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COVID-19: “Who is Skilled and Who is Unskilled in this Pandemic Moment?”

There are so many times in life when one finds one lacks the relevant skills to make sense of, and to grapple effectively with a pressing condition. That repeated realization has made me think about skills – and what “counts” as a skill, and who gets to do the “counting.”

Image credit: WILPF
Cynthia Enloe
8 June 2020

There are so many times in life when one finds one lacks the relevant skills to make sense of, and to grapple effectively with a pressing condition. That repeated realization has made me think about skills – and what “counts” as a skill, and who gets to do the “counting.”

Feminists working in war zones have learned to be skeptical about who defines what ability as a “skill.” They have learned – and taught the rest of us – that, for instance, the capacity to persuade mutually hostile neighbors and the opposing men with guns to agree to dismantle a local check point so that trucks carrying needed humanitarian aid can get through is a skill.  It is a skill that requires not the ability to muster firepower, but, instead, the skills of trust-building and respectful persuasion. Most of the people with guns or commanding (and paying) the people with guns refuse to see those as skills, much less as crucial skills.

For patriarchal commanders, warlords and their civilian sponsors and allies, it is easier to denigrate those capacities by sweeping them under the hems of femininity. Those local trust-building check-point dismantlers – so often women – are not, these patriarchally dismissive people claim, skilled; they are imagined to be just doing what women “naturally” do, talking to neighbors, caring for family members. Any capacity that can be dismissed as “natural” can be discounted as a skill. In this impoverish imagining, the relevantly skilled person likewise can be dismissed; she can be ignored, seen as a person not equipped to be a fashioner of the long-range solution.

Thus I read the WILPF “Covid-19” series contribution by Genevieve Riccoboni with special interest. She described how Sylvie Ndongmo and her Cameroonian feminist colleagues went about using trust-building skills they had developed in the grassroots peace activism to conduct an anti-Covid-19 public health campaign. These Cameroonian feminist activists had found that in both curtailing collective violence and addressing a pandemic, people needed to learn to trust each other and, when worthy, to trust the government’s health officials.

Right now, in the middle of this globalizing coronavirus pandemic, we – all of us – need to be equipped with, and to imagine new skills. To not just get us through this pandemic, but to successfully reorder our local, national and international relationships so that we are prepared for the next pandemic – and the next natural disaster, the next climate change catastrophe, and the next outbreak of armed conflict – we need women and men equipped with these newly valued skills. Those relevantly skilled women and men need to be allocated sufficient resources and authority. Those patriarchal people who continue to dismiss these relevant skills as “merely feminine” need to be moved out of the way; by their ignorant dismissiveness, they have proved themselves to be irrelevant to this historic moment.

The alleged skills that many of the people now in senior political and economic posts are conventionally seen to possess do not match the challenges of this historic moment. They are the skills of protecting state and corporate interests, winning and staying in office, maximizing profits, escaping accountability and coming out on top. These conventionally rewarded skills are not the skills that will restore global health safety, prevent armed conflict, sustain the environment and equitably distribute economic security.

Ask any hedge fund CEO, ask any bank director, ask any general, ask any political party leader, ask any finance minister, ask any electoral strategist – what skills do you bring to this global pandemic moment? Very, very few of them with a straight face will be able to answer: skills of complex information collection and absorption, skills of multi-dimensional care, skills of empathetic imagination and expression, skills of localized trust building, skills of gender equity creation, and skills of non-nationalist, anti-militarized solidarity-building.

We are facing today’s multi-dimensional global challenge with glaringly unskilled people in power in too many countries and in too many transnational commercial and multilateral institutions. This is not to say we don’t have people – scores of them, many of them feminists – equipped with precisely these skills that this historic moment demands. We do. Now we must take action to insure that it is those relevantly skilled people who are in charge, locally, nationally and internationally.

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Cynthia Enloe

Dr. Cynthia Enloe is a world-renowned scholar on gender and militarism and is a member of the WILPF academic network.

Melissa Torres


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


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


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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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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