Women’s organizations — key to reaching girls and women affected by COVID-19 in Afghanistan

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghan women and girls were hard to reach. With no or limited access to telephones, radio, television and the internet, the most common way to spread information was through women going door-to-door or attending women’s groups.

When lockdowns started, traditional forms of communication were further restricted, making it difficult for us to reach the most vulnerable women and girls. We knew that if any male household members, such as husbands, fell ill with COVID-19, reaching women and girls would be nearly impossible.

In response, we quickly designed a gender analysis to understand how women and girls were getting their information and what challenges they were encountering, for example, in their burden of care, risk of gender-based violence or access to health services.

It became apparent that we needed to partner with local women’s organizations to provide much needed two way-communications support to women and girls, particularly around menstrual health, gender-based violence, general awareness about COVID-19 prevention and their access to health services. As a result, UNICEF partnered with two organizations: Voice of Women and the Women Activities & Social Services Association.

In Afghanistan, women and adolescent girls are at the frontline of the crisis, leading their communities’ response to the pandemic. They are the leaders when it comes to raising awareness about the virus and are supporting efforts to prevent the spread through mask making and developing ventilators out of car parts.

Through our partnerships with local women’s organizations, we’re raising awareness about COVID-19 by going door-to-door in four provinces — Ghor, Badghis, Farah and Herat. Through community elders and religious leaders, these organizations are also spreading awareness around hand hygiene and other infection prevention and control among women in rural areas.

U-Report is a free, open-source software that collects real-time data through SMS or platforms like WhatsApp, and targets end-users with messaging around COVID-19 and issues that concern girls’ health, protection and wellbeing. We are mobilizing adolescent girls to register and engage as U-Reporters.

Knowing that periods don’t stop for pandemics, we are providing hygiene kits to adolescent girls and young women, so they can meet their sanitary needs with dignity even during lockdown and restricted movements.

A key area of our response is preventing and responding to gender-based violence, which may be on an increase as an impact of the crisis according to recent Oxfam findings in Afghanistan. Through our partners, we’re providing psychosocial counseling and case management to survivors of violence, increasing our recruitment of counsellors especially in these hard-to-reach areas, to be able to deliver more counselling sessions, and facilitate timely referrals of survivors to other specialized service delivery points.

As we continue to respond and recover from the pandemic and reimagine an equal future for women and girls in Afghanistan, it will be critical to fund women’s groups and networks who can provide essential and life-saving activities to those at great risk — women and girls.

This story is part of a series of field diaries from UNICEF staff focused on reimagining and delivering a gender equitable world, including living out the organization’s Five Actions for Gender Equality in the COVID-19 Response.

Veronica Kamanga-Njikho is Gender Programme Specialist, UNICEF Afghanistan.

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