IDC enquiry into the secondary impacts of the coronavirus – VSO’s response
VSO is an international development agency with over 60 years’ experience of addressing poverty and marginalisation through our unique approach of working through international, national and community volunteers. By bringing together different perspectives, and working at all levels of society – from communities to government ministries – volunteers can build trust and provide the right support to ensure that national development efforts deliver lasting change. VSO has a particular focus on social inclusion, social accountability and resilience – seeing the absence of these as fundamental causes of marginalisation and vulnerability.
At VSO, we run programmes under the broad portfolios of health, education, and livelihoods, and the secondary impacts of coronavirus have been apparent across this programmes work. Working as we do through a volunteering for development model that harnesses the efforts of local community members as well as professional experts, we have seen a huge outpouring of solidarity throughout this crisis, with over 90% of VSO community volunteers continuing their activities throughout this period.
Throughout the pandemic, we have pivoted many of our programmes to tackling the coronavirus response in the countries we work in. We have seen the secondary effects of coronavirus on our programmes across health, education and livelihoods, and welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry.
For the purposes of this response, we will focus on the secondary impacts of coronavirus primarily on component 3: Treatment of women and children; levels domestic abuse, gender-based violence and exploitation of women and children, including child marriage, as this is the area where our work intersects most clearly with the terms of reference of the enquiry, and where have the most information. We also have some evidence into component 2: Economy and food security; economic performance, development and level of ODA (implications for livelihoods and food security and nutrition) which will also be included.
Our healthcare programmes focus on maternal and neo-natal healthcare and sexual and reproductive health and are not related to the areas of infectious diseases and immunisation, so we will not be responding to Component 1.
VSO assessments into secondary effects of coronavirus on primary actors
1. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, VSO conducted wellbeing assessments in sample VSO countries to better understand the vulnerability, inequality and priority needs of primary actors1, including community volunteers, and how VSO could help. The assessments aimed to discover how primary actors were coping with the challenges caused by the pandemic, what services were available, and what their priority needs were.
2. Our assessments reached a total of 6,306 primary actors – 2,861 through a rapid yet in-depth wellbeing assessment carried out in Nepal, Pakistan and Malawi and 3,445 through a digital rapid assessment survey on resilient livelihoods conducted in several countries including Kenya, Philippines, Nigeria, Cambodia, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Uganda.
Component 2: Effects of coronavirus on food security and livelihoods
3. Our research into the effects of the coronavirus on food security and livelihoods for primary actors found the following:
VSO initiatives to assist with secondary effects coronavirus of livelihoods
4. A VSO volunteer-coordinated effort has provided cash assistance to 2,500 refugees in Rhino refugee camp in Arua, Uganda, targeting the elderly, disabled and people with existing health conditions. VSO volunteers also have played a critical role in providing urgent food support to marginalised groups, for example to fisherfolk in Philippines and to ex-prison inmates in Zimbabwe, identifying those at greatest need and connecting people to services where these exist. But much more concerted action is needed.
5. Almost all our primary actors received no government assistance to help them through COVID-induced hardship, which has added to the already mounting pressures of the climate crisis on livelihoods and food security. Governments must expand their social protection programmes in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
Component 3: Secondary effects of coronavirus on gender-based violence and the lives of women and girls
6. Emerging data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against women and children has increased since the outbreak of COVID-19. After some form of lockdown was imposed in most countries around the world, VSO conducted rapid well-being assessments in sample countries in Asia and Africa to better understand the vulnerability, inequality, and priority needs of most marginalised communities and groups around this issue.
7. Survey findings shows that there was an increase in Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) during the crisis, affecting women, children, and people with disabilities and that multi-sectoral referral services were disrupted.
We carried out a specific survey into the issue of gender-based violence in three countries we work in, Nepal, Pakistan and Malawi.
8. We also carried out a rapid well-being survey into the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of our primary actors, which discovered the following:
9. Our research also discovered that because of the lockdown, SGBV survivors were not able to report to authorities, referral services were limited and less prioritized, and some of the interventions provided by NGOs were halted, with the care responsibilities of women, particularly in Nepal, also identified as having increased since lockdown.
