In India, Mexico, Uganda and beyond, AJWS grantees are fighting everyday to protect their communities against COVID-19. These activists and social change organizations are on the frontlines of the pandemic in the developing world. AJWS will continue to stand by all of our grantees in 19 countries during this global crisis—and we will update you on their life-saving work right here.
When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared—with only a few hours’ notice—that the country would be locked down starting March 24, millions of people were left completely stranded. The lockdown is the largest and one of the strictest on earth, and it has been violently enforced by police. For migrant workers across the country who had come to cities for work, job opportunities disappeared in an instant—and they were left with no income, sometimes hundreds of miles from their villages.
AJWS grantee HUMSAFAR, a support center for women and girls in crisis in the northern city of Lucknow, sprang into action, distributing emergency food aid to migrant workers as they fled the city on foot.
Committed to serving the most vulnerable and rooted in social movements and local activism, HUMSAFAR staff decided to expand the population they serve, because the lives of migrants were immediately at stake:
“Listening to the desperate calls for help rising from our city, we decided to take up the challenge of providing these people with basic provisions. We saw our state government trying to do the same; they have failed miserably. We hope that India’s government can mobilize an effective response to widespread hunger—but we simply cannot wait while they do. People are starving.”
They continued: “For some Indians, lockdown means giving up a few things. For others, it is the challenge of keeping body and soul together.”
HUMSAFAR has also continued to support the vulnerable women and girls who depend on them—most of whom are living in crowded slums where social distancing is nearly impossible. The organization is providing dry foods and fresh vegetables to women who have survived domestic and sexual abuse, as well as to women rickshaw drivers, particularly vulnerable groups at risk of both illness and loss of livelihoods. They are distributing cooked food to women who are unable to cook for themselves and, in several cases, providing medicine as well.
COVID-19 presents a unique threat to women suffering from domestic abuse, as many are now trapped inside with their abusers. To address this need, HUMSAFAR has joined a national network of gender rights organizations that have opened phone lines and WhatsApp channels to support domestic abuse survivors during this ordeal.
HUMSAFAR is positioned to deliver support that others cannot because they are a local group who understands the very special kinds of challenges that women and girls face at the intersection of the pandemic and gender inequality. Now, as India’s lockdown is beginning to ease and infection rates have begun to rise once again, it is clear that this crisis will continue to disproportionately affect India’s most vulnerable populations. And our grantees like HUMSAFAR will not waver in their life-saving support.
In Uganda, our grantee National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) has spent years engaging with rural communities to combat climate change and environmental challenges and defend human rights through their Community Green Radio Station, which has become a highly trusted information source for local people. And now, in a time when misinformation about COVID-19 is running rampant in the country, NAPE’s radio station has become a pivotal platform to educate rural Ugandan families about the virus and how to protect themselves. NAPE’s efforts make clear how AJWS’s support of radio, print and online information campaigns around the world contribute to broaden efforts to ensure that trusted, local messengers deliver lifesaving information to communities at high risk for infection.
To accomplish this, NAPE is working with public health officials, rededicating the radio station to broadcast crucial information that will keep communities safe. As part of AJWS’s policy to deliver the most flexible and nimble support to grantees at the front lines of the epidemic, this week, AJWS made a new grant to NAPE to support them during Uganda’s stay-at-home mandate, which has been extended to May 5. NAPE is using the funds to buy personal protective equipment and computers, modems and Internet data packages to run their programs remotely, guaranteeing the flow of life-saving information continues during this difficult lockdown period.
Radio and printed communications remain critical platforms for people in rural communities—often with little or no access to the Internet—to understand what is happening in their villages, regions, countries and the world. This new grant to NAPE bolsters AJWS’s work to help grantee organizations spread this crucial information. To further enable this lifesaving dissemination strategy in Uganda, AJWS is also supporting the Northern Uganda Media Club (NUMEC), an organization that strengthens local journalism on human rights issues, to disseminate print and radio stories about how the virus spreads and how to stop it.
With over 9,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and counting, Mexico is currently under a stay-at-home order until at least May 30. But the Mexican government’s efforts to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19 have created unintended and dangerous consequences. In Oaxaca, the closure of vital roads has blocked delivery of food and supplies to rural areas, rapidly causing a food shortage among indigenous communities.
In its efforts to bolster local efforts to support local people as effectively as possible, AJWS has made a new grant to our partner organization Union de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juarez, Oaxaca (UNOSJO), supporting their work to distribute maize (corn) to the hardest hit communities. As one of the staple foods in Oaxaca, the maize will provide a crucial source of food for people who are unlikely to receive government support, even as the crisis deepens and drags on across the country.
The pandemic has also presented new challenges complicating the ongoing fight to bring justice to the families of more than 60,000 Mexicans who have been “disappeared”—abducted and likely murdered during the country’s armed conflict. Local governors in northern Mexico began allowing for the cremation of the bodies of those who had, or were suspected to have, COVID-19. Many of these people are unidentified. There exists a chance that some of these bodies belong to people who were recently disappeared, and families fear that their struggle to find missing relatives will become even more difficult—upon cremation there will be no physical record of their existence, and their families will never be able to identify them.
