Policy Brief: Mindanao Women Leaders’ Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
- IAG Philippines
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down. It is having a dramatic effect on the economy, jobs, livelihoods and well-being of many people across the globe. As the Philippines enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 200,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,000 confirmed deaths, the toll continues to be enormous each passing day. Many Filipinos trusted intuition and leaders to guide them through this global disaster.
Over the last few months, there has been much discussion of leadership during the pandemic. But when we look at the global response to COVID-19, a different sort of charismatic leadership has proven far more effective, with women leaders shining. Whether it has been New Zealand under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or Taiwan under the presidency of Tsai Ing-Wen or Finland under Prime Minister Sanna Marin or Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, female-led countries have been held up as examples of how to manage a pandemic. In the same vein, female leaders in the local front in Mindanao are showing vision, inspiration, direction-setting and creative thinking — qualities of transformational leaders — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Description of Webinar
The webinar on Mindanao women leaders' response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a three-part series that tackles timely and crucial issues central to women's leadership. For three weeks, women political leaders, frontliners, and CSO leaders had a platform for sharing their experiences on the initiatives, strategies, challenges, and next steps in responding to the current global health crisis.
The virtual event is aimed to not only spark discussions on the kind of exemplary leadership women demonstrate in the field of politics & governance, civil society, frontline efforts & response to the pandemic, and community building but also to come up with opportunities to collaborate in the pursuit of mutually agreed upon development-oriented next steps for the region.
The Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG) through its Enhancing Political Dialogue in the Bangsamoro (EnPolD Bangsamoro) project organized the webinar series where women trailblazers in the abovementioned areas were invited in virtual roundtable discussion as resource persons to bring into attention a more context-based view on women empowerment & leadership in southern Philippines in the time of the current global pandemic.
This brief shines a light on the significant role of women leaders in responding to COVID-19 pandemic. It provides insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic affects women leaders in their respective line of work and highlights the specific challenges in store for them. It recognizes the various measures that local government units in Mindanao have taken to address the immediate needs of their constituents, the experiences of women who served in the frontline in our fight against the dreaded virus, and involvement of civil society women leaders in the community they serve.
The women leaders, ranging from local chief executive, including Governor and Mayors, to both medical and non-medical frontliners, to civil society, head of disability organization and the press, represented the voices of women from various sectors in an engaging and dynamic discussion. They urged governments and all stakeholders to put women at the center of their efforts and place women’s leadership and contributions at the heart of the COVID-19 response, resilience, and recovery efforts.
It makes recommendations to be considered by national and local policy makers. In addition to analyzing the pandemic’s immediate impacts on women’s participation. The brief demonstrates the opportunity to build a better new normal by including and supporting women, and the organizations and networks that represent them, in the decision-making processes that will ultimately shape the post-pandemic future.
Highlights and Takeaways
The COVID-19 pandemic is straining various aspects of human life including access to health care, widening socio-economic divides and creating deep political and social insecurity. These dynamics challenge the equitable and effective distribution of health and social care, restrict mobility, deepen inequalities and shift the priorities of public and private institutions, including in the allocation of funding. Women in Mindanao are disproportionately affected, particularly those who face multiple inequalities due to income, race, geographic location, age, disability, and health status.
Strict confinement measures implemented to contain the spread of the virus, including extensive restrictions on travel and mass gatherings, and the closure of schools and non-essential businesses, and “stay-at-home” orders. Mandatory wearing of face masks outside the homes.
All government offices, law enforcement agencies and local government units (LGUs) directed to mobilize all necessary resources to curtail and eliminate the spread of COVID-19. Additional police and military troops will also be deployed to monitor checkpoints and points of convergence like public markets to ensure that social distancing rules are observed.
The Asian Development Bank published a report showing how different sectors are likely to be hit. Under various assumptions, business, trade, personal, and public services are to be hit the most. These are followed by manufacturing, utilities and construction; hotel, restaurant, and related services; agriculture, mining, and quarrying; and finally, transportation services.
The panel speakers in the virtual webinar series who were all composed of women leaders from political arena, frontliners and civil society organizations have identified highlights and takeaways of their response to COVID-19 as follows:
Impact on economy: Early containment and national imposition of lockdown are vital to save lives. However, millions of employees, daily wage earners, and some people were displaced during the first five weeks of the nationwide Enhanced Community Quarantine wherein many were affected by temporary business closures and livelihood stoppage. Some employees were also subject to alternative work arrangements such as reduced working days and hours; forced leave; and work-from-home. The Philippine economy, according to government think-tanks, may lose between P276.3 billion and P2.5 trillion, depending on how the coronavirus pandemic develops in the next few months. Women with caring responsibilities, informal workers, low-income families, and youth are under particular pressure.
