Gendered implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for policies and programmes in humanitarian settings

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By: Sarah Fuhrman, Anushka Kalyanpur, Susannah Friedman, Nguyen Toan Tran


First detected in China’s Hubei Province in late 2019, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has spread rapidly, leading the WHO to declare a global pandemic on 11 March 2020.1 Initial data indicates that older persons and those with underlying medical conditions are most likely to suffer serious complications.2

While COVID-19 could have a devastating impact in any context, the dangers of the pandemic will be magnified for the nearly 168million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection worldwide, not least because many reside in fragile settings with weak water and sanitation infrastructure and lack access to quality health services.3 Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in densely populated camps and informal settlements are acutely vulnerable as overcrowding could exacerbate transmission. Restrictions on freedom of movement, imposed to contain COVID-19, can also harm populations on the move, hampering their access to safety and protective mechanisms.

Although evidence indicates that emergencies disproportionately affect women and girls,3 there is little research on the implications of public health emergencies on different groups, particularly women and girls. (While this paper focuses on women and girls in humanitarian settings, the analysis will generally apply to other vulnerable groups—including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual community and ethnic and racial minorities—and also to fragile contexts.)4 To address this gap, we analysed the potential gendered implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in humanitarian settings, drawing on research from past public health emergencies as well as our own experience. We examined policy and programmatic implications for key humanitarian sectors—including health; water, sanitation and hygiene; protection; shelter; education; food security and nutrition; and economic empowerment and well-being—with the aim of offering practical, gender-sensitive recommendations for humanitarian practitioners while recognising the unique needs and capabilities of women and girls in humanitarian settings.