AJWS In Action: Updates from Our Partners, April 30

From domestic abuse to hunger and economic collapse, the pandemic is causing massive problems far beyond the virus itself. The activists and social change organizations AJWS supports 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.

India is in the midst of a severe, brutally enforced lockdown—the largest on earth—showing the country’s will to take measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. While some states eased restrictions last week, the lockdown is currently set to expire May 3 nationwide—but it could be extended. Since it went into effect in March, the lockdown has contributed to sharp, unintended increases in other life-threatening problems, including domestic violence, food insecurity and crushing poverty. Indeed, India’s National Commission for Women recently reported that they’ve received double the calls related to domestic violence than they had since the lockdown began. This is part of a rising surge of domestic abuse around the world during the pandemic, as victims of domestic violence are forced to live in close quarters with their abusers around the clock.

Alarmed by this staggering danger to women across India, AJWS grantee Akshara – Front for Rapid Economic Advancement, India (FREA) sprang into action. This month, FREA launched a social media campaign called #lockdowndomesticviolence. Together with several other civil society organizations, FREA created three powerful videos—in English, Hindi and Marathi (the local language in the state of Maharasthra, which includes Mumbai)—encouraging people to speak out about domestic violence. The campaign has already garnered support from the Maharashtra Government, state police and nearly 20 Indian film and sports celebrities; close to 3.5 million people have viewed the videos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

These short videos deliver an impactful message, shared by both men and women: “To all the men we say: Now is the time to stand up against this violence. To all the women we say: Now is the time to break your silence. Let’s put a lockdown on domestic violence.

You can view the English video here.

FREA and its local partners also developed training and educational materials to help professionals assist women-at-risk—thus far, they’ve reached over 25 non-profit organizations and 61 family counseling centers across Maharashtra, as well as over 350 “protection officers,” who are government-appointed liaisons between domestic abuse survivors and the court system.

Unfortunately, there are other rising challenges for women across India due to the pandemic. With the country in lockdown and hospitals overrun with COVID-19 cases, many pregnant women are being turned away, unable to receive critical prenatal treatment or give birth in hospitals. The lack of public transportation has worsened this problem. AJWS grantee SAMA Resource Group for Women and Health filed a petition in Delhi’s High Court to enforce the protection of women’s rights during this mounting crisis, ensuring that pregnant women receive the care they desperately need.

Together, these examples show how as AJWS grantees focus on combatting gender inequality. They must wage a dual battle during this crisis: Fight to stop domestic violence and other immediate harms emerging from the pandemic, while at the same time advocating for the human rights of the most vulnerable women, including expectant mothers, in the short- and long-terms.

COVID-19 has struck a devastating blow in Mexico: With nearly 15,000 confirmed cases and 1,351 fatalities as of April 28, Mexico’s fatality rate exceeds most other countries, including the U.S. Although the government has enforced a stringent stay-at-home policy, experts believe Mexico’s infection rate may not peak until the second half of May. In the meantime, the pandemic and the stay-at-home policy have together exacerbated many human rights issues that plagued the country even before this latest crisis.

More than 60,000 people in Mexico have been “disappeared”—abducted and likely murdered—since the country’s armed conflict began in 2006. In the wake of this senseless violence, thousands of families who lost loved ones have found solace by joining groups that scour the deserts for unmarked graves. Unfortunately, Mexico’s lockdown has made searching for missing loved ones all but impossible, and many relatives of the disappeared are beginning to feel increased anguish, depression and frustration.

AJWS grantee SERAPAZ, an organization that helps communities overcome conflict through peaceful dialogues, recently launched a hotline to connect relatives of the disappeared with psychologists who have experience working on cases of disappearances. As coronavirus continues to impede progress on these cases, the therapists are providing confidential and free counselling to family members to help them process their grief.

AJWS’s unwavering support of SERAPAZ illustrates how, as we address the immediate needs of people suffering from the trauma of COVID-19, AJWS remains dedicated to supporting human rights struggles that predated the pandemic, have been exacerbated by it, and will continue after it ends.

Senegal responded early to the fight against COVID-19; the government closed schools and universities, cancelled all religious festivals and required self-isolation in mid-March. Nevertheless, the virus has spread quickly, and President Macky Sall has extended the current state of emergency and the dusk-to-dawn curfew through early May.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has intensified violence against women in Senegal—as it has in many other countries. Much like in other parts of the world, Senegal’s curfew and stay-at-home policies that limit the spread of the virus have also contributed to a significant uptick in domestic violence against women and girls.

