Women, Peace and Security in the Age of COVID-19

Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asian Women’s Dialogue

Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asian Women’s Dialogue
In Austria 2017, Tatiana Dwyer, l., gave certificates to participants in one of the first Peace Dialogues, founded by United Methodist Women

Across the globe, women are losing their precarious footing in society, due to the pandemic. In May 2020, more than 100 women attended a series of online webinars co-organized by United Methodist Women. These peace and human rights activists gathered via Zoom to share the devastating impact of COVID-19 on women in the region and learn from one another about seeking peace and security during this historic time. Countries represented included Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, as well as the regions of the Baltic States, South Caucasus, and Central Asia. Amid wars and conflicts, women are now facing a new threat. COVID-19 not only revealed vulnerabilities, but also raised questions about the concept of security. Before the pandemic, peace and security referred to conflicts and wars; today it means survival, health, food, jobs, etc.

How are governments responding to COVID-19’s impact on women? This was explored in a May 29, 2020 second webinar organized by the Women’s Regional Platform for Peace Dialogue (WRPPD) in collaboration with the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) Secretariat for the Gender Issues Program.  

WRPPD is a forum of women peace and human rights activists from countries in Eastern Europe, Baltic, South Caucasus and Central Asia working on the prevention of conflict, protection of women and girls’ human rights and increasing human security. United Methodist Women is a founding member of the forum.

The second webinar provided a venue for WRPPD members to share with OSCE ambassadors and other international stakeholders on how women are experiencing the regional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forty-eight women from across the region participated, along with United Methodist Women’s president, Shannon Priddy.

Many Challenges

The challenges are myriad. Julia Kharashvili, a WRPPD member from Georgia, summarized the key challenges caused by COVID -19 in the region. “The emerging picture shows the COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of national social systems. Some of the most critical issues included failing health systems; dwindling access to healthcare for women; increased rates of domestic and gender-based violence; limited access to justice; a shrinking space for NGOs and civil society organizations.”

Compounding the suffering of women and children, several activists spoke of an increase in domestic abuse, a lack of access to technology and work, challenges educating children, and food insecurity in the region. From Eastern Ukraine, one participant reported that 43 to 70 percent of the women have lost their jobs. With borders closed and no livelihoods in sight, more and younger women are turning to prostitution to survive.

A participant from Uzbekistan reported that a hotline, initiated and widely promoted as a way for women to report domestic violence and request legal and psychological services, is now receiving most of their calls for food to relieve family hunger. United Methodist Women Global Justice Executive Tatiana Dwyer, said, “Poverty is now slipping into abject poverty.”

Women spoke about very different positions of their governments, ranging from ignoring the existing problems to strict demands for quarantine and social isolation to declaring country-wide emergency situations. The women activists were concerned about a post-COVID-19 situation which further impoverished communities and women. The lack of a clear vision about a changed structure of human security and communications/relations in a post-COVID-19 world will affect women, if they do not fully participate in   decision making. Betty Gittens, United Methodist Women’s Executive for International Ministries, said, “What little you have is washed away, if you have anything at all.”

The Special Representative on Gender Issues for the OSCE, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, stated, “The virus has exposed inequality, exacerbated in places of conflict.” Significant threats were identified to human security, especially in countries and territories with protracted conflicts. While some countries have specific peacekeeping needs, the situation is very similar across the world.

Ambassador Verveer emphasized the need for greater data collection, a wider embrace of local organizations led by women, and the enlarging of space and impact for women leaders in civil society. Indeed, Ambassador Verveer emphasized the plight and suffering of migrants, who, upon finding borders sealed and relief unavailable, become “a ticking time bomb for instability.”

While powerful calls for societal changes came from grassroots women, regional representatives heard them. “We are in listening mode,” said Ambassador Mara Marinaki, of the EEAS, European Union, who also called upon government and civil society to acknowledge the unpaid work of women and the world-wide need to pay women for their ubiquitous work of caring for families and communities.

As the two-hour conversation wound down, the word security took on a deeper meaning. More than a catch-all, referring to an end to militarism, security came to mean the health and safety of children, marginalized people, and women.

For the voiceless to be heard, the participants insisted that countries must put an end to the exploitation of women and children. In addition, many representatives said that all societies, near and far, must provide a seat at decision-making tables for women in their pursuit of peace and the betterment of the region’s health, environment, and governance.

WRPPD is ready to map a vision for the post-COVID-19 agenda. Co-founded by United Methodist Women and currently supported by the United Methodist Women President’s Initiative for 2020-2024, the Women’s Regional Platform is an outgrowth of a 2015 meeting from the Ukraine and Russian Federation women peace activists, who networked on issues of peacebuilding and sought to widen the dialogue throughout the region.

Thanks to your and other United Methodist Women members’ gifts through the President’s Initiative, the women of the Central and Eastern Europe are pursuing security for all women and children as they seek to end society’s ills, including, but not limited to gender discrimination, which the COVID-19 virus has revealed.  

Mary Beth Coudal is a consultant, journalist and teacher.

Posted or updated: 6/18/2020 12:00:00 AM