COVID-19 has hit women especially hard. They are the caregivers, making up roughly 70 percent of the health care workforce, which has exposed them to a disproportionate share of the long hours, chronic stress and burnout the pandemic has caused. Still, they have risen to the challenge, making this past year a time of heroism. Their commitment to others keeps them going under the most unprecedented circumstances. Even very young girls have distinguished themselves, showing resourcefulness and bravery well beyond their years.
Helping prevent Female Genital Mutilation
Fifth-grader Magfira is from Ethiopia’s Southern Nations and Nationalities and People’s region. The morning her 11-year-old classmate and best friend, Mekiya, told her that her mother was planning to have her undergo female genital mutilation that evening, she sprang into action.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a form of gender-based violence and an internationally recognized human rights violation that some societies see as a rite of passage for girls. In the region where Mekiya and Magfira (together, above) live, about 50 percent of adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have suffered the extraordinarily painful and dangerous procedure. And the pandemic has made things worse. According to the UN, COVID-19 school closures and program disruptions that help protect girls from FGM could result in 2 million additional cases over the next decade.
But luckily for Mekiya, Magfira and the girls of their village, local religious leaders, elders, women’s groups and others have been spearheading regular community conversations about the harmful practice. Backing them up is a local surveillance team that stands ready to intervene on behalf of girls at risk. Magfira’s father is a member.
“When I came back from school, I told my father that Mekiya was going to be cut,” recalls Magfira. Her dad immediately alerted the authorities and focal point for women's issues, and a delegation was sent to speak with Mekiya’s parents and move her to safety.
For some time now, UNICEF and partners have been working with the Government of Ethiopia to stop FGM. Magfira’s ability to mobilize the community to save Mekiaya is a mark of the progress made, and that makes her happy. Her friend is safe and so is she because the system works: “When Mekiaya told me that she would be cut, I was also worried about myself.”
Helping mothers have healthy babies during COVID-19
In Ethiopia, where 62,000 children die of preventable diseases every year, maintaining mothers' access to health care during COVID-19 has been critical. One of the health workers who has provided continuous care is Kalkidan Gizaw (above). An Emergency Unit Coordinator at a health center in Addis Ababa, she has helped many women safely deliver healthy babies.
"I always wanted to be a nurse. It gives me an opportunity to meet people and understand the challenges that they face. Previously, the community didn't know about COVID-19, and they thought going to the health center could expose them to COVID-19," says Gizaw, seen here showing a mother how to breastfeed for the first time. "But we have started creating awareness during home visits about the necessary safety precautions during pregnancy and after delivery. That is why I love my profession."
Making good nutrition advice just a phone call away
For the past ten years, Shivamma (above) has played a pivotal role in improving women and children's nutrition as a community health worker at an Anganwadi Center in Hyderabad, India. Anganwadi Centers offer everything from hot meals for families to guidance from workers like Shivamma on the essentials children need to grow healthy and strong. But in the past year, the COVID-19 lockdowns have isolated families, forcing Shivamma and her colleagues to offer remote support.
“Scared of the prevailing situation, mothers asked us not to visit them,” says Shivamma, who used to make house calls before the pandemic. Now instead, Shivamma has been offering health advice and breastfeeding tips and techniques by phone to help pregnant women and new mothers who might otherwise be cut off from support.
Anita, 30, is just one of many moms who have taken great comfort in Shivamma’s calls: “She has been guiding me well, and now I take better care of my infant.”
Channeling her experience to help others
Deborah, a 43-year-old mother of four (above with three of her children), remembers how hard it was to adjust to her new home, Palermo, Sicily, after she emigrated from Nigeria 20 years ago.
“It's not that easy to settle in a new country. At the beginning, not fully understanding a new language can isolate you,” Deborah recalls. “You don't know how to deal with official documents, and you are not always aware about new opportunities around you.”
This vulnerability is something that migrant and refugee women know all too well, and it's been exacerbated by COVID-19. Whether they were born to immigrant parents in Italy or recently arrived, many women and girls have suffered intense isolation. Prolonged confinement, uncertainty and stress have also exposed increasing numbers to violence.
Drawing from her own experience, Deborah helped found the Women and Girls’ Safe Space (WGSS), which has become a sanctuary for girls, women and children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Managed by UNICEF’s partner Centro Penc, WGSS gives its clients the chance to meet new people and get legal advice, health services and job counseling.
"As soon as the WGSS opened," recalls Deborah, who received UNICEF training in linguistic and cultural mediation, "we started building a program with the women and girls who came." Most were migrants and refugees, but now WGSS has expanded to offer support to any woman or girl who finds herself in a risky or violent situation.
“Thinking back about the challenges I faced in my life has helped me to realize that the first obstacle to overcome is the disconnect we experience when we do not feel we are part of something,” says Deborah, who has made it her mission to empower WGSS’ clients by making them feel like they belong. “When you decide to be proactive and actively participate, only then will you find the courage to open up.”
Photos from top: © UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/; © UNICEF/UNI335603; © UNICEF/Kastura; © UNICEF/Saturnino/2021