This week, AJWS made a new grant to our grantee-partner Association des Juristes Sénégalaises (AJS) to directly address this mounting problem in several ways. AJS will provide psychosocial support to women suffering from trauma related to domestic violence; they will open phone lines for women to declare instances of domestic violence linked to the pandemic; and they will distribute hygiene products and food aid to ease the strain that so many families feel when one or both adults has lost their job—an immense stress that can lead to domestic violence. AJS will also raise public awareness of violence against women through radio messages, an important communications channel in Senegal.

As one of Senegal’s oldest and most distinguished grassroots organizations focused on women, AJS understands that gender-based violence is a deeply complex problem—particularly during a time of crisis—and requires a range of solutions implemented by local people who know and have the trust of the community. Before COVID hit, AJS was tackling this problem in the courts, and its current work builds on a powerful recent victory. Earlier this year, AJS led a successful nationwide campaign to change existing laws and elevate rape to be legally recognized as a major crime in Senegalese courts.

Like many of AJWS’s grantee-partners in Senegal and around the world, AJS is focused on combatting gender inequality, which is being exacerbated by the pandemic. AJS is fighting to stop domestic violence, an immediate harm to women worsening during the pandemic. With the new strengthened legislation that AJS fought for and won, and the additional support of AJS during the pandemic, women in AJS’s communities are empowered to speak out to reduce violence—knowing they have the support they need to recover and pursue justice. The combination of AJS’s long-standing relationship with the community and its track-record of successfully changing laws through advocacy powerfully illustrate AJWS’s changemaking strategy in action.

In the first few weeks of April, Indonesia’s COVID-19 infection rate nearly quadrupled—and its mortality rate remains the highest in Asia—at nearly 9%. The true number of infections is undoubtedly even higher, as Indonesia has one of the lowest rates of testing of any country today. The soaring death toll is due to Indonesia’s under-resourced and poorly managed public health system. This crisis is, unfortunately, just the latest in a long line of government failures to protect its people—particularly the poor and the vulnerable.

In Sulawesi, an Indonesian island of nearly 20 million people, COVID-19 is compounding the immense struggle to survive for thousands of Internally Displaced People who lost everything when an earthquake and tsunami tore through the central city of Palu in 2018. Those natural disasters killed over 4,300 people—though AJWS grantee-partners estimate the death toll to be far higher—and displaced tens of thousands. Two years later, most survivors still live in remote, makeshift camps with limited access to food, water and medical care, because the government never delivered on its promise of public assistance to help them rebuild and return home. With the spread of COVID-19, these people are in immense danger—and the government has all but abandoned them in this tremendous time of need.

AJWS grantee-partner Sulteng Bergerak was formed in 2018 by a coalition of local civil society groups to stand up for the rights of Palu’s displaced people—and today they are fighting harder than ever. This week, AJWS made a new grant to Sulteng Bergerak to augment their advocacy efforts, pressuring Palu’s local government to ensure that communities displaced by the 2018 earthquake and tsunami have access to food, soap and healthcare. They are monitoring the evolving needs of this vulnerable population and publicizing their dire situation to raise public support.

Sulteng Bergerak is working in partnership with other civil society groups, including AJWS grantee-partner Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI), to build a coordinated, multi-faceted response to this crisis. While Sulteng Bergerak is leading advocacy efforts, WALHI is spearheading immediate material aid and education efforts, including educating this community about important safety measures even as people live in densely crowded camps; distributing hygiene kits, soap and cleaning supplies; and disinfecting shelters. This coordinated response addresses immediate material needs while also advocating that the government keep these communities safe as the situation develops.

The coalition in Palu demonstrates both AJWS’s disaster and humanitarian response and social change strategies. While many charities and funders offer only immediate response to those affected by disasters, AJWS provides both immediate aid and stays the course for the long term. AJWS’s ongoing support of Sulteng Bergerak, two years after a disaster, epitomizes this strategy. In addition, AJWS’s present support of both grantees is an example of how AJWS supports local groups with deep-seated knowledge of the needs of the communities they serve—and supports these groups in collaborating and multiplying their impact. Together, they are ensuring that vulnerable groups neglected by their government will have the resources they need to slow the spread of COVID-19 and survive this ordeal with dignity.

Learn more about Sulteng Bergerak’s work and meet some of Palu’s displaced people in this AJWS-produced video.

Across the world, refugee populations face grave risk as COVID-19 spreads; many have little or no access to personal protective equipment, soap and food, and they live in crowded camps where social distancing can be impossible. Northern Uganda, in particular, is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees—many of whom fled the brutal violence of the civil war in South Sudan that began in 2013, and a multi-year drought in East Africa from 2016-2019 that put millions of people at risk of starvation.