AJWS grantee Centro Diocesano para los Derechos Humanos Fray Juan de Larios, A.C (Fray Juan)—an organization advocating that the government take meaningful action to find and identify Mexico’s disappeared—issued a statement calling on the government to avoid all cremations of unidentified people. The very fight to bring peace and closure for families of the disappeared is at stake—just one example of how AJWS grantees continue the long struggle for human rights even as they must defend human life.
This local effort also illustrates how some of the vital human rights advocacy that AJWS supports in Mexico and other countries is at risk during the pandemic, especially in places where authoritarian or corrupt governments may take advantage of the crisis to suppress human rights. This is part of a broad pattern, which AJWS grantees are battling worldwide.
In Senegal, COVID-19 continues to spread quickly—in part because, for many Senegalese, contracting the virus carries stigma, and sick individuals are hiding their illness so as not to be hospitalized. Some have even fled hospitals and returned to dense neighborhoods. The dissemination of factual information about hygiene and ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is absolutely critical to prevent massive loss of life. As part of AJWS’s effort to support key local players in the battle against COVID-19, we have made two new grants to grantee organizations supporting awareness and education campaigns to protect their communities and the greater Senegalese public.
In the impoverished and geographically isolated Casamance region, which has been devastated by violent conflict, decades of neglect by the central government of Senegal has created a weak economy and infrastructure that puts communities at high risk. As a result of pervasive inequality, access to medical care is scarce and government support is woefully inadequate.
To fill the void, AJWS grantee Ben Communication ZIG FM (ZIG FM) is now broadcasting educational messages through its popular community radio programs. In nearby Sédhiou, Association de Développement le Gabou (Le Gabou) has produced educational radio programs in three local languages (Mandingue, Wolof and Jola). These messages will reach rural populations throughout the region, ensuring that vulnerable people can access information they need to protect themselves from the virus—and learn about any available government support programs.
This is yet another powerful example of how AJWS’s support of local community groups makes a vital difference at this time—when trusted messengers who communicate in local languages can make all the difference.
Despite stringent efforts to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, the Dominican Republic’s fatalities continue to rise—particularly among the country’s most vulnerable people. The recent death of an 11-month old baby (only the second case reported globally of an infant dying of COVID-19) in a sugar cane village inhabited by Haitian immigrants adds to the mounting evidence that the virus is having a more severe impact on socially and economically marginalized people. Although the Dominican government has yet to provide statistics on the national economy, more than 700,000 jobs have been suspended for the next month—or about 30% of the formal economy. In large part because of this loss of formal employment, 75% of undocumented immigrants—most of whom are Haitians—have lost their jobs.
The Dominican government is making minor efforts to ease economic hardships, and they have officially postponed the presidential and congressional elections until July. Although they claim to be distributing food rations and relief checks to the most vulnerable communities, civil society organizations are concerned that these aid packages are being given to government party members and allies instead of those most in need.
In response, several AJWS grantees are stepping in to provide critical aid to their communities. Diversidad Dominicana, Centro Cultural Dominico Haitiano (CCDH), Red Común Nacional Organizada de Ciudadanos Dominicanos (Reconoci.do), Junta De Mujeres Mamá Tingó and Centro Para la Educación y el Desarrollo (CEDUCA) are distributing emergency food aid to their communities and also advocating for the government’s economic subsidies to reach the most vulnerable. This collective of grantees rapidly pivoting the scope of their work as the needs of their communities evolve shows why AJWS’s investment in local organizations is so important: only local groups with an analysis of how society leaves the vulnerable behind could contribute in this way.
Red de Voluntarios de Amigos Siempre Amigos (REVASA) and Movimiento de Mujeres Unidas (MODEMU) have compiled a list of 300 sex workers and 227 LGBTQI+ individuals who they will support to benefit from the government’s “Stay at Home” program, where participants will receive cash stipends of $200 a month. These groups are particularly vulnerable, and these grantees will ensure they do not slip through the cracks of the government’s relief program. Further, REVASA will also use funds from their AJWS grant to provide food and medical
supplies to LGBTQI+ people. The needs of the populations served by REVASA and MODEMU show just how blatantly governments can ignore highly-stigmatized and marginalized groups—and that’s exactly why AJWS’s grants to local organizations supporting these communities is so critical.
ADESA (Right to Health Alliance) is compiling stark data to present to the government illustrating how vulnerable communities are being grossly under-served during the crisis. For example, they have documented the widespread lack of personal protective equipment in hospitals in poor areas. This information will be critical as the need to advocate for the rights of vulnerable communities continues to rise. As many grantees pivot to meet the immediate needs of the most marginalized communities, ADESA is a perfect example of an AJWS’s support of activist organizations redoubling their commitment to government accountability throughout this crisis.
