The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled existing volatile situations around the world by putting additional stress on fragile healthcare, political, and economic systems. As the international community is urgently responding to these conditions, women peacebuilders have mobilized to mitigate the threats arising in their local communities. While women peacebuilders leading grassroots efforts have always been at the center of creating and supporting sustainable peace, their work is often not being documented or recognized as peacebuilding work.
The pandemic has deepened and magnified issues the women, peace, and security agenda seeks to address. Much attention has been called to the increasing plight of women and girls and the need for intervention, and it is often women peacebuilders who are on the frontlines addressing these issues in a variety of ways.
The Work of Women Peacebuilders
One area where women peacebuilders have been working is in providing access to information on healthcare, humanitarian aid, and social services. The pandemic is highlighting the barriers that exist for marginalized groups—including women—to access such information, and since women peacebuilders are on the ground identifying and often experiencing these barriers, they have directed their energies to helping local populations protect themselves. It is especially important that this information is being provided to other women, since they are often the primary caregivers in their homes and provide the majority of formal and informal healthcare.
Another area is psycho-social support. Through a variety of communal methods, such as by traditional storytelling, organizations like Hope for the Needy Association (HOFNA) in Cameroon that are led by women peacebuilders are supporting populations to deal with the impacts of COVID-19. Women peacebuilders are also informing local and national governments and the international community about the needs of people on the ground, especially those who are most vulnerable, such as refugees and displaced persons.
A third area is the economic fallout from the pandemic. The fallout is disproportionately affecting women-dominated industries, including informal ones. Women peacebuilders are addressing these consequences by, for example, supporting local women farmers and teaching women how to make goods that are necessary during this time, like soap and sanitary pads. These measures are already working towards the post-pandemic rebuilding process in a way that promotes the equitable distribution of resources and power in their societies.
In a broad sense, the grassroots efforts of women peacebuilders are providing crucial soft security in a time when the pandemic threatens to destabilize conflict zones, and hard security provided by United Nations peacekeeping missions is stretched thin. The UN has suspended the rotation of contingents, and troop-contributing countries are withdrawing their peacekeepers in response to the pandemic, leaving missions short-staffed.
It is also becoming increasingly difficult for UN peacekeepers and international staff who are still on the ground to carry out humanitarian work when xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and outrage are increasing in response to the pandemic among locals. Women peacebuilders are already bridging a gap between the human security needs of local populations and the international community’s ability to respond to those needs.
Overlooking the Work of Women Peacebuilders
Despite the range of work that women peacebuilders are carrying out during the pandemic, it is often missing from assessments of conflict zones in the COVID-19 era, and overlooked by national and international actors. The goal of peacebuilding is to prevent conflict and promote sustainable peace through a variety of strategic measures carried out by government and civil society actors. The grassroots efforts being led by these women are foundational to peacebuilding because they address issues that threaten peace on the local level, which in turn strengthens national capacities for sustainable peace and development.
A strong example is HOFNA in Cameroon. Christelle Bay Chongwain, the organization’s founder and executive director, makes clear that women peacebuilders have always worked in the heart of crises and conflict, and are now using their skills to ensure the well-being of their communities during the pandemic. Both communities and the international system benefit from such organizations led by women peacebuilders. If the work of women peacebuilders is not supported, their ability to continue building on the progress thus far achieved is threatened. When their work is recognized, it is motivating and empowering to the women themselves and their organizations, because they know they are being considered in peace processes.
UN bodies also have the power to benefit women peacebuilders through the recognition of and engagement with their organizations. This further legitimizes their roles as formal actors in peacebuilding with other national and international stakeholders. This, in turn, can also assist with building and strengthening their networks with other organizations and actors. Recognition can also create opportunities to receive other forms of support these women also need, such as financial resources and assistance with building leadership skills.
UN Women, for example, can support in this area by more carefully mapping out which organizations are working on issue areas related to peacebuilding and the WPS agenda. This will allow women peacebuilders to better connect with and support UN agencies and each other. Currently, many women peacebuilders are frustrated with the lack of clear channels of communication with UN actors. Clearer policies need to be implemented to make UN representatives available to grassroots organizations to encourage collaboration on peacebuilding efforts across actors.
Many women peacebuilders are willing to offer their skills to address current crises. The UN and other international humanitarian actors need to acknowledge the value these women have always been offering, support and work alongside them, and embrace a bottom-up approach to peacebuilding in order to ensure the safety of locals during the global pandemic.
Jasmine Jaghab is currently in the Women, Peace, and Security Program at the International Peace Institute (IPI).
This article was published in tandem with IPI’s Women, Peace, and Leadership symposium being held September 16th, and IPI’s forthcoming issue brief, “Peacebuilding during a Pandemic: Keeping the Focus on Women’s Inclusion.”