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COVID-19: A Critical Moment to Embrace the Power of Health and Gender for Peace in Conflict-Affected Settings

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First preview of the Lancet-SIGHT Commission’s research

On December 15, 2020, the Lancet-SIGHT Commission on Peaceful Societies through Health and Gender Equality previewed its research for the first time during the Prince Mahidol Award Conference (PMAC), an annual event to discuss high priority global health issues and propose recommendations to improve health for the world population. Focused on exploring health and gender at the intersection of armed conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic, the webinar was part of a series coordinated by the Swedish Institute for Global Health Transformation (SIGHT) and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs on COVID-19 and global megatrends.

A critical moment to focus on health equity, gender equality, and peace

Moderated by Ambassador Yoka Brandt (Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations), the webinar profiled the Lancet-SIGHT Commission’s research on COVID-19 and focused on discussing how interventions to promote health and gender equality can help address the layered challenges of COVID-19 and armed conflict in conflict-affected settings.

The webinar was opened by former President of Finland and Chair of the Lancet-SIGHT Commission, Tarja Halonen, who highlighted the importance and timeliness of the Commission’s work examining sustainable peace through health and peace in the age of COVID-19.

Commissioner Val Percival, Associate Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Canada, presented the Commission’s conceptual framework, which examines how health equity, gender equality, and peace interact in reinforcing virtuous cycles, and how health inequality, gender inequality, and conflict interact in vicious cycles. Professor Percival discussed the Lancet-SIGHT Commission’s approach to analyse the pathways by which interventions to promote health equity and gender equality can nudge societies from vicious to virtuous cycles, and the impact of COVID-19 on these pathways.

Examining the impact of COVID-19 in conflict-affected settings

Experts shared two studies conducted for the Lancet-SIGHT Commission on the impact of COVID-19 in conflict-affected settings. Jason Phillips (Adjunct Research Professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University) presented research exploring the impact of the pandemic on violence against humanitarian aid. Given the dangers of humanitarian work, there were concerns at the outset of the pandemic that there would be an explosion of violence against aid due to COVID-19. However, the research found limited association between COVID-19 and violence against humanitarian aid workers. Violence was concentrated in a small number of countries, which highlighted the role of historical and political contexts in shaping violence against humanitarian aid.

Anju Malhotra (Principal Visiting Fellow, United Nations University) shared findings from research on the gendered impact of COVID-19 on women and girls in fragile contexts. The study found that COVID-19 reinforced the drivers of gender inequality and increased risks for women and girls, including reduced services for gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health; lack of phone and internet access; increased gender based-violence;  increased care burden and child marriage due to school closures; and especially unsafe working conditions for female health workers.

Experts reflected on how to respond to the layered challenges of health inequity, gender inequality, and conflict during the pandemic

The webinar featured experts in health, humanitarian response, and gender, peace, and security in conflict settings. Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, Head of Mission and World Health Organization (WHO) Representative to the Syrian Arab Republic, reflected on the devastating impact of the crisis in Syria on people’s lives, the health system, and critical institutions. Dr Magtymova noted, “conflict and its economy do not support equity, instead creating winners and losers…among the biggest losers are ordinary Syrians.” The WHO is helping to coordinate the emergency health response, strengthen technical systems, protect health workers, and continue essential health services; however, it is very difficult for the fragile health system to cope with COVID-19 and the humanitarian crisis, including worsened food security and economy.

Elhadj As Sy (Co-Chair of Global Preparedness Monitoring Board and Co-Chair of the Lancet Commission on Gender and Global Health) reflected on the multiple deprivations faced by people in conflict settings, and that women and girls “are much more vulnerable and often face more risks, but they are often unnoticed, unseen, and not considered when we design and implement programs.” Mr. Sy called on the humanitarian community to include gender equality right from the start in life-saving interventions, and for a collaboration across sectors to work along the continuum of conflict, recovery, and development.

Shuvai Busuman Nyoni, Executive Director at the African Leadership Centre in Kenya, noted a critical gap in policies targeting health, gender equality, and peace and justice, and suggested a complex systems perspective can help understand how these pillars are constantly intersecting in people’s lives. Ms. Nyoni emphasised leveraging the vast experiential knowledge from conflict-affected settings, such as from health workers, local civil society actors, and ordinary citizens working at the intersection of health, gender,  armed conflict, and COVID-19.

For more information, please visit the PMAC webinar page