AJWS In Action: Updates from Our Partners, May 7

Disturbing trends are rising around the globe in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—domestic violence, hunger and corruption among them. While AJWS grantee partners are responding immediately to help their communities stay safe in the fight against the coronavirus, they are also standing up the rights of the most vulnerable people on earth. 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.

In the rural and geographically isolated Casamance region of Senegal, COVID-19 poses a deadly threat. Decades of neglect by the central government have created a weak economy and infrastructure, and the region is still recovering from decades of violent conflict between rebel groups and government forces that ended in a ceasefire in 2014 and left communities littered with landmines and stripped of their agriculture. What’s more, because testing for COVID-19 remains scarce and many people lack access to accurate information about how the virus is transmitted and how it can be prevented, the region is at high risk for an outbreak that could go unchecked. And in this time of renewed crisis—when Senegal’s government could have stepped up its support of this historically neglected region—support remains largely absent.

In an effort to contain this threat and prevent COVID-19 from taking hold in Casamance, and as part of AJWS’s effort to support key local players in the battle against the virus, AJWS made a new grant to Construire la Paix par le Développement Economique et Social (COPI) supporting awareness and education campaigns—broadcast through radio programming in the three main local languages (Diola, Mandinka and Wolof) spoken on both sides of the border. COPI has deep roots and credibility in Casamance: It led efforts to foster reconciliation between previously warring parties by bringing women together to plant public ‘peace gardens’ when they returned home following the ceasefire in 2014. COPI is a trusted, established voice in Casamance—the perfect messenger to deliver critical information about COVID-19 prevention.

This grant builds upon AJWS’s support of two other grantee-partners in Casamance, Ben Communications ZIG FM (ZIG FM) and Association de Développement le Gabou (Le Gabou), which are leading information campaigns elsewhere in the region. Together, these responses will ensure that life-saving information about the virus will reach a wide expanse of rural populations throughout the region, so that this population of highly vulnerable people can protect themselves.

These three grants are powerful examples 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. These hyper-local grantee-partners are meeting their communities where they are—relying on radio for news and critical updates in their own language. A national or international response could never have the same impact—this is AJWS’s strategy in action.

As COVID-19 spread globally, Liberia’s President George Weah acted quickly to declare a state of emergency in his country, as this pandemic is rekindling for Liberians the profound terror and trauma they experienced during the Ebola epidemic just six years ago. But the government’s response has quickly been undermined by a wave of corruption and inefficiency.

AJWS grantee-partners report that security forces and border patrolmen tasked with restricting travel to prevent COVID’s spread are widely taking bribes and allowing people to move freely, against government orders. President Weah has appointed several politicians to positions overseeing the purchase of protective equipment and hospital supplies with no oversight—sidelining actual experts in these fields. Additionally, Liberia’s Senate just awarded each member $6,000 (USD)—widely believed to be bribe money for them to approve a stimulus package that’s been stalled for two weeks. And in what may be the government’s most immediately damaging shortcoming, testing for COVID-19 is only being administered in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, but no facilities exist to accommodate people who have traveled from other parts of Liberia to be tested—resulting in people being sent home without test results and possibly infecting others.

Around the world, AJWS has long supported grantee-partners to hold their governments accountable and fight against corruption—especially when people’s human rights and lives are at risk. To fight this scourge in Liberia, AJWS grantee Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) is leading a coalition of organizations called the National Civil Society Council of Liberia to monitor the country’s government and document financial corruption and human rights abuses. Not only is FCI holding Liberia’s government accountable to support its people during the pandemic—they are also filling the voids where government responses have fallen short. FCI and the National Civil Society Council are distributing soap and handwashing buckets in vulnerable communities, as well as launching radio and social media campaigns to raise public awareness about COVID-19 prevention.

While FCI tackles corruption in the capital, other AJWS grantee-partners are working tirelessly to keep communities safe in the country’s most remote, rural areas. The majority of AJWS’s grantee partners that were fighting for land and water rights in rural Liberia before the pandemic have pivoted to emergency COVID-19 response. They’re now building hand-washing stations, distributing soap and spreading critical, life-saving information about how people can protect themselves.

AJWS learned from our Ebola response in Liberia in 2014 just how critical it is to have the right messenger to inspire change during a crisis. Unfortunately, in the past Liberians dismissed the warnings issued by their corrupt government, exacerbating the spread of Ebola. To counter this deadly situation, we supported trusted local organizations that helped bring to an end to the Ebola epidemic by delivering lifesaving information.

The collective responses of AJWS grantee partners in Liberia illustrates that the fight for justice and dignity for all people must take place in the halls of power as well as in the most remote and vulnerable communities. In all cases, investing in trusted local organizations makes our efforts successful and differentiates AJWS from other supporters. AJWS is a human rights organization is the broadest sense—and our mission is to create a better world where those with power cannot disregard those without.

Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic’s COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise, making the country the most severely affected in the Caribbean. The DR’s disproportionately high death rate is intrinsically tied to the extreme fragility of its under-resourced healthcare system: In a country home to 10 million people, there are only 250 ICU beds, and hospitals in poor areas are even more grossly under-resourced.

To address the rising and devastating toll of COVID-19, the nation has extended its State of Emergency order and mandatory curfew through mid-May, enforcing the orders strictly. Citizens who violate the curfew continue to be detained and held for 24 hours—and new reports speak of violent enforcement and even police brutality against people caught on the streets.

