Responding to COVID-19

Responding to COVID-19

Women, Peace and Security programs provide inclusive solutions


Communities across the globe have felt the effects of COVID-19, but it is women who have been hardest hit by the cultural side effects of the pandemic. Government lockdown policies and stay-at-home orders have resulted in an unintended “shadow pandemic” of violence against women and girls. Gender-role expectations of women as primary caregivers and household managers have exacerbated unequal domestic labor burdens. Women often represent as much as 70% of front-line health care workers and, as such, have faced increased exposure to infection. The overrepresentation of women in service industries and as care providers places them in insecure positions, leaving them often the first to be unemployed. Livelihoods in the informal economy, such as in domestic work, agriculture and the textile industry, deny women from participating in government economic stimulus programs. It has become clear that the pandemic and government responses have different impacts on women due to their gendered roles in society.

These same roles, however, underscore the importance of women’s meaningful participation to any sustainable recovery strategy. What we are seeing in today’s public health crisis reaffirms a reality internationally recognized over 20 years ago with the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) — first, that conflict and crisis disproportionately impact women and girls, and second, that their contributions are often undervalued and underutilized, leading to further instability and insecurity.

Royal Australian Air Force Flight Lt. Nicole Maroske prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at a drive-through clinic in Victoria. Australian Department of Defence

Due to the size and destabilizing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, nations around the world have involved their defense and security sectors in response and recovery efforts. Many have also applied a gender perspective and WPS principles to their efforts, such as the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), Australian Department of Defence (DOD), Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). A gender perspective means understanding how gender-based differences shape the immediate needs and long-term interests of men, women, boys and girls during a crisis. It raises relevant and lifesaving questions for militaries to better understand gender and inform an effective response: Whose needs and interests are being met? Who has access to resources? Which men and women are affected?

Each nation’s defense sector implementation of WPS, along with its respective response to the pandemic, must consider the complexity of global demographics and its own population’s needs. The following snapshots highlight how four nations are incorporating gender perspectives in their defense sector COVID-19 efforts, reflecting similar experiences yet unique approaches as each country continues to advance WPS implementation. 

New Zealand Defence Force

The government of New Zealand developed its WPS National Action Plan in 2015, and the NZDF was a key partner in its development and implementation. The NZDF was tasked with eight of the 17 plan outputs, which included increasing the number of uniformed women deploying and embedding a gender perspective into training and operations. The NZDF has a full-time WPS implementation officer who oversees this work, in addition to an officer supporting WPS efforts in the Pacific islands on a part-time basis. Their oversight has proven critical to successful COVID-19 mitigation, management and response.

In March 2020, the NZDF launched Operation Protect to coordinate its internal response and contribution to the all-of-government response to COVID-19. From the start, small numbers of experienced NZDF personnel were deployed to support the government response management center, drawing on the NZDF’s planning, analysis and logistics expertise. The first round of predeployment training for military personnel included a brief on the gendered aspects of COVID-19, with material drawn from international research and based on New Zealand population data. The brief noted the disproportionate effect on women from COVID-19 and the lockdown, the need to address these impacts in planning and the importance of NZDF teams to include females.

A nurse swabs a patient for COVID-19 at a drive-through clinic in Caloundra, Australia, in April 2020. REUTERS

As the pandemic unfolded, NZDF personnel were increasingly tasked to support the managed-isolation and quarantine facilities (MIQFs), which were initially based at a hotel in one city but soon evolved to more than 30 facilities nationwide. The MIQFs house a diverse range of New Zealand citizens, each for 14 days, with the majority having returned from abroad. NZDF personnel coordinated efforts between hotel owners and other providers, including security, police, welfare and hotel staff. As of September 2020, over 250 personnel continued to support the COVID-19 response at any one time, with most supporting the MIQFs.

As a result, the gender perspective brief was adapted to include gendered considerations specific to the MIQF setting. Drawing on lessons learned from internally displaced people camps and discussions with personnel supporting MIQFs, the refined brief highlighted valuable insights. First, within the MIQFs, gender-based violence appears in diverse forms: domestic violence within family bubbles, accusations of sexual assault between guests, potential sexual exploitation of at-risk females, and inadvertent placement of guests near guests with criminal or sexual offense records. Also noted were disruptions to sexual and reproductive health within the MIQFs, highlighting the need to consider pregnant women, especially those requiring clinical management on-site or needing to leave the MIQF to give birth.

Furthermore, planning considerations need to include how females access feminine hygiene products if unable to leave the MIQF. The refined brief also emphasized potential challenges facing single parents (typically women) in the MIQFs, especially those with multiple or special-needs children. Finally, the brief highlighted that personnel should recognize opportunities to engage with MIQF guests who are influential within larger groups and have them disseminate information and feedback, especially where language is a barrier.

NZDF personnel are providing valuable feedback on the gendered impact of the MIQF experience. This information is continuing to improve MIQFs and better prepare the next rotation of personnel. 

Republic of Fiji Military Forces

WPS implementation in the RFMF involved policy and training development, including base-wide gender awareness training and a multiagency gender advisor course for members of Fiji’s government and military. A WPS committee was established to work alongside legal partners to adapt policies that disproportionately impact women and ensure support mechanisms are in place.

As COVID-19 threatened the health and well-being of Fijians, an RFMF team was established to support the response. This involved setting up contingency plans, supporting quarantine enforcement and briefing ministers from across the infrastructure, health and defense portfolios. From the early stages, a gender advisor was part of the team and became responsible for highlighting the gendered aspects of this crisis (such as analyzing population demographics, movements and risk levels) and identifying humanitarian response plans. Due to the threat’s complexity, plus the additional dynamic of responding to Tropical Cyclone Harold in April 2020, a multiagency approach was employed.

