A psychosocial counsellor in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp informed the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) on Thursday that during the first four days of the COVID-19 lockdown she called beneficiaries to let them know that “virtual support” was available.
Orouba Amin has spent 11 years providing psychosocial care to survivors of trauma and violence, from refugees escaping the horrors of war to women and girls escaping sexual abuse and exploitation. Today, her work comes on top of a new threat: the coronavirus pandemic.
Around the world, as governments implement lockdowns and movement restrictions, women’s centres and safe spaces are closing their doors – even as evidence mounts that gender-based violence may be increasing.
Countries are also seeing their reproductive health services being curbed as resources are diverted to the pandemic response. Where reproductive health care remains available, movement restrictions and fears of the virus are keeping women from seeking attention.
And communities affected by humanitarian crises are particularly imperiled by these conditions. Many are already struggling with poverty and limited access to health services. Infection-control measures are even harder to implement in densely packed settlements with limited water and sanitation resources.
These challenges are greatly exacerbated for women who are pregnant, require family planning supplies or need protection from violence.
Nowhere to hide
In Jordan, where nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, a curfew has been imposed to slow transmission of the virus. This has added hardship in Azraq Camp, where an average of seven people are crowded into each prefabricated shelter.
She painted a picture of shop owners struggling to import essential food items, scant livelihood options and families facing difficult choices as they try to put food on their tables.
And as social life increasingly takes place online, so does sexual harassment, one woman told UNFPA.
The camp’s safe spaces for women and girls, run by the International Rescue Committee with support from UNFPA, have been closed.
As Ms. Amin and her colleagues race to find new means of providing services to women and girls in need, she is offering counselling via telephone – but many lack the privacy needed to speak on the phone about sensitive issues while others simly do not have their own phones.
Ms. Amin also provides assistance via text message and WhatsApp.
“One of the women texted me on the dedicated WhatsApp number, and when I responded to her, she said, ‘I’m fine now, as I know that you are there for me in case I need you.’ This meant everything to me,” she said.
In humanitarian situations, women’s vulnerability to violence and exploitation escalates. And even before the pandemic, hundreds of women and girls in humanitarian and fragile settings died each day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Now, as health systems and protection services are stressed by the pandemic, conditions for women are poised to worsen.
UNFPA has urgently called for funding to the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, with a requirement of $120 million for UNFPA to ensure the health and safety of women and girls affected by humanitarian crises. In addition, UNFPA has appealed for $67.5 million to support COVID-19 preparedness efforts through March and April.
This amount – a total of $187.5 million – will go, among other things, towards strengthening health systems and ensuring continuity of services for survivors of gender-based violence. It is separate from the humanitarian funding needed for UNFPA’s ongoing support to crisis-affected countries.
For both UNFPA’s humanitarian appeal and its COVID-19 response plan, flexible funds are needed to ensure an agile response as conditions on the ground evolve.
UNFPA is already ramping up efforts to address the pandemic in humanitarian settings, including in central-western Syria. Also under curfew, outreach workers are raising awareness of the pandemic, infection-control measures and women’s rights.
It is an uphill battle, said Ghadeer Mohammed Ibrahim Qara Bulad, director of the Women’s Development Project at the Islamic Charitable Association in Homs. “The majority of the families we visit are awfully poor and cannot even buy sterilizers,” she said.
She has also seen widespread gender-based violence and fears it will only intensify.
“During my visits, I saw a woman being beaten by her husband during the curfew,” said Ms. Bulad. “I think the percentage of gender-based violence will increase and increase dramatically”.
ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests
The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, has called on the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to prevent human rights violations and “ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms” during the wave of protests that have swept the country in recent weeks.
In his letter to the Belarus President, Ryder urged President Lukashenko to release and drop charges against six trade unionists who have been detained by the authorities after participating in peaceful protests and industrial action.
He reminded the President that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure a climate free from violence, threats or pressure against peacefully protesting workers and that any such allegations should be rapidly and independently investigated.