Social protection gaps: The fallout of COVID-19 in the Philippines has been worsened by glaring gaps in the country’s social protection system. Duterte signed into law on March 25 the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act which authorizes him to generate savings from the existing budget to help finance efforts against the epidemic. The law also provides for a monthly emergency subsidy of P5,000 to P8,000 per Filipino household, to be given to 18m households nationwide in April and May. The problem is that there is no readily available infrastructure to deliver cash aid to this many households. Absent clear guidelines from the national government, local government units are forced to improvise and devise their own targeting schemes, leading to confusion and accusations of patronage among their constituents.
Medical response: Early COVID-19 testing in the country was only limited to persons with travel history to countries with cases of local transmission and those with exposure to the individuals confirmed to have COVID-19. However, in the succeeding months the testing protocols gave priority to any individual with severe symptoms as well as to the elderly, pregnant and immunocompromised persons with at least mild symptoms. Symptomatic healthcare workers were also considered priority for testing. Various local government units in Mindanao have also provided rapid testing kits for certain sectors who are widely expose to the public such as medical and non-medical frontliners.
Hospital admission policy: Many levels 2 and 3 hospitals in cities and provinces in Mindanao, after DOH has issued a reminder, have accommodated individuals with mild COVID-19 symptoms while individuals in a serious or critical condition may be transferred to one of the DOH's three main referral hospitals. Priority are given to high-risk patients or those with severe symptoms for hospital admission.
Food service and supply: Food production and distribution slowed down during the pandemic, primarily due to the lack of financial assistance and inaccessibility of transportation resulting from community quarantine measures being implemented across numerous local governments. The delivery of fruits and vegetables was halted due to the implementation of ECQ. Production of canned fish in the country was adversely affected with Zamboanga City, which accounts for 85% of the country's canned fish industry, announcing it would reduce the production of canned fish in the Philippines by 50–60% due to difficulties encountered following the implementation of a city-wide lockdown. Local government officials advised local rice farmers to sell their harvests to them, assuring them that they would help distribute it to their respective communities amid the border restrictions. While civil society organizations encouraged backyard gardening for those in rural areas.
Medical supply: To combat the shortage of medical masks, many civil society organizations initiated a livelihood program for local women weavers of fabric masks distributed to the outskirts of Mindanao. Medical and non-medical frontliners have also deplored the shortages in personal protective equipment amid the pandemic, and was even cited as the cause of high infection rate and death rate of healthcare workers in the country. To address this issue, the local government units together with private institutions and non-government organizations continued to procure and stockpile such equipment donated to frontliners.
Misinformation and fake news: After the declaration of lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines, fake news, misinformation, and disinformation emerged online regarding the origin, scale, prevention, treatment, and various other aspects of the disease. These were aggravated by heavy politicking against local government leaders. The Philippine National Police, together with the local government units, has taken action against the spread of misinformation related to the pandemic and has warned the public that misinformation purveyors could be charged for violating Presidential Decree no. 90 for "declaring local rumor, mongering and spreading false information". In the case of misinformation circulated online, violators could be charged for violating the Cybercrime Prevention Act which has a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 12 years. Some LGUs also created an online help and text line to combat this problem.
Locally stranded individuals and Balik Probinsya Program: The arrival of locally stranded individuals (LSI) on their home provinces and cities has been associated to new clusters of the disease in previously least affected areas in Mindanao. To address this problem, LGUs have innovated protocols and strategies in order to avoid transmission and provide care for the LSIs.
Gender-Based Violence: These type of violence increases during every type of emergency – whether economic crises, conflict or disease outbreaks. Pre-existing toxic social norms and gender inequalities, economic and social stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, have led to an exponential increase in gender-based violence. Many women are in ‘lockdown’ at home with their abusers while being cut off from normal support services. 