VSO’s interventions into SGBV mitigation during the pandemic
10. At VSO, we have carried out multiple ODA-funded interventions to tackle the increase in SGBV which has been a secondary side effect of the pandemic. Our community and national volunteers were trained on SGBV at the start of the pandemic to ensure they were equipped with the knowledge and approaches to respond to incidences of it, in view of the predicted higher rate of SGBV, with trainings held in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Rwanda and Uganda. Specific examples of our work are as follows:
In Kenya, community volunteers were trained on life skills and SGBV, and community level meetings with women were organised to spread information on SGBV. Through these community meetings, cases of SGBV were identified, a reporting protocol was shared with the women and there was emphasis on working closely with the local administration to ensure follow up of cases. In addition to community meetings, VSO also organised mass communication approaches to ensure information reached people in our target areas, through radio, television, social media, brochures, posters and mega-phones. An SGBV helpline toll free number was shared to help women report cases of SGBV and access psycho-social support. Dignity kits were distributed to 246 (including 2 women with disability) girls, young women and mothers who are organised in 15 ‘safe spaces’ where they meet to improve their social, cultural, health and economic assets. The 246 young women and mothers were also linked to partner organizations who offer youth friendly services and access information on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and family planning services.
In Rwanda, specific television and radio programmes were broadcast on COVID and SGBV, with sign language used to ensure reach to deaf people. These programmes, which were estimated to reach over 3,000 people in the target district, with a wider reach nationwide, included interaction with and contact details of duty bearers, enabling citizens to connect with them, and were pivotal in identifying cases of SGBV. With support from community and national volunteers, survivors were rescued and cases filed on the perpetrators. Volunteers with disabilities were part of these interventions who were better able to reach out to women with disabilities for support and respond to survivors, as part of VSO’s larger efforts to create a cadre of community/national volunteers who are key in building community-level awareness on SGBV prevention in the context of COVID.
In Ethiopia, as well as interventions similar to those listed above, 143 Persons with Disabilities, 257 women and 91 SGBV survivors were provided with small grants support to enable them to rebuild their livelihoods. We have also ensured reach to commercial sex workers and street children in Ethiopia.
In Zimbabwe, VSO has an ongoing project focused on improving the capacity of grassroots women’s groups to effectively demand, influence and advance progress on gender equality and women empowerment, on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and on SGBV prevention and response at the local level. It aims to strengthen organizational capacity in evidence-informed advocacy, use of multi-media and campaign techniques, and use of citizen-led monitoring tools to monitor progress on prevention and interventions to end SGBV.
VSO Nepal is also implementing a project that aims to reduce the vulnerability of women and girls against SGBV by challenging the culture of silence and by increasing access to security and justice services. This programme, which funded by ODA, is called SAHAJ (Strengthening Access to Holistic, Gender Responsive and Accountable Justice) aims to target 1,120 marginalised adults and 5,600 students, employing family-centred and school-centred approaches, as well as a grassroots-level social accountability approach which aims to improve the relationship between community members and justice and security service providers.
At the height of COVID-19 response, through SAHAJ, VSO distributed 3,064 hygiene kits, provided information about safe spaces for adolescents that were broadcasted in 20 local radio stations, and supported 181 GBV victim-survivors. Through this programme, VSO also conducted awareness-raising campaigns in quarantine facilities, food banks and health posts, as well as distributing relevant informational materials and hygiene/dignity kits. Social media, online news media and text messaging have also been used to increase access to information and services on COVID-19, SGBV, SRHR and the relevant referral hotlines and services.
These are some of the interventions provided by VSO country offices in preventing and responding to SGBV during the COVID-19 crisis. We would like to highlight how the presence of youth, national and community volunteers reduced the isolation and exclusion of people with disabilities and of marginalised women and children during the lockdown period, and believe this is demonstration of the vital role of volunteers in development work, which VSO specialises in.