March 2021 marks a year since the world as we have known it was upended by COVID-19. With real respite still distant and our notions of normalcy forever altered, the path forward seems strewn with challenges. One of the most significant ways in which COVID-19 impacted us has been to separate us from our communities: our friends, families and colleagues. We have dealt with enormous hardship, material insecurity and fear without the support of the communities and networks we have often painstakingly built.
Around the world, women and girls have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. It is then, not very surprising, that women and girls have also been particularly vulnerable to the loneliness and isolation that COVID-19 has wrought. Data from VOICE’s We Must Do Better report shows that a vast majority of respondents who identify as women and girl leaders around the world mentioned loneliness and the loss of community and networks as one of their key challenges from the last year.
The undue burden of caring for family members and the household has meant that many women have been forced to pause or often entirely give up the work they used to do as part of women’s groups and organizations. Secondly, lockdowns around the world have meant increased policing and restriction of women’s movements outside the house, preventing them from accessing previously safe spaces and more importantly one another. Reports have also shown that the pandemic has made women more vulnerable than ever to sexual violence, with previously existing support services almost completely inaccessible due to social distancing rules.
This erosion of women’s networks has tangible consequences. One of the reasons women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 is that they often do not have access to accurate information with the same ease that men do. Women and girls often rely on each other to gather information and access resources. This loss of informal sources of information compounds women’s vulnerability. The inability to leverage their networks and depend on the strength of numbers has seriously diminished women’s collective bargaining power and compromised their ability to inform and shape COVID-19 responses in ways that are gender inclusive. However, the most severe impact of isolation and social distancing has perhaps been on women’s mental health. The pandemic has shed stark light on our collective need for friendship and community. Communion with those who share not only our challenges, but also our vision for the more equitable and joyful future we aspire to build is central to our wellbeing. For women and girls, their access to such groups of like-minded individuals has long been an irreplaceable source of comfort and safety.
As organizations and governments around the world scramble to tackle the many headed monster that is COVID-19, supporting women and girl-led organizations has taken an unfortunate backseat. The pressures of a critical economic downturn and an unprecedented health crisis continue to build. It is easy to trivialize the value of community building. However, disregarding our most basic human needs for companionship, friendship and alliance is a fatal blindspot in the way humanitarian interventions approach the needs of women and girls.
As women and girl-led groups report that their funding is drying up in the wake of the pandemic, we must remember that humanizing the response to COVID-19 is both radical and long overdue. Healing from this pandemic, both physically and emotionally will require collective action and investing in communities and networks is an essential component of that. Continuing to support structures that help women and girls build resilience will require a careful reconsideration of where we direct our resources and how. Recognizing the pivotal role that women’s groups play in the progress and wellbeing of women and communities at large is vital. Women’s groups have been doing work that is integral to sustainable and equitable growth long before the pandemic hit and their work continues to be an indispensable part of recovering from this crisis. It is time to acknowledge, fund and reinforce their work harder than ever before.