Learning from local women humanitarians responding to gender-based violence

By Zainab Moallin, CARE

CARE's Zainab Moallin spoke with the Arab Women Organization of Jordan (AWO Jordan), a women-led organization that partners with CARE, to understand what we can learn from women-led organizations as they navigate the impacts of the coronavirus in their humanitarian contexts and take steps to support vulnerable women and girls at risk of gender-based violence (GBV).

As we know from previous health crises (such as the Ebola epidemic and SARS/Zika outbreaks) and emerging research on the impact of COVID-19, pandemics exacerbate gendered inequalities and other socio-economic and political inequities. I spoke with the Arab Women Organization of Jordan (AWO Jordan), a women-led organization that partners with CARE, to understand what we can learn from women-led organizations as they navigate the impacts of the coronavirus in their humanitarian contexts and take steps to support vulnerable women and girls at risk of gender-based violence (GBV). Below are some of the key lessons that women leaders from AWO Jordan shared with CARE.

Women and girl humanitarians and their organizations have better access to information than international humanitarian actors like the UN and governments, and can help improve GBV response in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Given the hidden, often invisible and sensitive nature of GBV and the challenges of addressing it, access to local communities and building trust is integral to any GBV-related work. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many national governments were overwhelmed or simply unable to provide the information needed to support people, especially women and girls, experiencing GBV—namely domestic, family and intimate partner violence. As people went into lockdown, homes became intensified sites of GBV and other gendered harms (for example, lack of access to education for girls and lessened economic independence for women). Women-led organizations such as AWO Jordan have been trying to meet women’s and girls’ needs as they were more familiar with the (changing) landscape and able to access information on factors contributing to GBV.

One of the critical insights provided by AWO was around how women who found themselves stuck at home with an abusive partner who could no longer access cigarettes (or other negative coping mechanisms) were at a heightened risk of violence. This is important to note given the World Bank statistics that the prevalence of smoking among Jordanian men (aged over 15) was at 70.2% in 2015.

AWO Jordan also highlighted how an already male dominant society was intensified by the militarized environment of the lockdown, as the Jordanian military were called upon to enforce the nation-wide curfew. Already vulnerable, many women and girls found themselves without access to services to support their recovery from violence or information on where to seek help or access protection.

Therefore, women-led organizations’ knowledge in contexts like Jordan can help others, especially government and political leaders, community groups, international aid agencies like the UN and non-government organizations like CARE, to better support women, girls and other survivors of GBV.

Women and girl humanitarians and civil society leaders and their organizations, whether women’s rights organizations or women-led organizations, can educate on ways of adapting programs and service delivery during crises.

Despite the restrictions posed by COVID-19, women-led organizations quickly adapted their programs, case management and service delivery to support Jordanian and Syrian women and girls experiencing GBV.

As of March 16, all AWO centres in the governorates of Irbid, Mafraq and Zarqa, in addition to the main office in Amman, were closed and AWO staff began to work remotely. Because of the curfew, it became difficult for women to report violence and to receive support. However, AWO staff adapted their service delivery and programs to work under the new social distancing and curfew regulations. AWO staff used remote technology and new ways of working to deliver services including GBV case management and counseling conducted via phone. AWO staff adapted to new challenges as women were receiving support within the confines of the home in which the perpetrator (usually a husband or male relative) was almost always present. To overcome these very difficult challenges, AWO staff began to ask service recipients to use code words to indicate risk of violence, for example a reference to the need to prepare dinner soon would suggest that the perpetrator was nearby.

Women humanitarian leaders, who can closely understand the capacities and needs of the people they work with, and their organizations show all humanitarian actors, especially those of us with larger budgets and more resources, how to modify GBV programming and service delivery during crises.

Women humanitarians and their organizationsboth women’s rights organizations or women-led organizationscan educate on ways of adapting communication to target ‘hard to reach’ communities.

When COVID-19 broke out, an important challenge was around sharing information in ways that both limited the rise of, and risks around, COVID-19 and GBV.

In Jordan, AWO staff continued their work on the ground and changed how they communicated as the crisis evolved. They used smartphones and various social media platforms to raise awareness, contact GBV survivors and provide necessary information.

Most importantly, because of their proximity to the beneficiaries of their services, they were able to communicate clearly and frequently. They were able to consult with at-risk groups about issues concerning the pandemic and GBV, as well as the best way to develop and share messages. They also ensured a feedback mechanism was in place for continued feedback to adapt messages as the situation evolved. As a result, remote communication to provide services to the beneficiaries was successful despite challenges.

Women-led organizations emphasize the importance of flexible funding to allow for a more effective response to GBV within crises.

Despite their continuous work on the ground, women-led organizations have been seriously underfunded. Most of the funding for COVID-19 under the Global Humanitarian Response Plan has gone to a narrow range of health interventions, UN agencies and host governments.

In Jordan, AWO staff expressed great concern over inadequate coverage of costs, including staff salaries and office supplies. As a result of the lack of funding, they also spoke of limited access to personal protective equipment as well as potentially letting go of some staff by the end of 2020.

Notably, without external support when submitting funding proposals, women-led organizations did not stand a chance at obtaining the funding that was available as they were competing with larger organizations that had greater support for proposal management. COVID-19 has demonstrated how critical it is to prioritize flexible funding directed at women-led organizations to assist their tireless efforts in serving vulnerable women and girls at risk of GBV in crises.

Building back better means working with women humanitarians and their organizations to create and administer better and more durable programs.

It is important to note that the global nature of today’s health crisis has evidently revealed how international non-government organizations (INGOs) within the ‘global north’ do not have the same level of experience of working and adapting within crises as local organizations in humanitarian settings. Given their knowledge of working within crises, women-led organizations can use their experiences to provide invaluable information to their INGO partners on how to navigate crises by designing programs that can adapt quickly and efficiently. In short, the current pandemic has highlighted the need for a shift towards support for capacity-sharing, rather than the top-down model of capacity-building.

As we prepare to build back better for a post-coronavirus society, we must design a stronger, joint, and more equitable system that works with women-led organizations to build programs that can better respond to GBV in crises.


The Arab Women Organization of Jordan (AWO Jordan) is a non-profit women-led NGO, which contributes to the creation of a large movement for women’s rights and gender equality by uniting the efforts of women activists and strengthening their solidarity. CARE and AWO Jordan have partnered to implement the three-year Voices and Partnerships against Violence project. This project aims to create feminist partnerships between CARE and women’s rights organizations to increase the effectiveness of GBV-related programs, policies, and systems in humanitarian contexts through enhancing the role of local women-led organizations.