Women on the frontline of the COVID-19 battle
“Corona aggravated an already bad situation in Libya, particularly for women who are most vulnerable and are always the first to pay the price of any crisis,” says Mona*.
In Libya, like many countries in the Arab region, pre-existing gender and social inequalities have been exacerbated by the coronavirus. The pandemic has disrupted many women’s livelihoods, particularly those working in the informal sector or who are self-employed.
Across the divided country, women are facing increasing household work, risks of violence and restrictions on their movements. On the other hand, their access to healthcare services, particularly sexual and reproductive health, as well as social protection systems has been decreasing, aggravating their vulnerabilities.
Women and girls also face discrimination in law and in practice, and have unequal access to basic freedoms and rights. As such, Libyan women still have limited access to political participation and remain underrepresented in official institutions.
Yet, women across Libya are playing a significant and an important role in responding to COVID-19, including as frontline healthcare workers and as mobilizers in their communities. As in most parts of the world, the majority of Libya’s nursing staff are women.
Women also hold an important role in the family, as caregivers, which has become more critical during COVID-19, including supporting home-schooling, ensuring home sterilization, hygiene practices and other prevention measures. Many of these women continued to work while also taking care of the increased housework load.
The Libyan Women Network for Peacebuilding (LWNP) is one of the most active women groups in responding to the pandemic in Libya. LWNP is a new network of women representing a broad social, political, generational and geographic spectrum of war-divided Libya. The network was created with support from UN Women in July 2019 to help peacebuilding efforts across the country. As soon as the threat of the pandemic became known, the Network members quickly adapted their political activism to respond to the pandemic.
Through the LWNP, women have supported or created their own social media campaigns, such as the “Stay Safe Stay Home” campaign, to raise awareness of COVID-19 and preventive measures. They have established WhatsApp groups to support mothers and children, sharing strategies and ideas on how to keep children entertained and active during lockdown as well as information on protecting families from the pandemic.
In Sirt, they have hosted a radio programme with a psychologist and a social worker to talk about home sterilization and how families can cope with confinement. In Zawia, women from the LWNP created a drawing contest for children during lockdown through WhatsApp.
“With the emergence of the pandemic, the situation became worse; the war intensified and the number of victims increased. We needed to join efforts to help our people cope with both crises,” said Iman, another member of the Network.
To reach Libya’s most vulnerable people, the group started disseminating vital information on national and local radios to make people aware of the risks posed by the new coronavirus and how to limit its spread. They helped disseminate hotline numbers for those experiencing gender-based violence and distributed cleaning and sanitizing products to low-income families. They linked up with the “We are with You” campaign to provide doctors and nurses with protective clothes, masks, gloves, sanitizers so they could safely treat people.
“I tell women around me to learn how to live with Corona and strengthen their families’ preventive measures and immune systems so at least they can have peace at home,” said Raja, a member of the Network.
Aware of the heightened risk of outbreak in crowded places such as prisons, the Network teamed up with a legal aid network to distribute masks and gloves in prisons and detention centres and called for the release of prisoners who are either on a short sentence or about to finish their sentence, particularly those who are elderly or ill.
They also worked with NGOs in vulnerable migrant and refugee communities to distribute food, sanitizers and information on preventive measures in local languages of these populations.
These are just some of the examples of how Libyan women have led efforts to fight COVID-19 and supported some of the most vulnerable sections of Libyan society to deal with the pandemic’s health and socioeconomic impact. The participation and leadership of women and girls is crucial to ensure the effectiveness of the humanitarian response to COVID-19 and recovery from it.
When asked what her message would be to the Libyan people, Heba one of the Network members says, “my message to Libyan men and women is to unite in order to stop the spread of the virus and spread peace instead. We are all suffering from the same symptoms of senseless fighting. It is time we give our country an opportunity to make peace. But peace must be inclusive. Women also need to be involved in peace building and negotiations”.
* All names were changed to protect the privacy and security of women.