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COVID-19: WILPF Sections Mobilising to Prevent Pandemic in Africa

As of 14 April 2020, there have been over 15,000 reported cases of COVID-19 on the African continent, and the world is bracing itself to see to what extent African countries will be affected by the virus. WILPF sections across the continent are pushing back against misinformation and, using grassroots networks, are raising awareness about the specific risks that vulnerable populations face during the pandemic.

Image credit: WILPF
Genevieve Riccoboni
16 April 2020

By Genevieve Riccoboni

As of 14 April 2020, there have been over 15,000 reported cases of COVID-19 on the African continent, and the world is bracing itself to see to what extent African countries will be affected by the virus. WILPF sections across the continent are pushing back against misinformation and, using grassroots networks, are raising awareness about the specific risks that vulnerable populations face during the pandemic.

Past epidemics, including Ebola and HIV/AIDS, have disproportionately affected African countries. Centuries of colonialism, conflict, authoritarianism, and neoliberal austerity and privatisation regimes have weakened many countries’ health and social protection systems. COVID-19 would add an additional layer onto current structural health crises, including poverty, malnutrition, HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. There are existing shortages of doctors, medicines and medical supplies, and hospital beds.

African sections respond to misinformation

WILPF sections throughout Africa, including in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the DRC, and Sudan, have been acting early to help flatten the curve. They have been leveraging local grassroots networks to start awareness-raising campaigns and initiatives, pushing back against misinformation and sharing public health guidelines.

In Cameroon, which currently has over 848 cases of COVID-19, WILPF Cameroon is responding to misinformation about the risks that the virus poses.

“[There have been] widespread rumors about the alleged ‘invulnerability’ of black Africans to COVID-19,” says Sylvie Ndongmo, President of the Cameroon section and Africa Regional Representative. “Many Cameroonians have often been exposed to false information that the virus cannot withstand hot temperatures in regions like Africa, and that traditional herbal treatments are effective at curing it.”

The section has been focused on correcting these false rumors, promoting respect for the government regulations, and pushing back against stigmatisation and hate speech. In her capacity as Africa Regional Representative, Sylvie Ndongmo has also sent letters to sections and groups throughout Africa, urging them to take action in response to the pandemic.

Strengthening trust in public health guidance

It is crucial in a pandemic that people have access to accurate and reliable information about risks and prevention. Government public health officials are often best placed to provide this kind of information to the broader population. However, many governments worldwide have manipulated the pandemic to impose extreme and disproportionate lockdown measures, often with brutal and violent enforcement that violates human rights. These measures have further eroded an existing lack of trust in public institutions and government information.

Both WILPF Cameroon and WILPF Burkina Faso have been working to address this precise issue, to ensure that people adhere to life-saving public health guidance.

For WILPF Burkina Faso, the work against COVID-19 represents the key focus for all humanity for the rest of 2020. Thus, WILPF Burkina Faso is making itself available on the front line for advocacy and awareness-raising in order to help respond to the pandemic.

WILPF Burkina Faso has developed a social media campaign around best practices for COVID-19 response.  This campaign explains why it is so important to listen to official sources of information about public health and observe government guidelines, and warns against risky behaviors such as self-medicating.

“To curb the spread of COVID-19, we must strictly follow the instructions issued by the government. Let’s not give in to fear,” reads one social media graphic developed by WILPF Burkina Faso in their #COVID19BestPractices campaign.

Leveraging grassroots networks, WILPF Burkina Faso has also formed a COVID-19 women rapid response group. This group is conducting direct community work as well as advocacy on key issues, including ensuring access to information for people with disabilities, providing personal protective equipment to frontline workers, acting against price gouging, and sharing the risks around handling money.

Irregular internet access and a gender digital divide often limit access to up-to-date information throughout the continent, most significantly affecting women and girls and people who live in poverty and conflict-affected areas. In Sudan, for example, only 33% of people accessed the internet in 2019.

With this digital divide in mind, WILPF Sudan has prepared flyers containing information on COVID-19 and has been distributing them when possible, in order to prevent the further spread of the virus. They have been doing this work in partnership with other widely-recognised grassroots groups which grew out of the revolution. The pandemic has deepened their connections with other local activists, as they work collectively to respond to COVID-19 in the Sudanese context.

Disproportionate risks to vulnerable groups

A key issue is that even with widespread education on the risks of the virus, many people still lack access to the adequate water and sanitation products and facilities that they need to stay safe. For example, workers in the informal sector, disproportionately women, face heightened risks both to their personal health and economic security during the pandemic. Working may mean contracting the virus, but not working may mean not being able to put food on the table.

“Many displaced women work as tea sellers and food sellers in the streets and have great exposure to the disease,” Ikhlas Mahmoud, president of WILPF Sudan, notes. “In addition, women in Sudan as well as other conflict-affected countries stand at the frontlines since they dominate the health work, humanitarian and voluntary work in the conflict-affected parts of the country.” Furthermore, there have been rising cases of domestic violence as people shelter at home with their abusers.

In the DRC, which has also been significantly affected by armed conflict and has also suffered an Ebola outbreak only a few years ago, there are similar risks to vulnerable populations.

“How can we ensure that these very appropriate sanitary rules are respected when we think about the untimely cuts in electricity and water supply … when we think of the street children, called “Shegués”, the homeless, the populations living in slums and ghettos, the people living in overcrowded conditions, prisoners, migrants, displaced persons and refugees in camps?” asks Annie Matundu Mbambi, president of WILPF DRC.

The work continues post-pandemic

Ultimately, the work of WILPF sections throughout Africa to raise awareness around COVID-19 is part of broader work to build a society built on permanent peace and socio-economic justice.

Annie Matundu Mbambi echoes broader WILPF calls to use the pandemic as an opportunity to challenge the unequal structures and systems in our world.

“As women activists, we must try to develop, during this confinement period, approaches that can progressively reduce gender inequalities in order to offer the world social justice as well as sustainable peace after the pandemic…confinement gives us the opportunity to be creative and, therefore, to reinvent the way we raise awareness…Let us carry out actions of solidarity, in equality and justice, in the name of peace.”

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Genevieve Riccoboni

Genevieve Riccoboni is the Programme Associate for WILPF’s Women, Peace and Security Programme, where she coordinates communications and delegations and supports other aspects of programme work including monitoring the UN Security Council, research, and publications.

Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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