The role of gender inclusive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic to support vulnerable populations in conflict settings


Summary box

  • Lessons learned from previous disease outbreaks in conflict settings should be harnessed to mitigate gendered impacts of COVID-19 on populations in conflict-affected countries.

  • During a pandemic, resources for and access to adequate health services are often disrupted due to armed conflict.

  • Pandemics are a gendered vulnerability, with their socioeconomic impact disproportionately higher among women particularly in conflict settings, where this vulnerability is exacerbated.

  • Increased diversity and gender-balanced leadership is an essential requirement in key committees and in multilateral organisations in developing pandemic preparedness and responses.

  • Intentionally cultivating and amplifying female leadership is paramount to creating effective leadership models and gender inclusive responses to improve outcomes for vulnerable populations in conflict settings.


‘The real heroines in the fight against COVID-19 are women’. Significant attention has been given to women political leaders in high-income settings, where it has been reported that women have led several countries’ effective national responses to COVID-19. However, little attention has been given to the role of women as leaders and decision makers in conflict settings. In conflict settings, COVID-19 is a multidimensional and existential crisis for many: a pandemic colliding with poor governance, insecurity, instability, other disease outbreaks (eg, cholera), disintegrated health and education systems, and food insecurity. These have dire consequences for vulnerable populations in conflict settings, including women and girls. Pandemics are a gendered vulnerability, with their socioeconomic impact disproportionately higher among women. In this article, we argue that cultivating and harnessing the advancements of women’s leadership globally and implementing a gender inclusive lens in pandemic preparedness and responses by including the experiences and voices of women in conflict settings is paramount. This will in turn create effective leadership models, as well as improving women and girls’ access to adequate healthcare in conflict settings.

Women and girls are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 in conflict-affected settings

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by armed conflict and humanitarian emergencies. This disproportionality has been exacerbated during COVID-19, where in conflict settings one of the most affected and at-risk population groups include women and girls who lack decision-making power. Analysis from UN Women identifies five critical areas that leave women and girls most vulnerable during COVID-19, including: increased risks for sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the context of pandemic response policies; unemployment; economic and livelihood impacts for the poorest women and girls; unequal distribution of care and domestic work; and women and girls’ voices not being included for an informed and effective response. Women’s and girls’ predominant role in caregiving, and as health and social welfare responders, also makes them particularly exposed to potential contamination. In conflict settings, conflict itself promotes conditions during which existing gender inequalities and inequities are amplified; community structures, access to healthcare and human rights are all compromised resulting in worsening conditions for women.