Volunteer and headteacher speak at a school in Mon state, Myanmar
©VSO/Nyan Zay Htet

How women are taking the lead in the COVID-19 pandemic

On March 8 every year, International Women’s Day shines a spotlight on the fight for gender equality. Now, we’re celebrating the inspiring women volunteering to help make the world a fairer place in the time of the pandemic.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the struggles, protest the oppression and revel in the achievements of every woman and girl.

But we should also remember that those achievements are only made possible by the dedicated resilience, passion and brilliance of extraordinary, ordinary women around the world for the other 364 days of the year.

Watch how women are changing the world:

 

We’re proud to count a great number of extraordinary women among the volunteers, staff, communities and supporters that make VSO what it is. And during the pandemic, women have been leading the way in ensuring that even the most vulnerable aren’t left behind. Below, we get to know some of the incredible women behind the video.

Hnin Hnin Wai

Close up of Hnin Hnin wearing a VSO t shirt
VSO/NZHPHOTO
Hnin Hnin Wai knew that girls' education would be at risk during the pandemic.

When the pandemic reached Myanmar and schools closed their doors, suddenly, millions of children found themselves without an education and their teachers without a job. This especially affects girls, in Myanmar and all over the world, as the break in their education increases the likelihood that they’ll be forced into more traditional domestic roles.

Hnin Hnin Wai saw the danger in her community and felt she had to act.

“I read a recent UNICEF report, which said that two million children are still out of school in Myanmar. We know that long-term school closures here have impacted children, and girls are more affected as most of their time will be spent doing household chores, some might even get married at a younger age.”

To maximise their chances of returning to school, Hnin Hnin Wai helped VSO distribute back-to-school kits for children. She also helped train teachers to make learning spaces safer and get children learning again.

Her role began in the midst of COVID-19, but she didn’t let that stop her reaching people.

“I think communication is crucial and becomes even more important while working from home. What I love most about my role is sharing knowledge with people in the community where I grew up. I am proud of myself for being part of the change.”

Grace

Grace Kajange, 29, is a volunteer business development service officer
©VSO
Grace is working to break down the patriarchal norms that keep women out of business.

“Many business owners here in Tanzania don’t have the skills and knowledge to develop their businesses and just do business to earn a living.”

Grace Kajange is working with female-led small businesses in Mtwara region, Tanzania, helping them adapt to the new normal during COVID-19. In addition to the challenges to the whole community, Grace is especially conscious of the additional barriers facing women, due to still-dominant patriarchal attitudes.

“There is also a need to change people’s mindsets about women in business. There are some men who do not allow their wives to do business and believe that women are supposed to look after the family.”

Through the pandemic, Grace has been helping women sustain their businesses and their independence against the steepest odds – helping them build skills in everything from soap-making and mask-sewing to digital marketing and social media promotion.

“I feel lucky that I’m still able to volunteer; I can play my part in helping our entrepreneurs protect their livelihoods. We are now raising awareness about the pandemic to help them run their businesses in a safe way.”

Zakhia

A woman using a sewing machine to make face masks
©VSO
Zakhia uses her business as a way to help others in her community.

Zakhia Hakim Bwatam, from Tanzania, started her business in 2003. As well as supporting herself, she sees her business as an opportunity to lift others up too.

“I support my family, parents, relatives and the community around me with the income from my business. I mentor four students that had difficulties like domestic violence in the past. I teach and support them until they are able to stand on their own.”

After taking part in VSO’s Tanzania Local Enterprise Development (T-LED) programme, Zakhia was able to strategically save some of her profits for protection against unforeseen circumstances – a skill that was to prove vital.

“I do have savings to fall back on if the income from my business drops and I have decided to be more flexible by increasing face mask production.”
Thanks to her financial foresight, she’s had the breathing room to adapt her business to new markets, while still finding ways to enrich her community. Now, Zakhia sells her face masks at affordable prices, and trains other entrepreneurs to do the same.

“I now have the opportunity to mentor other small businesses within my value chain, training them to make face masks for the community. I feel appreciated and respected and my business would have not grown as much without T-LED.”

Nitu

Nitu wearing a mask and carrying her bag of hygeine kits
VSO
Nitu wanted to make sure that no girl was left behind during the pandemic.

Nitu Gupta is a “Big Sister” for 13 “Little Sisters” as part of VSO’s Sisters for Sisters project in Nepal. As a Big Sister, Nitu mentors young girls, helping them with their studies and advocating for them in the community. During the pandemic, Nitu saw the situation for these young girls deteriorate rapidly.

“The girls were mentally affected as the fear of coronavirus hit and cases in our district grew. This has led to a few cases of suicide by young people and adults.”

Knowing that as it became more difficult to reach out to her Little Sisters, it also became more important than ever, Nitu made sure that she was still able to support them remotely.

“The most challenging things for girls in the community is the lack of access to reading materials and menstrual products. We were able to provide them with hygiene kits, which had menstrual products and many other hygiene items. It helped girls to stay clean and comfortable with access to soap, pads, cloths and towels.”

Breaking these taboos, and helping girls look after themselves during their period, means that they’re better able to focus on themselves, their education and their own happiness.


Celebrating women

The past year has been stranger and more challenging than anyone could have imagined. But, even now, there are women all over the world rolling up their sleeves, opening their hearts and reaching out a (well-sanitised) helping hand to the people who need it most.

Join us in celebrating every single one of them this International Women’s Day. And the next day, and the next, and the next…

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