Peace, conflict and disasters during pandemic: As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across conflict and disaster zones, the impact will be unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. These areas are typically inaccessible and dangerous, politically complex, and often beyond the reach of the state. CSOs have resorted to coordination and collaboration as the two essential elements in addressing this problem. In conflict-affected areas, where people often mistrust or fear government representatives, including even health workers, local organizations can play a vital role by providing health services, gathering accurate information, and persuading local communities to change behavior. Gender inequalities are exaggerated by the combination of conflict and crisis. While statistically more men than women have serious symptoms and die from Covid-19, the indirect impact of the pandemic in conflict zones is likely to disproportionately affect women, aggravating gender-based violence. Indigenous women are particularly affected by the effects of the COVID-19 prevention measures, which are jeopardizing their integrity, their capacity to act and their access to quality legal services.
The current COVID-19 situation is not just systemic at the country level: it is systemic at the global level. We are seeing contraction in both developed and developing countries simultaneously, something that has not been seen since the depression. This is presenting a new challenge for all of us: what is the right response to a global crisis?
The fight against COVID-19 has shown the need for strong leadership and continued dialogue with all parties concerned, to ensure that decisions are effective and inclusive. It has also, however, cast light once again on the little space given to women. 
While women’s contribution to the design and execution of COVID-19 responses is essential, many unresolved issues explain why they continue to be missing in positions of decision-making and at the top: persistent gender gaps in employment and politics, stubborn discrimination, the heavy burden of care work, and violence and harassment at home, work and in society.
And because the majority of frontline medical and non-medical health workers—especially nurses—are women, their risk of infection is higher. (By some estimates 67 per cent global health force is women). So, while attention must be paid to ensuring safe conditions for all frontliners, special attention is needed for female soldiers, nurses and carers—not only in access to personal protective equipment like masks but also for other needs such as menstrual hygiene products—that may be easily and inadvertently overlooked, but are essential to ensuring they are able to function well. 
Even though women’s organizations and community groups shoulder much of the response efforts in local communities, all too often they are excluded from crisis response planning. In 2018, for example, local women’s organizations were only consulted in a little over half (56 per cent) of humanitarian response plan development processes. In the current COVID-19 crisis, many women’s organizations report that they are under threat of closure due to funding constraints and changing donor priorities.
Women are risking their lives, yet their status, social recognition and visibility are limited. Furthermore, women are potentially over-exposed in this economic fallout as they are overrepresented in informal economy without adequate social protection. Essentially, we face two options as we respond to this crisis: we can either let these disproportionate impacts exacerbate existing inequalities, or we can make sure to embed a strong gender lens in response and recovery efforts to emerge stronger – and our choice is obvious. The post Covid-19 world will never be the same, and it is up to all of us to ensure that women fare better. 
During these uncertain and difficult times, we turn to women leaders from all over Mindanao for inspiration, courage and resilience. They have forged peace when ravaged by war; they have driven innovation despite all odds; and they persisted in the face of challenges and insisted on building a better future.
- Ensure that decision-making bodies are gender-balanced. They should conduct oversight of the gender composition of appointed task forces, crisis management commissions and other relevant COVID-19 response teams.
- Recognize and remove barriers to women’s political participation especially in the rise of online attacks and politicking. Creating safe spaces for women leaders online and offline.
- Ensure women’s active participation and leadership in COVID-19 response and beyond.
- Ensure that gender equality concerns are embedded in the design and implementation of national COVID-19 policy responses and budgets.
- Preserve women’s jobs and generate new, decent and environmentally sustainable jobs for women including in public and social infrastructure.
- Providing women and girls, especially in rural areas, with vital information and education on COVID-19.
- Ensure physical, emotional, psychosocial, health and socio-economic security for all women medical and non-medical frontliners.
- Provide targeted support to indigenous women and girls in order to compensate for the most harmful effects of the pandemic on their well-being and their ability to exercise their rights.
- Provide maternal, sexual/reproductive, and COVID-19 health services and isolation facilities, including to the most excluded women, in infection-controlled environments.
- Provide prevention and protection services, including reporting, shelters, health, speedy justice to survivors of gender-based violence.
- Invest in gender and religion responsive public/social infrastructure including water, sanitation, energy, transport, care services, prayer rooms.
- Ensure and sustain robust social assistance (cash/food support) and social insurance programs (pensions/health/unemployment) for vulnerable groups including all women in the informal economy and out of the labor market.
- Support women youth who face job losses during this time and will likely face employment challenges following the crisis. Ensure access to digital learning and skilling opportunities as well as digital tools to connect youth with employment opportunities.
- Ensure women’s leadership in humanitarian responses and in disaster and conflict-stricken areas.
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 UN Women 2020