Preoccupied with its own outbreak, the U.S. shouldn’t fail to fully reckon with the global effects of a virus that is not only wreaking havoc on health systems around the world, but also on economically vulnerable women and girls.
Poverty and domestic violence, both exacerbated by the pandemic, tend to hit females harder: They are two to three times more susceptible to job loss than their male counterparts, CARE International President and CEO Michelle Nunn said during a July 17 webinar with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
The situation is especially dire when health effects intersect with existing gender and racial disparities, Ms. Nunn said, noting that the U.S. should not see a false choice between its own health and an effective global response.
American generosity would overlap with self-interest in this case, a fact she’s using to shake U.S. donors out of their complacency, even during a time of economic uncertainty.
Many large companies have stepped up to support CARE, but more could be done, she said, joking in conversation with Council President Charles Shapiro that CARE has enlarged the “donate” button on its website.
Just 10 percent of U.S. funds allocated to responding to COVID-19 have gone to international efforts. By monetary value, that amounts to what was spent on the Ebola outbreak, which hit just three African countries — and where maternal mortality may have killed more women than the disease.
“That is one of the reasons we are calling for global investment and response. The U.S. has been hard hit and must address its own issues, but we can’t leave the rest of the world to go this alone,” she asserted. “We can’t ultimately be safe until other communities are safe around the world. We can’t let other countries go over a cliff.”
Only 6 percent of philanthropic giving in the U.S. went to global causes last year, with most of that going to a few large, multilateral organizations like UNICEF and CARE.
“If you can help your neighbor here, you can also help your neighbor in Chad or Venezuela, and your impact can be significant,” Ms. Nunn asserted.
Thanks to coronavirus, millions of girls now face the prospect of never going back to school. That comes as some 31 million women and girls are facing gender-based violence around the world.
CARE’s 50 Rapid Gender Analyses show that the pandemic has worsened the problem, detecting heightened reporting in places like southern Africa and Europe, as well as reports of tens of thousands of women facing physical or sexual abuse while sheltering in place.
“[COVID-19] has challenged us in new ways. We are seeing extraordinary health, economic and hunger challenges all at once, combined with the downstreams of gender-based violence and domestic violence,” she said. “Our own staff, undaunted, are turning obstacles into creative opportunities.”
CARE has never faced such a pandemic in its 75-year history, and its efforts have been inspired by a slogan originating in a women’s group in Africa: “Impossible is not for us.”
CARE’s 10,000-plus staff members continue to fight poverty daily on behalf of women and girls in 100 countries, Ms. Nunn said. In 67, including the U.S., CARE has begun COVID-19 response programs that provide direct assistance to millions in at-risk populations.
Last year, CARE began poverty-alleviation work in Atlanta by distributing food to the needy and starting a women’s savings program modeled after the organization’s Village Savings and Loan Associations that were initiated in Niger. The “savings groups,” which have been used by some 7 million women in 50 countries, enable women to pool resources in financial cooperatives and take out loans to help support their small businesses.
Around the world, such efforts have been integral in giving women a pathway out of violent situations. In the short term, CARE provides cash assistance to women who need to relocate in order to escape violent situations and sustain their families. Its savings programs extend women’s midterm financial capacities, and its advocacy efforts aim for long-term changes at the systemic level to empower women economically and politically.
Domestically, CARE recently reinvented the “CARE package,” providing basic food and hygiene items to the needy using newly unemployed gig economy workers, with its hometown of Atlanta serving as the flagship. The program has expanded to Houston, Louisville, Ky. and San Francisco, providing work to musicians, artists and others out of work since the COVID-19 crisis.
“Imagine the Conservation Corps meets the gig economy,” Ms. Nunn said, noting that CARE programs now assist hundreds of thousands in the U.S.
CARE sees the need for a stratified, international effort to fight an outbreak whose secondary effects are, in many cases, as threatening as the disease itself.
By the end of 2020, 12,000 people will die of hunger each day, Ms. Nunn said. Most of CARE’s clients work in the informal economy, like migrant laborers, so the option to ‘shelter in place’ rather than provide a daily meal for their families is an impossible and unsustainable choice, she said.
CARE has been advocating to ensure that efforts to slow the spread of the virus are not also shutting down the infrastructure for domestic violence assistance, including health clinics, call centers and shelters, Ms. Nunn said. She added that as cases rise, informal networks of information about where women can get help must increase also.
One problem is that predicting the need has been challenging, and underreporting in many places may hide the seriousness of the outbreak. CARE has had some success shifting its resources, but “not with crystal ball accuracy,” Ms. Nunn said.
In some countries, CARE has set up triage areas with basic hygiene stations, like soap and water, in dense refugee camps in Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria, where it anticipates COVID-19 will “spread like wildfire.” Some 90 percent of these camps did not have access to soap, she noted.
In the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador have been causes for concern, with the latter’s middle-income status belying the seriousness of the outbreak.
“We can anticipate, but it’s hard to predict. No one predicted that Ecuador would be as bad as it is,” she said.
She noted, however, that it is important to take into account the differences among countries to understand how to apply the most basic public health protective measures.
Private-sector philanthropy has stepped in to help CARE provide water, hygiene supplies, food and cash assistance to 7 million people over the past three months, but Ms. Nunn hopes that citizens can convince Congress to allocate the $12 billion needed for a global, coordinated response to combat the impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.
“America has been a humanitarian leader in the world, and we don’t want to forsake that mantle. We can’t afford to do that right now,” she said, urging private citizens to make the case to their leaders.
CARE encourages patrons to petition Congress to support international aid and programs for women and girls worldwide, ask Congress to contribute to the United Nations Population Fund that directly supports women’s reproductive health, and sign the Safe from the Start Act that would help protect women and girls from gender-based violence.
Visit care.org to learn about the organization’s COVID-19 work, volunteer opportunities, internships, and other ways to get involved.