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Lessons from African Feminists Mobilizing Against COVID-19

by Meredith Forsyth |April 3, 2020
women in front of chalk board

Rose Faida (left) and Aline-Sifa Mulibinge (right), grassroots organizers with REFEADES, lead an information session on COVID-19 prevention measures in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Alphonsine Apendeki/REFEADES

Last week, the Women, Peace and Security program hosted a webinar with its Peace and Social Change Fellowship participants, who are leaders of grassroots women’s organizations across Nigeria, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, and Sudan. The five participating organizations hail from different political contexts in Africa, yet they are unified in their expanded approach to peacebuilding beyond armed conflict, including spotlighting issues of everyday safety like reproductive health, food security, and education.

In this current global crisis, they are mobilizing their communities to respond to the growing threat of COVID-19. Their strategies offer wisdom not only on practical ways to care for oneself and one another, but also on building societies grounded in solidarity, equity, and care for communities. Here are three important lessons from these African grassroots activists.

Make visible the frontline work that women are doing to care for their communities.

Grassroots women’s organizations organize around a broad scope of issues — from climate change to conflict — and employ a diverse range of strategies and practices to forward and sustain justice in their communities. Beyond this, all of the organizations participating in the fellowship program have stepped up to use their time and resources to respond directly to the pandemic-related health needs that have arisen in their local contexts. Their work, however, is not often documented or recognized as the peacebuilding work that it is, even though they make critical contributions to care for their community in times of crisis.

poster explains how to wash hands in arabic

Handwashing poster created by the MANSAM team in Sudan. Photo: Afkar Nasser/MANSAM

For example, members of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria, a network of women’s organizations in Plateau State, hosted workshops with local leaders to advise community members and is raising awareness via media on how to prevent the spread of the virus. Rose Faida, whose organization REFEADES works with survivors of gender-based violence in eastern Congo, said that since many women in their community have little access to media for information, her team has been reaching out to women and girls directly to educate them about safe hygiene and social distancing measures.

Activists from MANSAM in Sudan have mobilized throughout different regions of the country against COVID-19. MANSAM, a coalition of women’s organizations and civil society groups, was formed during the Sudanese Revolution in 2018 to advocate for democracy and greater representation of women in government. In Port Sudan City, activists enacted a “Sudan Against Corona” campaign, making masks, donating needed supplies, distributing posters with essential information, and raising awareness about the virus via social media. Afkar Nasser, one of MANSAM’s activists in Port Sudan, said “At this time, our role is to help the citizens to be aware enough about this virus, and to inform them about how to stop the spread.”

woman dispensing hand sanitizer to a man

A member of the “Sudan Against Corona” initiative, led by MANSAM, distributes hand sanitizer in Port Sudan city. Photo: Afkar Nasser/MANSAM

In rural areas in South and West Kordofan and in Darfur, other MANSAM activists have been raising awareness among women in particular about the virus. Rasha Abubaker, a MANSAM member based in South Kordofan, said, “We also told [the community] about the need to stay home during this period, and we focus on women in this aspect… because we believe in the role of women and their influence in their families and societies.” 

Prioritize those most impacted.

Pandemics magnify existing inequalities — particularly along lines of gender. Evidence from previous outbreaks of Ebola and Zika, for example, demonstrates how domestic violence increases during lockdown periods, and women’s access to sexual and reproductive healthcare is curtailed because resources are diverted elsewhere. On last week’s call, many of the fellowship participants spoke about the pandemic’s gendered impacts and the peace and justice work they are doing in their communities.

“Women are the most affected,” said Sylvia Katooko, executive director of the Suubi Center, which provides sexual and reproductive health services and income-generating skills for women in Kibuku, Uganda. She pointed out that lockdowns and social distancing measures impact the women and girls with whom they work by restricting their access to markets to sell goods and preventing them from reaching community gardens where they grow food. This in turn poses more long-term risks to their income, financial independence and ability to provide for their families.

women cutting fabric

Sylvia Katooko and Sharon Mukade, from the Suubi Center in Uganda, creating masks from homemade materials. Photo: Sylvia Katooko/Suubi Center

The Barali Foundation team in Lesotho, for example, pointed out that school closures mean a loss of safe space for some women and girls, for whom home may not be a safe place. “Maybe because I’m already gender studies oriented, but I thought ‘How is COVID-19 going to actually affect us beyond just being infected?’ So now I’m trying to find out strategies that can work [in our community],” said Lineo Matlakala, director of the Barali Foundation, whose work focuses on sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence in rural areas of Lesotho.

In this moment, grassroots feminist organizations’ leadership is more needed than ever. Their work — which already centers those who are disproportionately affected by inequality — is essential to protect gains that may fall under threat in this current crisis, on issues like menstrual health, maternal health, safe abortion, and LGBTIQ rights.

Take a feminist approach to leadership — which includes self-care.

The spread of COVID-19 has stirred up much fear and panic in all corners of the world. Social isolation, too, can take a toll on mental health, when people are constrained in ability to interact with colleagues, friends and family members. For others, social distancing is a privilege only a few can afford. Many of the fellowship participants shared concerns about their health and communities at this time — including the difficulty of obtaining reliable information and the potential strain of the outbreak on the capacity of local healthcare systems.

In response, participants collectively shared ways they are taking care of themselves and encouraged one another to look after their own well-being and their relationships. These strategies included practical measures to mitigate stress, like healthy eating, mindful breathing exercises, and prayer or meditation. They also collectively considered what feminist leadership looks like in times of crisis, from using women’s social media groups to share reliable information to brainstorming new strategies for activism in this moment of social distance.

“We need to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others,” said Limpho Matlakala of the Barali Foundation in Lesotho, emphasizing the urgent need for new forms of leadership in this moment. Feminist leadership is inextricably linked to care — for the community at-large, for those most impacted by inequality and crisis, but also, perhaps most radically, for oneself.

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