By Cecilia Russell
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Apr 6 2021 – Girls in Asia don’t want to go back to normal – they want to go “back to better than normal”, says Zara Rapoport, a delegate during an online seminar on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender.
The seminar, held this week, was organised by the Asian Forum for Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD) and the Asian Population and Development Association (APDA). It focused on the impact of COVID-19 on gender in the Asia Pacific and Central Asian regions.
Rapoport, the Regional Gender Equality and Inclusion Lead for Plan International Asia Hub, said her organisation had worked with a group of girls to design a youth-led, feminist report with a post-COVID-19 vision of the future.
Their ideas included what the girls termed a ‘revolutionary reset’. They felt that the world they came from before the pandemic was intrinsically unequal – and this needed to change.
She said her organisation took on board the adolescent girls’ suggestions to see a future world with “gender justice, education and training for everyone”. A world where women and girls have rights to protection, gender equality, and climate change is addressed.
While the message was clear, the impact of the pandemic on women was devastating. However, most of the speakers concentrated on programmes to address women’s issues across the Asia Pacific and Central Asian regions.
Professor Keizo Takemi, MP, Japan, and Chair of AFPPD reminded delegates that it was critical to address gender issues. Research showed women were at higher risk from the pandemic’s COVID-19 impacts, which included reduced access to reproductive health care.
Upala Devi, Gender Advisor UNFPA APRO, said it was “very, very disheartening to see all the gains made in the last 20 years erased, reversed, in just one year in the pandemic.”
She said a recent gender gap report had estimated that it would take another 75 years to regain some of the gains. This was not something we would see in our lifetime, she warned. The pandemic, she warned, was not over, and India and Bangladesh were experiencing the third wave with lockdowns and other social distancing restrictions coming into play.
Nevertheless, Devi said the pandemic forced organisations to focus on continuity and life-saving gender-based violence (GBV) and health response services.
She outlined several innovative delivery models which had gained traction in the region.
“We’ve looked at the development of the technical guidance on the remote provision of human response services … ensuring that those who are the most vulnerable and marginalised have access to services,” Devi said. This included, at a macro ‘South South-level’, facilitating, country-to-country sharing of knowledge, strategies, and promising practices.
It included developing a guidance note on the adaptation of dignity kids for a COVID-19 context at a regional level.
Then at a national level, there was evidence of really innovative programming.
Devi said the “Spotlight Initiative”, a multi-year global partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, had been rolled out in some countries in the Asia Pacific.
Under this initiative, countries like Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste worked with remote service delivery workers to strengthen responses in delivering GBV services.
“We have created creative shelters in many countries like Bangladesh and India, and Thailand. We have looked at innovative means to provide psychosocial support through free counselling and tele-counselling … and SMS-based psychosocial first aid,” she said, outlining some of the other innovations in the region.
Devi said they were looking at remote case management in, for example, countries like Pakistan.
APPs were now safety nets for women, with good examples from Delhi and Mumbai in India. The safety APPs ensure that women have access to the nearest police station if they feel that their safety had been compromised.
Other innovations included one stop COVID centres.
Ulukbek Batyrgaliev, member of IPPF’s Board of Trustees, Chair of National Youth Committee at the Reproductive Health, said women in the Central Asia region were largely excluded from decision making. About 83 percent of women suffer from domestic or sexual violence, forced and early marriages and were affected by some harmful and humiliating cultural and social practises, like virginity tests.
Nevertheless, through the organisation’s social media outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic, they could reach 50 000 girls and women. In addition, it created information videos on sexual and reproductive health, HIV and so on.
Björn Andersson, Regional Director, UNFPA APRO, reminded parliamentarians they played a critical role in shaping a “more equal future”. He joined other delegates, including Maher Afroze, who said she was COVID-positive, to applaud and celebrate women leaders in the front lines of the COVID-19 in pandemic response. The delegates clapped for the doctors, nurses, midwives and other health workers, social workers, psychosocial counsellors, hotline operators and community volunteers. They thanked them for finding new and innovative ways to reach women and girls in need and provide life-saving services.