Building a fairer, healthier world starts with investing in women and girls

On World Health Day, 7 April, UN Women spotlights women on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 and growing inequality

Date: Tuesday, April 6, 2021

A year since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the global count of infection has exceeded 131 million. Across the globe, life as we knew has been on pause, and transformed. However, the inequalities we lived with before the pandemic have carried over to the new normal. Left unchecked, they will increase.

A recently released UN Women report shows that by 2021, 435 million women and girls will be pushed into extreme poverty, living on USD 1.90 or less. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the risk of poverty is higher for women than men, since they get lower wages and do more informal work that provides little to no protection against economic shocks. Women are estimated to lose more jobs than men, and those who are poor and marginalized also face a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission and fatalities.

Throughout the pandemic, violence against women has risen – in some countries, calls to helplines went up five-fold, while in others, women were unable to seek help as they were trapped at home with their abusers. Projections show that for every three months of lockdown, an additional 15 million women are at risk of gender-based violence.

As with any other crisis, women are at the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, as health workers, care-givers, leaders and innovators. Globally, 70 per cent of health workers and first responders are women, yet they are not paid or valued at par with their male counterparts. Right now, men outnumber women three to one across COVID-19 government task forces around the world.

This is the backdrop against which the world is trying to recover from COVID-19, and “build back better”. On World Health Day (7 April), take a look at some of the women we work with on the front lines of COVID-19 and their persistent battle to build a fairer, healthier and more equal world.

Breaking down language barriers

Juana Facundo is a translator of Otomi indigenous language. Photo: UN Women/ Coordination of Extension and Social Action UDG
Juana Facundo is a translator of Otomi indigenous language. Photo: UN Women/ Coordination of Extension and Social Action UDG

“Being indigenous, we already suffer from discrimination, and with the pandemic, women were forced to stay at home and endure domestic abuse,” says Juana Facundo.

Facundo is one of the five translators working with UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls programme in Mexico and the University of Guadalajara to break down language barriers in the dissemination of COVID-19 health information and to prevent violence against indigenous women and girls in Jalisco state’s capital city of Guadalajara.

The programme developed information about COVID-19 prevention and gender-based violence in the five indigenous languages of Hñähñu, Mixteco, Purépecha, Mazahua, and Mahua, and shared them over the radio. Along with community-based loud speaker interventions in neighbourhoods most affected by the pandemic, the information campaign reached 57,000 indigenous people in the state of Jalisco.

“There are more than 38 indigenous languages nationwide and the [public information] campaign raised awareness of other cultures and languages,” says Facundo. “I like that our voices are being heard.”

Read the full story here.

Women leaders fighting inequality

Laxmi Badi, center in pink shawl, participating in a group work during Feminist Leadership training. Photo: Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization/Shanker Biswokarma
Laxmi Badi, center in pink shawl, participating in a group work during Feminist Leadership training. Photo: Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization/Shanker Biswokarma

Laxmi Badi, 40, is a member of the Ward Committee and Judicial Committee of Dipayal Silgadhi Municipality in far western Nepal, since 2017. When COVID-19 hit, Badi led her community fiercely to prevent misinformation and discrimination.

Throughout her life, her teachers, friends and neighbours had actively avoided being in her proximity, because she was from the Dalit community, perceived as “low caste” and “untouchable”. In 2020, she took in a UN Women programme funded by the Government of Finland, which provided leadership and governance training.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Badi's municipality saw an influx of Nepali migrant workers returning from India. As per the protocol, the returnee migrants were required to quarantine for 14 days at a local facility. However, the onset of COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing discrimination against the Dalit community. The people from 'upper castes' in the quarantine centre refused to let Dalit returnee migrant workers enter the premises and locked the gates saying they might spread COVID-19.

When Badi found out, she went with a hammer and smashed the lock. She stopped the spread of misinformation and explained to everyone that any one of them, including people from 'upper castes', could test positive for COVID-19. She advised all to maintain physical distance and warned if anyone discriminated against the Dalits, she would have to report them to the police. She also provided support to the survivors of gender-based violence in the quarantine centre. Badi’s continuous efforts to address inequality have earned her respect in her municipality.

