UN Women’s Covid-19 response in Asia and the Pacific

A year of challenges and innovations

UN Women
Photo: Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

UN Women has been working since the first week of the pandemic to help recognize and address the specific challenges faced by women and girls across Asia and the Pacific. It has handed out cash to women in need, analyzed social media for trends of domestic violence, and drawn up checklists that make sure shelters protect women from both Covid-19 and further abuse. The aim has been to provide both immediate relief and long-term solutions as the outbreak has worsened abuse and discrimination against women in all areas, from gender-based violence to work opportunities, climate change, and migration.

The report Standing Up to the Challenge: Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic in Asia and the Pacific, released today, describes how UN Women was able to apply its experience and resources in gender-responsive crisis management to meet the most urgent needs of the most vulnerable in cooperation with partners and stakeholders, while also supporting innovative research to tackle underlying inequities going forwards.

Response and recovery efforts must center on leaving no one behind, especially those who are already vulnerable and marginalized, which are usually women and girls while being grounded in the socio-economic realities that they face,” said Mohammad Naciri, UN Women regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

It quickly became apparent that Covid-19 unleashed not one but two pandemics, as domestic violence against women and girls surged under lockdown. Helpline calls in Papua New Guinea tripled, and online searches for terms such as “signs of physical abuse” jumped by half or more in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Nepal.

Working with technology partners, UN Women was able to conduct big-data analysis and identify specific areas of support. Women in some countries were struggling to find information on help close to home, with online searches for support in Indonesia, for example, yielding foreign results first. UN Women tapped into Twitter across eight countries to make sure women searching for certain keywords were shown a notification in their own language with a hotline number and Twitter handle to contact.

Communications technology was also used to shift the needle of public discourse around gender-based violence. In Bangladesh, texts were sent to nearly 17,000 imams encouraging them to spread awareness of domestic violence in their sermons, and social media helped spark public debate of the plight of low-caste Dalit women in Nepal or the abuse of Filipina domestic workers overseas.

The pandemic also presented an increased risk of isolation and abuse for millions of migrant worker women, whether in lockdown far from home or in quarantine following repatriation. In Myanmar, UN Women worked with the government and women’s organizations to provide returning migrants with cash for work and improved referral mechanisms for abuse survivors.

Quarantine conditions were a challenge in several territories, leading UN Women to develop a checklist, based on work by the UN Children’s Fund in Viet Nam, for gender-responsive facilities that guarantee safety and dignity to women, children, and others who need to be isolated. The checklist has been rolled out to Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Timor-Leste.

Several natural hazards also hit Asia and the Pacific region during the pandemic. UN Women supported with cash grants in drought-stricken parts of Vietnam and with money via mobile-phone apps in flooded areas in Bangladesh. After a cyclone hit Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu, working with government information campaigns helped both the response to Covid-19 and preparations for the next cyclone season.

UN Women also supported several initiatives employing women in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia to make masks, allowing them to help fight the pandemic while earning some income. The Bangladesh project also brought together women from the local community with Rohingya women displaced from neighboring Myanmar.

As in other regions, women are overrepresented in micro and small enterprises. During the pandemic, these women have not been able to put their businesses on hold, and most have customer-facing roles with greater exposure to contagion. UN Women helped market vendors in Papua New Guinea, and Fiji stay safe and keep working with trainings and hygiene supplies.

The crisis has also presented an opportunity to build back better for women and girls. This will mean an economy where women no longer have to do the worst jobs at work, as well as all the unpaid ones around the house.

Online media has been useful here as well, to spread the message of a respectful home environment where men do their share of the chores. In Thailand, UN Women kicked off the #HeForSheAtHome campaign, including on TikTok, which received 46 million views. And in Bangladesh, a version of the campaign on “sharing the load” streamed images of men helping out in the home out to nearly 408,000 mobile phone users.

An app in Malaysia called Kiddocare has allowed working parents to find babysitting services and provided 600 of those babysitters with jobs. The platform has adapted, pioneering virtual nannies and helping some women gain new skills and step into the workplace. And it is collaborating with UN Women to roll out in other countries in the region.

These and other case studies, described in the report, provide entry points and lessons learned on how to adapt programming and integrate women and girls in the Covid-19 response and recovery. The challenge now is how to further improve and scale up what has proven effective. Gender-responsive solutions to the crisis that recognize both the challenges and the specific roles of women and girls across Asia and the Pacific are as vital as ever.


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