Distance Won’t Stop Our Support: A COVID-19 Update

Women for Women International invests in the strength of women’s connections and community, even across distances. Our teams and participants have transitioned to using those connections to protect one another and be together, even if we are apart. 

Our teams prepared for suspension of our in-person program activities due to COVID-19 by equipping women with knowledge about infectious diseases and good practices for health and hygiene. And as a trusted source in communities for reliable, accurate health information, our teams shared COVID-19 prevention information so women could protect themselves and educate others to protect their communities. Women learned about social distancing, proper hand washing, and how to cough safely, like in the photo above from our South Sudan program.

We wanted to share an update with you on how each of our programs has adapted to continue supporting women during this crisis. Across all our country teams, Women for Women International is collaborating with the local health system and participating in NGO forums to access reliable information and play a part in disease response and “flattening the curve.”  

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 practice social distancing and safe ways of coughing without spreading.

South Sudan 

Even before COVID-19, our South Sudan team spearheaded new solutions, such as using radio to amplify key messages in communities. Together with participants from our program, staff co-hosted a local radio program that broadcast discussions around key topics on women’s issues to the broader community.  

As coronavirus approached their country, South Sudanese participants and staff used their radio platform to teach people about health and the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Our staff has maintained communication with women participants who have cellphones to reinforce awareness and to relay up-to-date information.

Rwanda 

Before the program’s suspension and a nationwide shutdown, trainers in Rwanda collected telephone numbers from leaders of each women’s group to maintain contact. Classroom leaders as well as the leaders of networks of past Women for Women International graduates are maintaining contact with staff to provide updates about women on the ground, while passing on crucial news and resources about the outbreak. 

Monthly stipends, which are proving crucial to participants, were sent to women remotely through banks. But with the shutdown affecting banks and circulation of cash in the country, and to encourage social distancing, our team is innovating new solutions. They’ve encouraged women to get personal SIM cards they can use with cellphones to receive funds through mobile money transfers.  

Our staff also maintain connections with other organizations that provide services that women in our program may need. Some of them may need health resources but as stress builds in communities, staff can provide referrals to services about violence against women as necessary. 

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) 

Because of the recent outbreak of Ebola in the DRC, our staff have experience sensitizing and educating communities about infectious diseases and preparing women to prevent its spread. Prior to curtailing activities, our trainers reinforced messages about COVID-19 disease prevention with women and men participants in trainings and discussion groups.  

Many women in our DRC program learn to make soap as part of their vocational training, so our team is supporting their production while looking at how we can distribute their soap to other participants. Our team is also exploring whether women who learned tailoring can help sew lifesaving masks and what women would need to contribute to that effort. Because cellphone coverage isn’t always reliable, our teams have to find other solutions to stay in contact with women in our program.  

Women who do have cellphones or can maintain contact with staff members become part of communication trees to share information on how women are doing. Many of these are done through groups formed as part of the program training, such as the village savings and loan associations (VSLAs).  

These remote forms of contact help our team continue to provide information on referrals to other important health services and support for gender-based violence. 

Our VSLAs are also looking at how they can support one another besides just communications. Some options they are considering are whether they can exchange or sell food to one another at reduced prices, to facilitate their local economy while also addressing the rising cost of food.  

Iraq 

Currently, our country office in Iraq faces the strictest lockdown. Most people are unable to leave their homes or use their cars without authorities stopping them.  

Stuck at home, women participants spend their time practicing handicrafts and preparing for a future where they can sell their products in the market or women bazaars. They continue to support one another by calling each other on cellphones to check on their new friends they made in the program.  

Our staff is directly contacting every woman in the program. They emphasize to women that our team is here for them. If women have issues relating to food insecurity, domestic violence, gender-based violence, or health, our team refers them to our partners for support.  

