The support received from donors, among which the EU, proved to play a significant role for Plan International’s operations in West and Central Africa to respond to problematics further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, humanitarian access is a major challenge, which requires strong attention from donors in the Sahel as to support partners and local responders to address this growing concern.
We wanted to know from our colleague, Dr. Fatoumata Haidara, Director for the Sahel Region, Plan International Western and Central Africa Region, what matters most according to their regional needs’ assessments 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 the Sahel this year, and which issues require more close attention due to the COVID-19 outbreak?
The Sahel is one of the most disadvantaged regions in Africa. The extreme poverty that characterises the area is further exacerbated by inadequate governance and systemic inequality. Over the last years, conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), northwest and southwest Cameroon, the Lake Chad basin and the central Sahel have led to mass displacements, both internally and across borders. In addition, the region has seen rapid population growth, resulting in a growing ‘youth bulge’. In combination with a lack of economic opportunities and high rates of unemployment, young adults are heavily impacted by the situation. On top of that, many countries in the region are facing regular risks of natural hazards such as flooding and landslides, which are exacerbated by changing population distributions, climate change and deforestation. Finally, the ongoing political instability in the region – in combination with terrorism, increasing insecurity and high rates of extreme violence - have led to a surge of grave violations against children and their access to education, further aggravated due to the school closures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. With the COVID19 pandemic, the region has also seen recurrent disease outbreaks, among which Ebola, cholera and measles.
Needless to say, that the situation described above heavily shapes Plan International’s set of priorities in the region. Our work revolves strongly around youth education, employment and protection. The main objective is to provide access to quality education, vocational training and financial services and to promote the adoption of decent work standards and protection from precarious working conditions, trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation. In addition to that, we aim to increase youth’s social assets, by providing support for youth led organisations and advocacy work. We are also working to increase social cohesion, to end inter-community conflict and violent extremism. A third fundamental priority for our activities in the region is to strengthen gender transformation by scaling up gender transformative programming and influencing in the Sahel. We do this by promoting positive social norms and combatting harmful practices, targeting specifically Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and denial of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and the need for girls and women to access high-quality essential services. To reach these objectives, we rely heavily on influencing, not only to accomplish legislative changes, but also to gain support at community and individual level by closely working with local civil society actors.
Last but not least, the COVID-19 outbreak will require specific attention, to halt further setback, especially among those most marginalised. For the past few months, we have been working to raise stronger awareness on the COVID-19 disease and its symptoms to build a resilient community with youth-led prevention and responses. Moreover, we came to understand the importance to support girls and young women with restarting their economic activities and employment. Finally, girls’ safety remains among our top priorities. Girls and young women, regardless of their status (person with disability, victim of non-desired pregnancy, GBV surviving, etc.) need to receive alternative and secure sexual and reproductive health services, especially in times of COVID-19.
In what sense has COVID-19 impacted your work in the Sahel?
Over the past months, especially our activities at community level have been impacted. The different trainings, workshops and awareness raising activities all needed to abide by the new measures. The different Plan International Offices all over the region needed to respond rapidly to the changing circumstances, setting up hand wash tools and organising information meetings for the people involved in our activities and projects. This has challenged us in many ways to be flexible, not only in financial terms, but also to quickly adapt our ways of working.
Of course, throughout the past months one of the main goals was to ensure that girls and young women would access basic services. To facilitate that we have been involving them in data collection exercises, to grasp their circumstances, their perceptions of the pandemic and more specifically their needs and how we can possibly support them. We have also been working together with youth associations to manufacture masks and soaps and to raise community awareness on web platforms and media.
Out of the different challenges at hand, where do you believe we can do more and how?
The Sahel currently requires more attention in most sectors, but there are a few that we would highlight. Firstly, there should be more attention to structural and long-term issues, which can be tackled through education in emergencies and youth economic empowerment. Both of these have the power to counteract increasing risk of radicalisation while allowing young people to thrive in what remains a challenging context. Particular attention should be paid to the plight of girls, who are often the first to be taken out of school, putting them at increased risk of early pregnancy and child early and forced marriage. In parallel, we would need to apply an integrated, multi-sectoral approach, through which at least child protection efforts including mental and psychosocial support can be upheld. Tackling these different challenges simultaneously (through the Triple Nexus) would bring about steps in improving the position of children, young people and especially girls in the Sahel. We would also highlight the importance of gender in emergencies in the context of the Sahel. GBV remains a major concern in the region, and more should be done to tackle it. While gender mainstreaming is a minimum necessity, more can be done to address GBV directly, with a particular need for gender-transformative programming to ensure sustainable and effective response, as well as for youth to become peacebuilding actors. Finally, humanitarian access remains a point that is high on our agenda. Although donors are certainly not the only ones able to influence this, it remains a very important challenge in the Sahel that we should, collectively, continue to address.
more attention to structural and long-term issues, which can be tackled through education in emergencies and youth economic empowerment.
What do you believe will be the main challenge in the Sahel after COVID-19?
The Sahel presents specific fragilities related to the weakness of basic social services, economic pressures impacting livelihoods as well as growing security challenges that can in turn aggravate an already fragile situation. Aside from the direct impact on health and the already frail healthcare systems, some of the main consequences of the pandemic will be felt in education, community resilience, security and the livelihood of the most affectedfamilies.
With regards to education, although Sahelian countries have made improvements when it comes to increasing school enrolment, retention rates remain low, especially when it comes to girls. To respond to the school closures, it will be important to increase school retention and school return, while at the same time for their curriculum to respond to the unfolding technological revolution and support the skill development that goes with it.
For the sake of flattening the curve, the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 has hit hardest at community level. To restore community resilience and social cohesion, we need to empower and invest in community resilience, participation, and equitable service delivery. Plan International aims to become an active player in promoting community and urban resilience, providing a rights-based response to development, and supporting investments in empowered and resilient community-led response systems, working with and through a wide variety of stakeholders and tailored according to needs and context.
Most worrying, of course, is the position of the already most marginalised people and families. The secondary effects of COVID-19 disproportionately affect those most at risk in the region into a recession with historical levels of unemployment and deprivation. There are also important gender dimensions: Because of pre-existing gender-based inequalities, women will likely experience more difficulty finding new jobs or entrepreneurship opportunities that are pivotal for their economic recovery. Therefore, scaling-up employment intensive programming is an avenue we are planning to prioritise.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has struck particularly hard in an already volatile security situation, making civil-military coordination even more relevant than before. Armed groups have capatilised on the pandemic with the aim to undermine state authorities, bringing with it risks of greater destablisation that will in turn have a further impact on all the risks mentioned above. To counter a grave and entrenched setback for girls’ equality it is hence paramount to work together at different levels to ensure that the “new normal” for the Sahel becomes one based on stability, sustainability and equality.