Several AJWS grantees have long worked with these vulnerable refugee populations, and today they are stepping up to address the skyrocketing dangers presented by this pandemic. Rural Initiative for Community Empowerment—West Nile (RICE-WN), works in the Arua district of northern Uganda, home to more than 150,000 refugees.

In recent years, AJWS supported RICE-WN to address the hunger crisis in East Africa by providing emergency food aid and fostering peaceful cooperation between refugee populations in conflict. This week, AJWS made a new grant to the organization to build large handwashing facilities for 1,000 refugees—including those with special needs, children and the elderly. RICE-WN has also trained Community Health Volunteers to educate their communities about effective hygiene and sanitation practices—and the organization continues to distribute food to those most in need.

The pandemic is exacerbating many issues in these sprawling refugee camps—and only an organization like RICE-WN, working deeply in these communities, can understand and respond to the emerging, often volatile, dynamics caused by COVID-19. AJWS trusts that organizations like RICE-WN know how to best support their communities—and we will stand by them through this increasingly difficult, complex time. Most importantly, local communities of refugees trust RICE-WN and accept the education and aid that RICE-WIN is delivering.

Though the Thai government reported a decrease in confirmed COVID-19 cases this week, limited testing has left the public skeptical that the government is accurately communicating the true toll of the pandemic, which people fear is far worse. There is no doubt, however, that the economic fallout from the country’s severe lockdown is being felt across the country—and for some Thai communities, that fallout will mean sliding further into poverty and life-threatening hunger. Indeed, since Thailand’s lockdown and curfew began in early April, much of the country’s massive migrant worker population has been dismissed from their jobs and forced to return from major cities to their homes in rural villages. This huge influx of people coming home—suddenly without the income their families depend on to buy food and other necessities—has caused the risk of hunger to rise with alarming speed in some of Thailand’s poorest regions.

With the lockdown now extending into May, AJWS grantee-partner Southern Peasant Federation of Thailand (SPFT) is working tirelessly to help poor, vulnerable villages secure enough food to survive. SPFT is supporting five of these communities with emergency food aid—as well as the distribution of seeds, crops and even livestock to increase local food production so these communities can both feed themselves and provide for surrounding villages.

For the past 10 years, SPFT has been helping landless farming communities obtain land legally so they can support themselves—and fight the encroachment of exploitive industries like palm oil, which have been granted leeway by the government to overtake massive swaths of agricultural land. Thanks to this experience, SPFT is uniquely positioned to help these farming communities respond to the mounting hunger threat.

SPFT is a trusted, established and local partner in southern Thailand, and a perfect example of AJWS’s strategy of supporting grassroots organizations that best know the needs of their communities. Moreover, SPFT’s focus on land rights is part of AJWS’s strategy to support land, water and climate justice, which intersects with the battle against the impact of COVID-19. The lack of land rights for too many Thai people is at the root of poverty and displacement, which the pandemic has exacerbated.

AJWS’s Advocacy team made significant progress this week in their work to ensure that U.S. lawmakers prioritize the human rights of people in the developing world in their responses to COVID-19. The following examples of their efforts demonstrate how this advocacy is essential in advancing AJWS’s mission to build a world where vulnerable people are protected.

  • Our advocacy team responded to a devastating threat facing Rohingya refugees: The Bangladeshi government has been severely limiting internet access and cell phone connectivity in Rohingya refugee camps, blocking these genocide survivors from accessing the life-saving safety information they need to protect themselves from COVID-19. With deep expertise about the needs of the Rohingya population living in Bangladesh, AJWS, along with Save the Children and Never Again Coalition, worked together to provide language and framing for a letter that U.S. lawmakers delivered on April 23 to the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh. You can read the letter here.
  • AJWS signed onto a statement issued by the Global Health Coalition sharply opposing the U.S.’s recently-announced cuts to World Health Organization funding—a move that will deny critical health care to millions of people around the world. We have also signed a letter spearheaded by the nonprofit collective InterAction requesting $12 billion for international COVID-19 global funding. By supporting these statements—backed by a coalition of international development and human rights organizations—AJWS is helping strengthen a unified voice from progressive NGOs calling for the U.S. Government to support international funding to defeat the pandemic and defend human rights.
  • AJWS’s International Advocacy team is now working with several governments from around the world following the violent arrest of 23 people in a shelter for LGBT youth in Uganda, under the false pretense that they were willfully spreading COVID-19. Following the lead of AJWS grantee-partner Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), we are pressuring Ugandan authorities to release these wrongfully imprisoned individuals and to generate more public awareness of their dire situation and need for intervention. This is an example of how AJWS uses its power and influence in the U.S and globally to support the work of our grantee-partners.

 All information is accurate as of April 30, 2020.