“I must urge you to do all in your power to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations and ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms,” Ryder’s letter said.
He expressed his deep concern at reports coming out of Belarus on the arrest, detention, imprisonment and mistreatment of workers’ leaders.
‘No one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike or protest,’ Ryder wrote.
The letter recalls that the ILO has been working with the Belarus government, and the national workers’ and employers’ organizations, for 16 years, helping to address issues raised by an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 2004 which was set up following serious infringements of trade union rights and freedoms in the country.
Ryder notes that while there has been some progress on these issues, “the Commission’s recommendations are far from being fully implemented.”
The intervention by the ILO Director-General follows a request made by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Switzerland: Draft anti-terrorism law sets ‘dangerous precedent’
A proposed new anti-terrorism law in Switzerland could set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, a group of five independent UN human rights experts warned on Friday.
The draft legislation, currently before the Swiss Parliament, expands the definition of terrorism and no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all, they said, in a plea for a last-minute reversal by legislators.
‘Expansive’ definition of terrorism
Citing international standards, the experts defined terrorism as the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through violence that causes death or serious injury, or the taking of hostages.
Under the bill, “terrorist activity” may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists.
“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards”, said the experts, all of whom were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
“This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Other sections of the draft law have also raised concerns, such as those giving the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide preventive measures against them.
The rights experts had earlier written to the Swiss authorities, expressing their concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism. However, no changes were implemented.
“While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights”, they said.
The experts called on Swiss parliamentarians to keep in mind their country’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights, urging them to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.”
Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished
New data from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed worsening nutritional situation for children in Burkina Faso, with more than 535,000 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition – an unprecedented level.
Among them, some 156,500 children are “severely” malnourished, leaving them nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children, according to UNICEF.
“The aggravating factors causing the nutritional situation of children to deteriorate are primarily linked to the displacement of populations due to insecurity, reduced access to livelihoods and reduced access to health care and nutrition,” said James Mugaju, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.
“The coronavirus pandemic has had a brutal impact on households and their ability to provide for the basic needs of their children. Children are paying the highest price, facing a triple crisis: security, health and food,” he added.
Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, has over one million internally displaced persons – 60 per cent of whom are children, and 3.3 million suffer from acute food insecurity.
Worst affected regions
According to the survey, the town of Gorom-Gorom in the Sahel region and the Barsalogho site for internally displaced persons in the Centre-Nord region are worst affected, where children under five suffering from global acute malnutrition recorded 18.4 per cent and 16.1 per cent, respectively. The figures exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 per cent.
Equally alarming is the situation in Dori, Gorgadji, Bourzanga and Fada N’Gourma communes, all of which have a high prevalence of global acute malnutrition, ranging from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent. Children in the Barsalogho, Kongoussi, Ouahigouya, Kaya and Matiacoali communes also have concerning prevalence rates of acute malnutrition, ranging from 8.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent.
Areas where children are particularly affected by acute malnutrition are also those with the highest number of acutely food-insecure families, said UNICEF, calling for intensified efforts to ensure the continuity of nutrition services to provide an integrated package of prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach the children in urgent need.
“This is essential because good nutrition for children, from their first days and months, protects them from disease and infection, and helps them to recover when they fall ill,” said Mr. Mugaju.
UNICEF and its partners have stepped up their response. Community health workers have been mobilized to travel to the most remote areas to screen and treat malnourished children at the community level, where they also provide advice on the best feeding practices for infants and young children, including in emergency situations.
The UN agency is also supporting health authorities and is strengthening efforts to procure and deliver therapeutic foods, such as milk and ready-to-use therapeutic foods, to treat acute malnutrition. More than 52,600 cartons or about 737 tonnes of therapeutic food have been delivered to healthcare facilities and 51,685 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated since January 2020.
UNICEF Deputy Representative James Mugaju highlighted the importance of working together to support children.
“Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential,” he said.
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