Communication is relatively easy in Iraq, so staff and women participants can communicate by phone, through chat applications, such as WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, or social media.  Many women participants have even actively contacted our trainers and staff to check on their health and well-being!  With these lines open, our staff are looking at ways to continue teaching women remotely, with information supplemental to the curriculum via cellphone, apps and social media.  For example, they are exploring Facebook groups to remotely connect women together in their circles of 25. They will reinforce program topics like the importance of savings and household financial management, crucial knowledge, in times of crisis. 

By maintaining these connections, we can break the isolation of women being at home. They feel happy to be part of the Women for Women International family and are eager to reconnect again in person when the crisis is over.  

Bosnia & Herzegovina  

Some of the graduates from our program are stepping up and using skills from their trainings to protect their communities: Women’s groups have started sewing face masks to be used by hospitals, police officers, the elderly, and local government workers. 

They’re testament to the fact that stronger women build stronger nations.  

With all in-person activities suspended, participants and staff are staying in contact using social media and mobile technology, such as Facebook groups and Viber. Our staff is staying in touch with presidents of women’s associations, which graduates of our Women for Women International program have developed and maintained over many years. 

Graduate from Zene za Zene sewing masks to support COVID-19 efforts
Program graduates in Bosnia & Herzegovina are sewing masks. Credit: Women for Women International - Bosnia & Herzegovina

Nigeria 

Our last program to suspend training, our Nigeria team closed with providing women their stipends through financial institution partners and is searching for solutions to continue delivering critical resources.  

In preparation for closing, our teams secured contact information for a few women leaders in each of the classrooms. In a place where reliable science-based information about disease confusingly clashes with superstitions, our ability to share accurate information is crucial to reducing the spread of disease, as our trainers are a trusted source of information.  

For women living in places without reliable cellphone coverage or who don’t have cellphones, our team has collaborated with participants and graduates to balance communication and social distancing. Those with phones speak with trainers to review COVID-19 information and reemphasize training, and they can meet with women in more remote areas to remind them about their lessons. 

From many of our programs, we’re seeing what we’ve always known: Women’s income is integral to the family’s resilience. Before markets close as part of a larger shutdown, our team is helping women prepare and save by helping them shift their businesses and stock up on essentials.  

Afghanistan 

Before staff transitioned to working from home, they delivered women’s stipends and prepared women to be strong through this crisis and prepare to rebuild their lives through their vocational activities. For those who are learning agriculture, they received fruit trees that need to be planted this season so they would not have to skip a year of growth. 

Our team is working to provide women with hygiene kits that include masks, soap, hand sanitizer, gloves, and brochures with important messages they can refer to about coronavirus.  

When possible, trainers are in touch with current participants, Change Agents, savings group members, and community protection committee members. Our team shares critical information about COVID-19, provides referrals to health clinics if needed, and asks women about their health and well-being. If trainers hear issues on these calls, they share it with the local Afghanistan team’s COVID-19 response group.   

The unfortunate reality is that many women do not have their own personal phones in Afghanistan because of poverty as well as societal restrictions on women, so our team is exploring other ways to share critical information with women, such as sending out voice recordings, so women can safely share updates with other women living near them.  

Kosovo 

With classes suspended, our teams continue to connect with women and provide support through mobile groups formed through Facebook and Viber. Same as many other countries, inaccurate information about the coronavirus is all around, and these groups allow trainers to speak with participants about accurate information about coronavirus transmission and prevention.  

Trainers encourage women to continue with their income generating activities. Where possible, Women for Women International will provide materials and input that support their income generating activities, especially related to agricultural production, so women can continue working, meeting market demands and making money during the crisis.  

Even during crisis, women show hope and preparation for the future. Women who produce handicrafts have continued production to one day sell them when markets reopen. For higher-level women business owners, the team is exploring ways of organizing online trainings via Zoom.   

We are proud of the quick and innovative thinking that our teams have shown, and of the solidarity that women participants have built with each other. Women for Women International is a global community that is coming together across distances to help women and their families make it through this uncertain time. Just as our teams and participants are staying connected, we hope you will support them.