The COVID-19 pandemic is unravelling decades of progress on girls' equality. To stop the setback, Plan International is working hard in different regions of the world to ensure girls, young women, children and marginalised groups are protected and supported as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds. With the EU being among the main donors in humanitarian aid, we wanted to understand from our colleagues how the pandemic is unfolding in their regions and what they believe could be done for girls and young women in their region.
‘Plan International’s regional office working in Latin America and the Caribbean is not only prioritising migrant and refugee populations affected by the crisis, but also less visible problems such as gender-based violence, child marriage and early pregnancies’ – say Gerrit Saen, Regional Head of Business Development, Amalia Alarcón, Regional Head of Gender Transformative Programming & Influencing and Nicolas Rodriguez, Regional Head of DRM with whom we spoke on the main priorities they see whilst the COVID-19 crisis evolves in the region. In addition, they reiterate that ‘a Gender Transformative approach is crucial and COVID-19 has not stopped Plan International from continuing to address the root causes of gender inequality and exclusion and have persevered in supporting the reshaping of unequal gender and power relations between all children, young people and adults.’
Ongoing EU projects in Latin America and the Caribbean allowed the redirection of funding to deliver hygiene kits, educational kits, COVID-19 personal care kits and delivery of food for those hit hardest by the crisis. The involvement of girls and young women in these interventions has been key to guarantee girls’ leadership and encourage their participation.
We wanted to know from our colleagues in the Latin America and the Caribbean Office what matters most according to them in their region when it comes to overcoming COVID-19 and possible setbacks for girls’ equality. In the upcoming weeks, we will be talking to many more Plan International colleagues, to get a sense of their priorities and their ways of coping with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are the main priorities in Latin America and the Caribbean this year, and which issues require more close attention due to COVID-19 pandemic?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pre-existing problems of gender inequality and social exclusion have worsened and this has been stopping and even reversing the progress made towards gender equality, inclusion, and girls’ rights. The pandemic proved to have both short-term effects, such as food insecurity, lack of education and increased domestic gender violence, and long-term effects such as difficulties to recovery or re-establish income generation opportunities, early pregnancies and child marriage. Due to the lack of access to education, girls and the most marginalised children and youth have been further impacted by not being able to access vital services such as school nutrition programs and social protection. Hence, although children are less at risk of encountering health problems related to COVID-19, the outbreak is deeply affecting the world in which they grow up. Also, the economic crisis will have an important impact on girls and young women in the most marginalised communities, with a sharp rise in the burden of unpaid domestic care work and millions driven into child marriage and raising risk of early and teenage pregnancy.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the refugee populations emphasise the above-mentioned risks in relation to COVID-19 even more, due to the already very weak health and infrastructure system. These three are regional priorities, exacerbated due to the global crisis and overshadowed by the short-term effects of the pandemic, converting them into an “invisible crisis”. The latter will most likely intensify pre-existing levels of discrimination and exclusion and make the “invisible” issues even more forgotten, if gender, age and inclusion are not addressed from the very beginning. A gender transformative approach, therefore, is crucial and COVID-19 has not stopped Plan International from continuing to address the root causes of gender inequality and exclusion and have persevered in supporting the reshaping of unequal gender and power relations between all children, young people and adults.
We see the pandemic as an opportunity to continue advancing our strategic work, changing gender norms, building individual and collective agency, protecting marginalised groups and strengthening gender and youth-friendly responsive services.
Over the past months the EU has been an important partner in our work and the response to the crisis all across the region. With the crisis affecting girls and young women in somewhat an “invisible” manner it is of importance to closely work together with donors and build on each other’s knowledge and expertise. As mentioned before, we are a true believe in applying a gender-transformative approach and, hence, welcome the emphasis the European Union is putting on making gender equality a priority in the work they support. In addition, what we have been witnessing is the importance of being able to continuing our work to ensure long-term development. Albeit, the source of our work comes from an immediate crisis, our beneficiaries will continue to need support even when the “crisis” is considered resolved. Overcoming the crisis COVID-19 brought about will, in our opinion, be no exception to this logic. We, therefore, are a great supporter of the nexus approach in order to ensure long lasting and sustainable effects of our work.
In what sense has COVID-19 impacted your work?
Only after a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Plan International and other NGOs we collaborate with work. It challenged us to reinvent the way we work creating new ways of interacting and achieving programmatic implementation. In response to the school closures, we started exploring new technologies as means of safe contact for programmatic delivery, especially in relation to community capacity building processes and humanitarian aid delivery. We are adapting our interventions to address this pandemic, reflecting on its medium and long-term social and political impacts in the most deprived communities. In addition, we are developing specific strategies to mitigate and address root-causes of inequality through our gender transformative approach, which we believe being even more important whilst COVID-19 evolves. We see the pandemic as an opportunity to continue advancing our strategic work, changing gender norms, building individual and collective agency, protecting marginalised groups and strengthening gender and youth-friendly responsive services.
