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Women's Leadership during the COVID-19 Pandemic

"Women’s leadership is more important than ever to respond to the specific gender consequences of the pandemic."

- Kimberly Wolf, Deputy Executive Director

The elevation of women’s voices and leadership is crucial during the global COVID-19 pandemic as women and girls are more likely to suffer the negative social and economic consequences of the crisis. As a feminist, women-led organization, Girl Up Initiative Uganda has prioritized the specific needs of women and girls during the planning and delivery of our gender-transformative grassroots response.

Our management team is made up of 100% women and the majority of our team (81%) are female. In addition, 85% of our team is Ugandan and from the same urban informal settlements where we work. Therefore, our grassroots team is well positioned to respond to the gendered impact of COVID-19. They have grown up in a context of systematic gender inequality in Uganda, which enables them to understand the challenges that women and girls are facing at this time and to come up with solutions and programs that best respond to these challenges.

Women’s’ Leadership Nationally and Internationally

In addition to the central role of women’s leadership in grassroots responses, there has also been much media discussion about the influential role of national and international female political leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although only 20 countries have women serving as Heads of State and Government (UN Women, 2020), New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel have been praised for their handling of the pandemic in their countries. This draws parallels to the importance of the former President of Liberia H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president, in steering the response to Liberia's Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Despite this, COVID-19 response task forces around the world are overwhelmingly male-dominated, resulting in a lack of gender perspectives in emergency decision making. CARE International's analysis study of four district-level COVID-19 task forces in Uganda found that women made up only 22.5% of members on average, and that men held the most influential positions.

Similarly, their global research analyzing 30 countries showed that countries that have more women in leadership, as measured by the Council on Foreign Relations Women’s Power Index, are more likely to deliver gender-transformative COVID-19 responses such as making funding or policy commitments for programs to prevent gender-based violence (GBV), provide SRH services, or offer women-specific economic assistance.

This underrepresentation of women in formal decision making spaces risks the creation of an inadequate ongoing response to the unique needs of women and girls at this time, and a rollback on women’s rights and gender equality. The UN Women’s Rights Committee recognized this when they called for more steps to be taken to ensure women leaders’ ‘meaningful and equal participation’ in rebuilding society after the pandemic. The Committee emphasized that this should include the most marginalized women in society, to ensure intersectional gender parity and to prevent responses reinforcing existing inequalities.

Grassroots Women's Leadership in GUIU’s Response

At a grassroots level, the leadership of empowered, feminist women can have a significant impact on protecting women and girls because they understand the contextual needs of those communities and what works most effectively on the ground. While women are more at-risk due to the pandemic, they are also the best placed to act as community-based social mobilizers and agents of change.

(GUIU Program Officer, Marion, coordinating relief package distribution)

The international community saw that harnessing women’s leadership skills in local communities saved lives during the Ebola pandemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the World Health Organisation reported the positive impact of local women taking a leadership role in explaining the disease, and teaching others how to stop its spread.

We have sought to harness the positive impact of women’s leadership and address gender imbalance in decision making in Uganda’s COVID-19 response through our 100% female leadership team. This dedicated team has met together regularly since the outbreak reached Uganda in March to discuss how to put girls and women at the center of our response and ensure their overall well-being.

Centering women’s’ perspectives in this way has allowed GUIU to shift and pivot the way that we normally implement our programs to best respond to the immediate needs of the girls and women, especially around the immediate need for food assistance and the increased incidence of GBV. Our team also understands the need for social and emotional support at this difficult time by remaining connected to girls and their families through providing psycho-social counseling by mobile phone and comprehensive support to GBV survivors.

GUIU team members checking in with girls and their families

(GUIU team members making check-in calls to girls and their families)

Furthermore, our male staff members have been actively involved in encouraging and supporting our feminist leadership principles. Our Media and Communications Officer, Ivan Opio, has been amplifying women and girl’s voices in innovative ways through our social media platforms:

"Social media is one of the most powerful tools these days to make sure that people are heard. Through these platforms I am able to share stories, videos, podcasts, and positive messages from women and girls. When one woman leads the way in raising her voice on issues like GBV, psychologically,

it triggers motivation and courage for others to also speak up."

We strongly believe that to strengthen COVID-19 recovery as the lockdown eases in Uganda, female leaders must be fully integrated into long-term strategy plans of governments, international donor, and grassroots organizations.

Join us in making progress on building gender equal societies in the post-COVID world by championing and advocating for women’s leadership in your own community.

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