While the immediate challenges facing the Dominican Republic continue to mount, AJWS grantee-partner ADESA (Right to Health Alliance) is mobilizing to ensure that a plan is put in place to hold the country’s government accountable to protect and serve its people in this time of crisis. Two weeks ago, ADESA released a public statement urging electoral candidates to promise they’ll implement a 16-point plan to improve the Dominican Republic’s health system if they are elected. “As a country,” ADESA’s testimonial states, “this pandemic finds us with exclusionary and profit-driven health and social safety systems, characterized by immense limitations and precariousness. This makes both preventative measures and sick care more difficult.”

The statement, which has been picked up by multiple media outlets and widely disseminated on social media, has already garnered the support of Antonio Taveras Guzman, a Senatorial candidate with the Partido Moderno Revolucionario, PRM (Modern Revolutionary Party). And as elections have been postponed until July due to the pandemic, ADESA has gained more time to influence electoral candidates to take up this critical commitment.

ADESA’s plan urges the DR’s leaders to ensure that vulnerable people will receive state support during the pandemic; implement widespread and free testing for COVID-19; increase the healthcare system’s capacity by employing all available health professionals; communicate more clearly with the public about COVID-19; document the services provided by hospitals and primary care units; and assess the working conditions of medical staff.

Supporting ADESA furthers AJWS’s principle that governments must be held accountable to serve and protect their people—meaning all people, regardless of class, race, religion, gender identity or sexuality. Grantee-partners like ADESA are fighting to save lives in the Dominican Republic during COVID-19 by improving the country’s health care—a human right that should be granted to all people. ADESA is also striving toward a future where all people are treated with dignity and equity, can access proper medical care and can live without fear that their government will abandon them.

El Salvador
The government of El Salvador’s strict quarantine and lockdown measures have resulted in severe economic turmoil for millions of Salvadorans, but none more than those who work within the informal economy—labor-based jobs that are not guaranteed by unemployment insurance or any other government protections. Most jobs in this sector require in-person interaction, which has become all but outlawed during the country’s strict lockdown.

Few communities within the informal economy have been more devastatingly affected during this period than the country’s sex workers. With total lockdown in effect, sex workers cannot meet clients—and most business has disappeared because everyone is concerned about contagion. This crisis has effectively locked sex workers out of their profession. What’s more, even before the pandemic, they suffered discrimination and violence at the hands of government security forces.

With this total loss of income, sex workers face food shortages. They’re also at a greater risk of violence at home, because, according to a recent UNFPA study, economic hardship often leads to an increase in domestic violence. Additionally, the lockdown has made it difficult for sex workers to access health services. Many are terrified to leave their homes, and facilities in El Salvador are either offering only limited service or are completely closed.

Furthermore, humanitarian and governmental aid does not reach most sex workers because it requires recipients to be citizens, have documented forms of income or be part of nuclear families. While the Salvadoran government has suspended utility bills for three months, giving citizens a much-needed break from payments, and is offering cash stipends to some of the country’s most vulnerable people, sex workers largely do not qualify for this relief. El Salvador has not joined the ranks of the few progressive nations that have launched relief programs for sex workers. Unlike El Salvador, these progressive countries recognize that this community deeply needs support.

AJWS grantee-partner Colectiva Venus has long been a staunch advocate for the rights of sex workers, and has responded with emergency food aid, helping sex workers in El Salvador survive. Colectiva Venus is also sharing information about how to stop the spread of COVID-19 and what to do if a community member contracts the virus.

AJWS’s unwavering support of Colectiva Venus is an example of how we support the vulnerable communities that so often slip through the cracks—or are outright denied support by their own governments and the humanitarian relief of many aid organizations. AJWS is one of the few international organizations to support self-organized sex worker collectives—a core tenet of our strategy to defend the sexual health and rights of people in the developing world. The pandemic has affected sex workers more than nearly any vulnerable community, and AJWS will continue to support organizations both fighting for their human rights and, especially in this time of severe crisis, helping them to survive—so this community can rebuild once the pandemic is over.

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.

  • In multiple countries where AJWS works, disturbing trends are rising: Crackdowns on the free press, assaults on civilians, and internet blackouts preventing free communication. With all of these things occurring simultaneously right now in Burma, AJWS’s Advocacy Team worked together with Save the Children and Never Again Coalition to draft a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling on him to engage with the Burmese government to address these serious human rights abuses. The letter outlined several concerns, including an internet blackout barring access to lifesaving information about COVID-19, government attacks on journalists, and the lack of equitable access to testing and humanitarian aid. The letter also called for a nationwide ceasefire from the ongoing conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups and urged the military to withdraw from areas where ethnic minorities live—where increased military presence is causing volatility and increased risk of violence for these communities.
  • AJWS joined 167 other organizations and individuals to send a global letter to the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Rights opposing the threats it is posing to human rights through its current policies. The U.S. State Department created this Commission in 2019 to “provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles,” by which the commission means a right-wing view of sexuality. For AJWS and its allies, the actions of the Commission’s current membership have raised major red flags. For example, the majority of Commissioners have opposed reproductive rights and the rights of LGBTQI+ people. Because the Commission has the power to redefine who is protected under U.S. foreign policy, human rights advocates are concerned that it could deny critical U.S. foreign aid funding for medical services to women, LGBTQI+ people and other vulnerable communities during COVID-19—threating their survival.

    Additionally, following up on the March 2020 Jewish clergy letter that AJWS sent to Secretary Pompeo opposing the Commission, AJWS worked with CHANGE and Catholics for Choice to organize an interfaith letter, in which over 50 religious organizations and more than 400 interfaith leaders called for the disbanding of the Commission. Given the importance of these actions, AJWS worked with CHANGE and other human rights organizations to elevate the progressive faith voice against the Commission on Unalienable Rights by securing a seat for Global Justice Fellowship alumnus Rabbi Michael Rothbaum on a webinar panel about the Commission and the threat it poses to human rights.

All information is accurate as of May 7, 2020.