In mid-March, it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in Guatemala. As the situation developed rapidly, the Women’s Justice Initiative (WJI) decided to halt all in-person activities to protect the health and safety of our staff and program participants. Our plans for 2020, including our workshops with adolescent girls and a new pilot program with boys, were put on hold. After COVID cases were detected in Patzun, where WJI’s office is located, the entire municipality was cordoned off, restricting travel, and further limiting WJI’s access to the 38 communities where we work.
At that point, we had more questions than answers. How could we combat violence against women and girls with only remote services? What were the current challenges in the communities we serve, and how could we best respond?
To find the answers, WJI turned to our network of Community Advocates, women leaders who undergo an intensive leadership training program with WJI and then serve as a leader and resource for women and girls in their communities. Throughout April, WJI staff connected with 73 Community Advocates over the phone to conduct needs assessments of WJI’s partner communities. It became clear that both food insecurity and violence against women and girls had become urgent concerns, as a result of increased stress and anxiety, lost jobs and income, and large families being confined at home in cramped conditions. In fact, since the onset of COVID in Guatemala, the number of people facing hunger has doubled, and the Guatemalan government has reported significant increases in incidents of sexual violence during the months of April and May. WJI has also witnessed an 11% increase in reports of domestic violence during the COVID-19 lock-down, as compared to the same period in 2019.
Based on the needs that our Advocates identified in their communities, WJI developed our COVID response strategy:
1. WJI staff are providing legal and psychological counseling to survivors of violence over the phone. Since March, WJI’s psychologist and legal team have supported over 146 women, including survivors of violence and women with urgent economic and legal needs, such as delays in child support payments.
2. WJI has delivered 3,580 food baskets and 4,500 donated masks to families in our partner communities. These baskets feed a family of five for about a month. In response to recent reports from our Advocates, WJI is also developing a plan to deliver basic medical supplies to our Advocates and their families, as many communities have been without access to these supplies for the duration of the pandemic.
3. WJI is working with a coalition of local organizations to create and implement informative radio spots throughout the entire Kaqchikel-speaking region of Guatemala, sharing WJI’s hotline number for survivors of violence, urging listeners to maintain social solidarity, and providing information on COVID-19 prevention in the local language, Kaqchikel. These messages have been playing on 6 radio stations multiple times per day. The coalition recently expanded its reach to also provide messaging in Spanish and longer-form broadcasts to a broader range of indigenous communities in over 100 municipalities, with an estimated reach of over 100,000 people.
WJI’s recent activities respond to the urgent needs that have arisen in our partner communities and build upon the leadership of our network of Community Advocates. Our activities have been successful thus far because our approach reflects the input of members of our partner communities, who were integral in determining our course of action. These activities also help maintain partner communities’ trust in WJI and ensure that we will be able to promptly resume our usual programs once conditions permit. It is vital that we continue to support these communities in order to sustain the long-term success of our programs, as well as to respond to immediate crises.
As WJI looks ahead to the year to come, we know we will continue to partner closely with our network of Community Advocates to adapt and respond to new challenges. With support from WomenStrong International, we will build the leadership capacity of Community Advocates to help implement our community-based programs, such as our adolescent girls workshops, in new communities. Several of our Advocates are adolescent girls and young women in their late teens and early twenties, and are skilled at connecting with girls and young women in their communities. We plan to continue to train additional younger women in the year to come, as young women often bring distinct skills and a different perspective from our older Advocates, and having a diverse group helps our programs to be more effective. We will also incorporate a greater use of tablets to expand our remote programming. Advocates will use these tablets to help support other women and girls in accessing WJI's remote legal and psychological services, and for continued virtual training. WJI will also continue to collaborate with other local organizations to more holistically respond to the needs of our partner communities, building on the relationships established and lessons learned through our COVID response strategy.
Though this has not been the year we thought we would have, we believe that these new challenges will ultimately strengthen our long-term impact and sustainability as an organization and improve our ability to respond to and prevent violence against women and girls. As Candy Cumes, a 21-year-old Community Advocate from Paxixil, Guatemala, reflected, “As my mother would say, ‘no one can take away your impulse to help other women, no matter the hour or the day.’” Not even COVID-19 can tear down our network of strong, empowered indigenous women’s rights defenders.
This blog post was completed as part of WomenStrong International's Learning Lab. We appreciate the support of WomenStrong and all who have helped us to implement our COVID response.