Women refugees on the front lines of COVID-19 response


The COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives everywhere, but we know that it hits hardest those who have the least, including refugees and displaced persons. For them, the dangers have compounded. Half of the world’s refugees are women and girls.

Of the 71 million people forcibly displaced around the world, over 80 per cent of refugees and nearly all internally displaced people are hosted in low- and middle-income countries. They face added risks of having limited access to water, sanitation systems and health facilities. But they also bring with them skills, leadership and resilience, which we need to emerge from this crisis and build back better.

On World Refugee Day, 20 June, we’re bringing forward the voices of women refugees who have been on the front lines of the pandemic, and who know the specific needs of their community better than anyone else. From sharing information on how to prevent the virus spread in Bangladesh to sewing protective face masks in Kenya, women refugees have stepped up to protect their communities and they cannot afford to be invisible in recovery plans.

Raising awareness and stopping the spread in Bangladesh

Mobina Khatun is a Rohingya woman volunteer with UN Women in Cox's Bazar.
 Photo: UN Women/Pappu Mia
Mobina Khatun is a Rohingya woman volunteer with UN Women in Cox's Bazar. Photo: UN Women/Pappu Mia.

For women volunteers in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, preventing the spread of COVID-19 became an urgent priority when the virus reached Bangladesh.

“We are afraid because we have nothing,” says Mobina Khatun, 45, a Rohingya woman volunteer in the Ukhiya sector of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. “As we live in a very congested area, if there is limited access to medical treatment and the virus comes here, we will all die. So, we need sufficient hygiene materials like soaps and masks, along with doctors and nurses.”

As social norms and gender roles in Rohingya communities limit women and girls’ access to information, leaving them more vulnerable to the virus, Mobina and more than 20 other women volunteered and formed networks to raise awareness on COVID-19 across all camps.

Every day, she conducts door-to-door visits with women in Camp 4, providing crucial prevention information, while observing physical distancing. She tells the women how to protect themselves by hand-washing, maintaining physical distancing, and what to do if they or their family members get infected. To help mitigate the increased risk of domestic violence and abuse, she connects women and girls to the women-friendly spaces established in the camps by UN Women.

Improving healthcare and strengthening community ties in Ukraine

Iryna Korliakova, 48, fled her hometown in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to escape from the violent conflict. Photo: Anna Korbut
Iryna Korliakova. Photo: Anna Korbut

Iryna Korliakova, 48, fled her hometown in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to escape from the violent conflict and settled in the small town of Svatove. Iryna immediately became involved in her new community, and after participating in a UN Women leadership training, she started local self-help groups for women.

The six groups have worked in different villages to improve health and other critical services. In Chepihikiva, a tiny community in conflict-affected eastern Ukraine, Iryna’s community empowerment initiatives have improved the lives of 200 women and men. For instance, they rebuilt the only local health facility, which is now providing life-saving care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the very first meeting of a self-help group, we gathered at the local midwife station, where there was no water. I convinced them to establish a water supply there as a start – after all, it was the only health facility in the village,” Iryna says. The members were skeptical about prioritizing this at first, but “now, with COVID-19, this small health facility has become crucially important for residents.”

As quarantine and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 impact the lives and livelihoods of women in the rural communities, Iryna and the community groups have introduced online group messenger apps to help keep communication channels open, encourage and provide support to one another.

“I want people to feel comfortable and safe in their communities – even in the toughest times. After all, this is also my home now,” she says.

Supporting online learning in Jordan

Nahid Ali Albuhair, 31, a Syrian refugee from Rif-Dimashq continues to teach her students from the UN Women Oasis center through utilizing virtual teaching methods in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: UN Women/ Nahid Ali Albuhair
Nahid Ali Albuhair, 31, a Syrian refugee from Rif-Dimashq continues to teach her students virtually in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Courtesy of Nahid Ali Albuhair

As schools in Jordan closed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus and e-learning platforms became necessary, new challenges arose for students and families in the refugee camps. UN Women worked with partners to increase the number of teaching assistants as part of cash-for-work programme at the UN Women Oasis Centres in the Za’atari camp. The new teaching assistants, like Nahid Ali Albuhair, 31, provide remote support with the online curriculum being delivered by the Ministry of Education.

“I have realized that education is one of the most powerful tools to empower women and girls, as it can equip them with knowledge and skills, as well as with the confidence to stand up for their rights,” she says.

Nahid provides Arabic literacy lessons by using the wall of her caravan as a canvas for her video-based classes.

“As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we adapt our teaching methods to ensure women, girls, and youth still have access to education during the lockdown. I continue to teach my students virtually, recording videos of my lessons, and sending them to their parents [so that they can] assist them with their homework,” Nahid says.

Supplying personal protective equipment in Kenya

Margaret Kaukau sews fabric face masks to protect against COVID-19 spread in Kenya. Photo: UN Women
Margaret Kaukau sews fabric face masks to protect against COVID-19 spread in Kenya. Photo: UN Women

Margaret Kaukau, 39, fled the conflict in South Sudan in 2016. After arriving at the Kakuma/Kalobeyei settlement in Kenya with her five children, she received livelihood and vocation skills training through a UN Women partnership with Africa Action Help International (AAHI), supported by the government of Japan. Since then, Margaret has supported her family by selling bags and beadwork.

As the risks of COVID-19 reached the Kakuma/Kalobeyei settlements, Margaret and others became worried. Social distancing and working from home were not viable options for many of the more than 200,000 refugees and host community members, living in large households with close quarters.

For Margaret, the need for fabric masks became clear and she and other women pivoted their businesses to meet the needs of the community.

“We came up with business ideas that will make our skills relevant and join the fight against the pandemic,” Margaret explains. “I saw there was need for face masks in my family following the government directives. Medical-grade masks were very expensive, but fabric ones were affordable.”

Based out of the local handcraft centre, Margaret and other programme participants have created and donated over 2,000 masks to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), to be distributed to some of the camp’s most vulnerable. They have also been able to sell masks to nearby communities to continue supporting their families.

“When I see my clients wearing face masks we produced, I feel proud,” Margaret says. “I am joining rest of the women in the world in the fight against COVID-19.”

What can you do to help?

  • By donating, you can help UN Women in providing support to all women on the front lines of the fight against this pandemic; promoting flexible working arrangements; and prioritizing services to prevent gender-based domestic violence.
  • Share the stories of women refugees on your social media channels