Women wear face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 as they walk through a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

While the COVID-19 threat had lessened significantly by May 2020, the multiagency cooperation continued, both in direct response to the pandemic and toward the effects of lockdown measures. Reflecting a global trend, the government of Fiji saw an increase in calls to the domestic violence hotline — from 87 in February 2020 to more than 500 in April 2020. A multiagency approach was again mobilized through an alliance of nongovernment agencies under the direction of the Ministry for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation. Alongside sexual harassment training delivered by the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement to the Republic of Fiji Navy and the ongoing RFMF quarantine enforcement support to the Ministry of Health, cooperation across agencies has become the hallmark of Fiji’s success combating COVID-19 and its gendered impacts.

Australian Department of Defence

In the 20th year of UNSCR 1325, Australia was maintaining a high tempo to implement the WPS agenda through dedicated personnel and resources to boost capability. The Australian DOD made significant progress in implementing the WPS agenda and mainstreaming awareness across the department along six lines of effort: ensuring strategic settings are in place through integration of gender perspective into policy and doctrine; training a broad pool of people across the organization; dedicating personnel to implementing the WPS agenda; maintaining mission readiness through deployment of gender advisors on operations and exercises; supporting international partners through capacity-building initiatives and programs; and developing a robust governance and reporting framework to ensure Australia meets its UNSCR 1325 obligations.

Since 2012, DOD has built expertise assessing the gendered impacts of disaster and conflict, which provided the foundations for it to contribute to the pandemic response. The gendered impacts of COVID-19 have been well documented. According to the nonprofit aid organization CARE Australia, 80% of Australians work in industries providing services such as health care, education and retail, which have been the hardest-hit sectors. Women face greater insecurity because they comprise the majority of part-time and casual workers, as well as taking on unpaid care roles. Furthermore, experts have reported an increase in the frequency of violence against women. This follows global trends, with the U.N. Population Fund predicting that for every three months of lockdown, an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence will occur worldwide. The beginning of the pandemic followed a disastrous bushfire season in Australia, compounding the stress on many families and businesses.

As of August 2020, over 3,000 Australian Defence Force (ADF) members were deployed in a variety of roles to support the nation’s COVID-19 response. This includes testing, logistics, contact tracing and managing border closures. Given the ADF’s community interaction, a network of gender advisors and gender focal points was embedded as part of the response. A tiered system was established, from the strategic headquarters to the unit level, allowing flow of information and a feedback loop. An online training package and video, titled Gender, Indigenous and Culture Awareness, was developed for all members deploying and working with the community. A “Soldiers Smart Card” checklist for commanders and family and domestic violence pocket brief were developed as guides for integrating gender considerations throughout planning and execution. The DOD is well positioned in addressing gender impacts during the pandemic and also in meeting emerging threats, humanitarian response needs, and other crisis or conflict situations through its WPS approach. 

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

The U.S. Department of Defense has supported WPS since the release of the first U.S. National Action Plan in 2011. This was further codified with passage of the WPS Act in 2017, the U.S. Strategy in 2019 and the department’s Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan in 2020. USINDOPACOM established an Office of Women, Peace and Security to include three positions critical to WPS implementation: the command gender advisor, WPS curriculum developer and gender analyst.

As the global pandemic surged in early 2020, the WPS office identified two key areas to improve USINDOPACOM’s planning and response: first, through gender and COVID-19 predeployment training of Hawaii National Guard units preparing to assist community response and second, through gathering relevant regional data and developing gender analyses to better inform decision-making. USINDOPACOM also used digital articles and training videos to highlight COVID-19’s regional gendered security effects.

Predeployment training must be context-specific and tailored to the population demographic, but there are macro-level gender considerations that apply to the local community, for instance: the increase in domestic violence during lockdown, interrupted access to sexual and reproductive health care, women as the majority of health care workers, and disproportionate impacts to other vulnerable communities. In Hawaii, the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities are suffering most. The pandemic has exacerbated structural and social system inequities such as lack of access to health care, crowded living conditions from multigenerational housing, and informal and formal employment in front-line industries. The gender and COVID-19 training focuses on an inclusive security approach, understanding that men, women, boys and girls experience this public health crisis differently; that their gender roles may expose them to harm or lead them to take risks for survival in different ways; and that their access to relief and recovery resources may differ.

A large gender data gap remains regarding COVID-19 globally, and USINDOPACOM’s WPS office developed reporting and analysis that emphasize the need for more data for effective decision-making. This includes regional gendered socioeconomic trends, gendered health impacts, articles on the importance of a gender lens in planning, as well as a study reviewing existing gender-related data on COVID-19 and providing policy recommendations.

Recovery Efforts

Governments’ short- and long-term efforts to recover from COVID-19 must consider the unique vulnerabilities women and girls face during this crisis and ensure they are protected and have safe access to relief and recovery assistance. Their recovery strategies must incorporate gender perspectives. The WPS agenda equips defense and security sectors to better engage with their populations and provide inclusive solutions. Defense sectors should continue to build gender advisor capability, which will greatly improve interoperability and coordination, as well as increase mission effectiveness.

The gendered impacts of the pandemic will be revealed over many years. Our nations’ defense and security sectors will continue to learn and use these lessons to train our respective departments; ensure that the needs of women, men, girls and boys are met during our missions; increase information-sharing on WPS implementation; and strengthen national and regional resilience to effectively counter the often unpredictable, complex challenges of 21st-century security.