In addition, due to the evolvement of the pandemic, we have been able to homogenise our programmatic work on a regional level that lead to greater coordination with our country offices. The crisis affected everyone at the same time, thus, we were able to create economy of scale: we have been focusing on funding joint solutions that benefit us as a whole region, but also all the countries individually. Last, but not least, in the last couple of months, we came to understand the need to focus in the future more on influencing and to work more through guarantors of rights.
Looking back at the past few month, what have been some of your main successes in Latin America and the Caribbean?
Although 2020 has been a tough year, together with our partners and through the support of donors such as the European Commission, we have been able to make a lot of progress. We have done so through three relevant domains that we would like to highlight:
Gender Transformative Interventions
Firstly, we believe that all humanitarian interventions must be gender transformative, and our experience during the COVID-19 crisis only reinforced our position. We have applied this in many recent interventions, such as an SRHR project in Bolivia entitled “Enfocáte”. Through this project, Plan International Bolivia is improving the equality of the conditions of children in families and communities as well as the position of girls, focusing on social status, respect and access to power. The project has pivoted and opened up digital spaces to support girls and women who are experiencing violence at home. Together with their partner, a local feminist organisation called “Casa de la Mujer”, Plan International Bolivia has developed a contingency plan to guarantee the provision of legal assistance, psychosocial support and personalised services, with an immediate response program available at all times.
Another great example is a recent initiative by Plan International Colombia entitled “Transformative Masculinities in times of COVID-19”, which aims to use the current crisis as an opportunity for innovation and transformational change”. This initiative aims to prevent gender-based violence (GBV) through the establishment of spaces for reflection around power imbalances and gender roles, as these have contributed to the rise of GBV during the pandemic. For this purpose, they have produced an online test to engage boys and young men on issues related to toxic masculinity and traditional gender roles in times of COVID-19, as well as an interactive checklist to identify “transformative masculinities”. In coordination with the United Nations and other partner organisations, they also established a national reference group on masculinities to determine the feasibility of setting up a helpline for men who have been or are at risk of becoming aggressors against women. This helpline will offer counselling, crisis response and referrals to available services for men.
Including Girls and Young Women
A second domain we would like to highlight is the importance of including girls and young women in interventions that affect them, which is key to guaranteeing the success of our programmes. During the COVID-19 response, Plan International in the region has applied differentiated responses based on the needs that our beneficiaries have expressed to us. For example, we are providing differentiated hygiene kits for girls and women addressing the issue of menstrual hygiene, which has proven crucial in times of the pandemic.
We also foster girls’ leadership and encourage participation in different related issues such as violence, pregnancy and early union preventions. One specific example of this comes from our office in Peru, who have effectively coordinated the establishment of a dedicated youth group to inform their COVID-19 emergency response, aiming to strengthen the agency of young people, and especially girls. This initiative is part of a larger organisational strategy on youth mobilisation, which aims to promote leadership and collective action by young people themselves, emphasising the role of young women and girls in particularly in social movement building. The initiative works with young women to support them to take action and to influence change on thematic issues, gender equality and inclusion in emergency context.
We also had some success in this domain on a regional level with the creation of “Adventures of Zuri", which is a proposal to create didactic materials for girls, boys and adolescents, through a parallel narrative with fictional characters, who face situations similar to those of their readers. The materials are all designed to be inclusive, have a gender focus, and can be used in any cultural and/ or geographic context. The “Adventures of Zuri" has been widely received by organisations and beneficiaries, having been disseminated in Peru and Ecuador (with the possibility of being distributed in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Nicaragua). Likewise, current materials have been distributed through the NRC platforms, while new materials are being produced with UNICEF and WFP (who confirmed the distribution of 30,000 materials in Colombia alone).
How we have worked together with DG ECHO
Thirdly, an important part of our successes in 2020 comes from projects funded by the European Commission, DG for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO). One of the main successes to mention is the way we have managed to adapt to the COVID-19 reduced mobility situation and rethink our programmatic activities. For example, for the ongoing regional ECHO project: “Pasos sostenibles” implemented in Peru and Venezuela, we were able to redirect some of the funding in order to deliver hygiene kits, educational kits, COVID-19 personal care kits and delivery of food for the most vulnerable beneficiaries. In terms of regional proposals, another ECHO proposal was granted to work in the sectors of health and education in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. This project also includes various actions related to the COVID-19 emergency. As it is a new project in the middle of the pandemic, it is a valuable learning opportunity, as the start of the project is very different to our usual context. Most coordination actions have to be done online, which is quite challenging, as it is a consortium with three countries and two partner organisations.
Finally, the ECHO project in Colombia allowed us to work with many new organisations and partners. While this project reflects the importance of flexible implementation formats, possibly the most valuable learning was the importance of collaboration and joining forces, as the large consortium working on the project has turned out to be of great value.