Read her full story here.

Supporting women entrepreneurs

Caroline Fattal. Photo courtesy of Caroline Fattal
Caroline Fattal is a Lebanese businesswoman. Photo courtesy of Caroline Fattal

“I believe that economic resilience and revival of businesses is critical right now and supporting women to remain in the workforce is crucial,” says Caroline Fattal, a 49-year-old Lebanese businesswoman with extensive experience in multinational companies and within her family business.

A firm believer of women’s empowerment, Fattal launched the non-profit organization, Stand for Women, to improve women’s inclusion in the workforce. 

When, on 4 August 2020, a massive explosion at the Beirut Port killed more than 200 people and demolished thousands of buildings, including small businesses, Stand for Women was the first NGO to start saving and rebuilding women-owned small and medium enterprises.

“When the COVID-19 lockdown was renewed in January, they faced additional stress,” explains Fattal. “[It compromised] their cash flow and their ability to pay rent and utilities. One of our beneficiaries owns a photocopy shop, making only 60,000 LBP (USD 7.50) per day; how can she, under lockdown, bring money home?”

In partnership with another NGO, Live Love Beirut, funded by UN Women, Stand for Women provided women-owned businesses with machines, computers and supplies, tailored to the needs of each business, to help them reopen.

Since August 2020, Stand for Women has helped 109 women-owned businesses reopen.

Read more here.

Fostering the future of women’s leadership

Elena Neaga is the first woman mayor of Balasesti since the independence of the Republic of Moldova, and the commune’s first young woman mayor.
Elena Neaga is the first woman mayor of Balasesti since the independence of the Republic of Moldova, and the commune’s first young woman mayor.

Elena Neaga, Tatiana Galateanu, and Maria Galit, are three mayors in Moldova making waves for women’s leadership. While each comes from a different region and personal background, they have all defied stereotypes about women’s leadership and shown what responsive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic looks like.

To continue engaging with citizens despite COVID-19 lockdown measures, Neaga’s administration created a community group on a calling and messaging app, where people could share information and discuss local issues. Through this group, the local administration kept the community informed about new COVID-19 cases and prevention measures, and community members could share information, report violations of quarantine and social-distancing rules to prevent big outbreaks.

Neaga also prioritized the procurement of an ambulance so that patients could be transported to the hospital safely. The ambulance now serves seven villages and over 10,000 people.

Meanwhile, in the village of Giurgiulesti, southern Moldova, Galateanu’s prior investment in public health infrastructure proved to be a timely and beneficial endeavour when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Additionally, Galateanu shares: “We procured visors for the health centre, and, from the local budget, we contributed to the opening of the COVID-19 unit at the district hospital in Cahul, procured sanitizers, and provided the necessary protection equipment to kindergartens.”

Similarly, much of Galit’s mayorship has focused on improving public infrastructure and opening new avenues for civic engagement.

Through their mayoral legacies, Neaga, Galateanu, and Galit serve as role models for women from rural areas, young women, and women in politics. Along their leadership journeys, the mayors took part in various UN Women programmes on supporting women’s leadership.

Read more here.

Supporting survivors of gender-based violence

Nan Zar Ni Myint works to raise awareness of the rights of migrant domestic workers in Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Kith&Kin
Nan Zar Ni Myint works to raise awareness of the rights of migrant domestic workers in Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Kith&Kin

Nan Zar Ni Myint, a 37-year-old woman from Myanmar, has been working as a domestic worker in Thailand for 19 years. After meeting a group of domestic workers from her home country, she started to learn about the rights of migrant domestic workers.

“Many domestic workers were working long hours, seven days a week,” says Myint. “Some had their travel and personal identification documents withheld by their employers. With the COVID-19 pandemic, some have even experienced gender-based violence while confined at home during lockdowns.”

Myint now volunteers to help other migrant domestic workers from Myanmar learn about their rights and services available to support them when their rights are violated. Myint and her network are often the first point of contact for migrant domestic workers experiencing violence. They provide critical services, such as peer-support counselling, referral to services and economic support, as well as language interpretation.

They are supported by the Safe and Fair Programme, jointly implemented by UN Women and ILO, in collaboration with UNODC, as part of the multi-year EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls.

