being.   

Our country offices in Nigeria and South Sudan are still in full swing but are monitoring the situation in their communities closely. As cases increase in Nigeria, our team is prepared for the possibility of pausing in-person trainings.   

During suspension, each of our country teams are finding new and innovative ways to stay in touch with women in our program to share important information about the situation and participants. These methods vary by community: In South Sudan, our program participants and staff host a public radio program to share health information with their communities. Our DRC staff also use public radio to broadcast COVID-19 prevention and response information, along with lessons from our usual health and hygiene module so that the everyone can use it to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors.   

Our teams are combining technology and the connections women build through the programs, such as groups for advancing women’s rights or village savings and loans associations (VSLAs). Community leaders or heads of VSLAs use cellphones to pass on information from our programs about  the evolving situation. These social connections have become a lifeline for ensuring women’s health and safety.  

Our staff across all our countries are experts in their communities, the local contexts, and language. They are crucial to maintaining these networks and protecting women and their communities. In countries where the situation requires us to close our offices, staff have transitioned to working from home. During this time, all staff continue to be compensated as part of the Women for Women International team.   

Globally, we are all facing an unprecedented crisis. Women for Women International is proud of the connections we’ve built in local communities and around the world, and that we can lean on each other during this time that calls for solidarity and worldwide support.  

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Updated March 17, 2020 - 4:16PM EDT 

As the novel coronavirus spreads across borders, our team has made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend activities in-person trainings in our Afghanistan and Rwanda training centers, for the safety of women participants and our staff. Our staff continue to work, moving to work from home where possible, and find ways to innovate and adapt to maintain women’s networks so they can share important information.  

In the U.S., U.K. and DE where the outbreak continues to escalate, teams have shifted to working remotely and practicing social distancing to help contain the spread of COVID-19.   

All international travel has also been canceled.  

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Original Statement - March 13, 2020 

“As a member of our global community, we are looking for ways to do our part in helping contain the spread of coronavirus,” said Laurie Adams, CEO of Women for Women International. 

“Right now, we believe we are well-positioned to support women in preventing COVID-19’s spread and are working with on-the-ground teams and listening to international experts to ensure the right and safest course of action.” 

One of our key outcomes is helping women improve their health and well-being. As part of our curriculum across all our country programs, trainers teach women about the spread of disease. We have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to give women we serve the information and tools they need to stay safe. 

Our team has years of experience preparing women and communities for infectious diseases, such as the Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though COVID-19 and Ebola differ in many ways, what doesn’t change is the risk these diseases pose to women living at the intersection of poverty and conflict. Our Congolese team is experienced in leading communities through Ebola and is sharing valuable lessons with our staff in other countries to protect against viral threats. 

In many communities where we work, gender roles require women to be responsible for communal and family health. As defined caretakers, women become more vulnerable to contracting disease. 

Even in the United States, conversation around COVID-19 raises concerns about resources and capacity to tackle the disease. For women we serve, the stakes are higher: Many of them live in rural or remote areas, where clinics and access to medical resources may be scarce or non-existent. Life-saving health services are often hours away – or perhaps inaccessible, as is often the case for people living in poverty. 

That means women living at the intersection of poverty, conflict, and gender discrimination are more at risk and less prepared for recovery if they get infected. 

But being at the front lines of disease also means women have the opportunity to be leaders in defending against it. 

A key piece of our program involves educating women about infectious diseases, how to prevent them in their household, and what to do when people get sick. Women learn about maintaining good hygiene for themselves and their family, sanitation practices, waste management, and other factors that can protect people from infection, such as nutrition. 

As the situation around COVID-19 escalates in the United States with many areas declaring a state of emergency and more people practicing social distancing, we are assessing and weighing the needs of our programs around the world. That means prioritizing and protecting the safety of both our staff and the women in our program. 

Women for Women International has a response team that is paying attention to the evolving crisis to take the best course of action. The severity of the outbreak in Iran threatens the public health situation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Though we have yet to hear of any COVID-19 cases near our programs, our training centers in Iraq have temporarily suspended activities in preparation, along with many educational centers, businesses, and other humanitarian efforts in the area. Though in-person training is suspended, our Iraq team continues to work and find ways to actively stay in touch with women.  

During this time of uncertainty, we are thankful for our community of supporters around the world, who believe in a vision of humanity where women everywhere have rights – including a right to good health. That community is more important than ever. Join us and stand with women we serve when they need it most.