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What Happened? How the Humanitarian Response to COVID-19 Failed to Protect Women and Girls

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Ten months after the first outbreak of COVID-19 in China, this report brings forward the voices of over 850 women from refugee, displaced and post conflict settings, living in the midst of humanitarian crises across 15 African countries and 25 GBV experts – working at all levels of the humanitarian system – to examine the impact of the pandemic on women and girls' safety and to assess whether humanitarian responses, specifically in Africa, have appropriately addressed the increased risk of GBV.

As part of a Remote Safety Audit designed to keep in contact with women at this time when humanitarian access was restricted, IRC spoke to 852 women from refugee, displaced and post conflict settings across Africa using a standard safety audit questionnaire administered by phone or in person, depending on movement restrictions in each context. Data trends were analysed by region and include countries from the Great Lakes: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania; West Africa: Cameroon, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone; and East Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda (see annex for detailed methodology). This data was used to assess how COVID-19 has affected the lives of women and girls in emergencies. The safety audit also encouraged the interviewed women to come forward with solutions that would improve their situation. Their recommendations have been summarised and grouped along six categories (see p. 24-25).

In addition, the authors talked to 25 GBV experts working in and beyond Africa in a range of roles and organisations, including UN agencies, donor governments, international and national NGOs and civil society organisations, to examine to what extent the humanitarian response to COVID-19 has taken the safety of women and girls into account.

Case studies of Kenya, Chad and Burundi shine a light on how decisions made by government and humanitarian leadership, advocacy efforts of GBV specialists and feminist activists, and existing commitments and structures to address GBV in a specific humanitarian response, have influenced how far GBV responders were able to uphold services.

This report concludes with recommendations based on IRC interviews with displaced and refugee women, women-led organisations, and humanitarian GBV experts. Their voices, experiences, and knowledge need to translate into effective, accountable, and consistent humanitarian action that truly puts women and girls at the centre of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.