Read the full story here.

Addressing women’s health in the face of a global pandemic

Alepher Matemba Banda. Photo courtesy of Alepher Matemba Banda
Alepher Matemba Banda answers calls to a national health helpline in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Alepher Matemba Banda

In Malawi, Alepher Matemba Banda, 31, is a nurse responding to a hotline at Chipatala cha pa foni, a national health helpline.

“Most of the calls I receive on the hotline these days concern challenges that clients are facing with the outbreak of COVID-19,” says Banda. “Many pregnant women are worried because they do not have resources to prevent contracting the virus. At the same time, girls are concerned about unplanned pregnancies due to scarcity of family planning methods in health facilities.”

Banda was among 40 helpline nurses and technicians who received training in gender-based violence and health, through a UN Women initiative funded by the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office. She learned to recognize signs of abuse and how to safely and ethically provide information, support, and referrals to pregnant women and adolescent girls, using an online system during COVID-19.

“I provide information on COVID-19 symptoms, locations of test centres and preventative measures, using a computerized system. Our clients, who are mostly pregnant women and adolescent girls, call through a toll-free line. We also receive calls from [victims] of gender-based violence.”

The programme aims to reach 4 million women and adolescent girls in Malawi with information on life-saving services.

Read the full story here.

Rebuilding peace and protecting communities

Women peacebuilders are using their mobile phones to support COVID-19 response efforts in Libya. Photos: Courtesy of Libyan Women’s Network for Peacebuilding.
In Libya, mobile devices have become critical in helping women peace mediators continue their work in calling for a ceasefire and following up on cases of threats of violence against women. Photos: Courtesy of Libyan Women’s Network for Peacebuilding.

Online organizing is not new to the Libyan Women’s Network for Peacebuilding. Since 2019, this group of 36 Libyan women representing a broad social, political, generational and geographic spectrum have used their phones to connect, discuss and overcome their differences in the interest of one goal: peace. Each member has her own network of activists in her own region where she is already working to support their own communities.

They act as mediators between the warring parties and find common grounds.

Their online meetings are not always done comfortably on a sofa using high-speed internet. Often, you can hear the conflict just outside their doors, and electricity or cellular network outages are frequent. Some members have to drive for miles to get a signal on their phones to participate in meetings.

As soon as the threat of the pandemic became known, Network members quickly adapted their online activism to respond to the pandemic. “We started raising awareness of the coronavirus pandemic through social media pages and pamphlets. We have provided gloves and masks, and some members even started sewing protective clothing for health workers,” said one of the members*.

To reach Libya’s most vulnerable populations, the group started disseminating vital information on national and local radios to make people aware of the risks posed by COVID-19 and how to the limit its spread. They helped disseminate hotlines numbers for those experiencing gender-based violence and distributed cleaning and sanitizing products to low-income households. They linked up with the “We are with You” campaign to provide doctors and nurses with protective clothes, masks, gloves, sanitizers so they could safely treat people. As in most parts of the world, the majority of Libya’s nursing staff are women.

*All names of members of the Libyan Women’s Network have been withheld to protect their privacy and security.

Read the full story here.

Innovating for a safer, healthier world

Somaya Faruqi. Photo: Digital Citizen Fund
Somaya Faruqi and Afghanistan's Girl's Robotics Team developed a prototype venitlator to help their community. Photo: Digital Citizen Fund

When ventilators were becoming scarce due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Somaya Faruqi, 17, led Afghanistan’s Girl’s Robotics Team as they developed a prototype ventilator to support their country’s health care system.

“COVID-19 created a lot of challenges in our work,” says Faruqi. “We couldn’t go to school or continue our Robotics competition, but we took this as an opportunity to help our community with our skills.”

The former Governor of Herat, in western Afghanistan requested that Faruqi’s team join the challenge to build an open-source ventilator.

“We had limited access to the market didn’t have the right materials, there were travel restrictions and we didn’t even have a budget. Still, we participated with the help of our coaches, experts and mentors. We designed an open-source ventilator based on the MIT design. And, we proved that if there is opportunity for young women, they can change their lives and their community.”

Read more here.