Haiti has fewer than 100 officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far (due to an almost total lack of testing), but this statistic belies the dire toll the pandemic is already wreaking on this country. AJWS’s commitment to Haiti is longstanding and deep, as Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Americas and has been negatively affected by decades of corrupt governments while reeling from humanitarian disasters, including devastating earthquakes and tropical storms.
With work opportunities drying up in neighboring Dominican Republic, as many as 500 Haitian migrant workers are returning home jobless each day. Access to health care or even basic information about COVID-19 safety and prevention is extremely scarce. While some emergency government relief programs exist, they have not been implemented—leaving many recently unemployed workers in financial ruin. Factory workers pay into a mandatory emergency fund each month, but the government has not delivered most workers what it promised in return—50% of their salary (less than $10 a day for most) during this crisis.
What’s more, this week, Haiti’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Joseph Jouthe, announced that factories are to reopen immediately—without any reference to the safety or protection of factory workers. Together, this lack of promised support and the dangerous reopening of factories without protection exemplify the battles for justice that AJWS grantees had been carrying on in Haiti before the pandemic—and which are more important now than ever in the midst of this crisis.
AJWS grantee organization Batay Ouvriye is advocating for the Haitian government to instate proposed, mandatory working conditions that would protect the health and safety of factory workers. Many of these factories will be producing personal protective equipment to be exported globally, while leaving Haitians themselves with little access to this critical life-saving equipment. Batay Ouvriye and other workers’ rights organizations recognize that for so many Haitians, returning to work is a necessity to survive—and so they are working tirelessly to ensure that when factories reopen, they do so with the health of their workers in mind and support from the government. Batay Ovriye’s long history of worker’s rights activism makes them a prime example of AJWS supporting local organizations that know how to protect vulnerable populations from being exploited by governments and employers.
In an unusual and particularly harsh approach to social distancing, El Salvador is running “containment centers,” which are jail-like settings for people who have broken the country’s strict lockdown policy. People sent to these centers must be isolated for 30 days, and there is little public oversight of the treatment they receive while in isolation—creating a vacuum in which human rights are being disregarded. On April 1, one man died in containment after being denied appropriate healthcare, and 50 people are being held against their will beyond their quarantine, even though the law dictates they can only be held for 30 days. Our partner La Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (FESPAD) is providing the detainees with emergency legal aid to push for their release, while still also continuing to monitor other human rights violations by security forces.
While our grantees in El Salvador fight against such abuses of human rights, they are also supporting the most vulnerable communities with emergency aid. Estrellas del Golfo has been monitoring the needs of the LGBTQI+ community in the district of La Union, and is providing food and personal protective equipment to community members and to members of its own staff to enable them to work from home. LGBTQI+ plus people are too often ignored by mainstream charities and governments—and this kind of direct aid from AJWS grantees to LGBTQI+ people is crucial.
Together, these two grantees demonstrate why AJWS’s support of grantees with expertise in human rights advocacy for some of the most marginalized and stigmatized groups is so necessary during a pandemic, during which governments are overstepping and crushing human rights and neglecting stigmatized groups.
In Washington, D.C., AJWS is working with Congressional representatives and their policy staff to advance legislation and policies that will help protect the world’s most vulnerable people during this crisis. In response to the Trump Administration’s decree to pull all funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), Rori Kramer, Director of Government Affairs, issued a statement denouncing the decision, as the action will put the health and lives of Americans and vulnerable people across the world at risk. This is a continuation of AJWS’s multi-pronged strategy to integrate grantmaking, immediate humanitarian aid and advocacy to support the most vulnerable communities, using a diverse set of tools.
While Republican governors and other elected officials have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to severely limit access to sexual and reproductive services for women, girls and LGBTQI+ people here in the United States, AJWS’s Advocacy Team is working to ensure these oppressive measures do not seep into international policy. To do so, they worked with coalition partners to lift up the continued importance of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Funding in the U.S. appropriations process. Using powerful examples from our grantees’ work that explain why robust access to sexual and reproductive health services saves lives, the Advocacy team has helped secure the signatures of 35 Senators to demonstrate strong support to continue these critical services.
AJWS’s Advocacy team has also been standing up for LGBTQI+ people, who, as we know all too well, suffer discrimination disproportionately during pandemics and sociopolitical upheavals. Following the arrest of 23 people in a shelter for LGBT youth in Uganda—under the false pretense that they were willfully spreading COVID-19—AJWS grantee Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) is providing immediate legal support, pushing authorities for their release. Nearly a month later, 20 of those arrested remain imprisoned (several were released for medical reasons, as was a nurse who worked at the shelter). In response, the AJWS Advocacy team worked closely with the office of Senator Ed Markey to elevate awareness about the arrests. In response to our request for support, Senator Markey tweeted out demands for their immediate release.
This information is accurate as of April 23, 2020.