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Inter-agency report: refugee women and girls in Uganda disproportionately affected by COVID-19

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Inter-agency report: refugee women and girls in Uganda disproportionately affected by COVID-19

2 December 2020
Uganda. Borders opened to thousands fleeing Congo violence
Congolese refugee Anurith, 29, sits with her children after undergoing a health screening near the border crossing in Zombo, Uganda.

KAMPALA, Uganda -  A report released today, titled “Inter-Agency Rapid Gender Analysis – COVID-19, confirmed that refugees in Uganda have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with women and girls paying a heavier price. 

Commissioned by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in partnership with the Government of Uganda, ALIGHT, Care International, the Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, OXFAM, Over Comers Women Group and Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, the study seeks to understand the impact of COVID-19 on women, girls, men and boys of different backgrounds. Based on household surveys with over 1,500 refugees in Kampala and the settlements as well as interviews with 185 key informants, the assessment found that women and girls have been highly impacted in many aspects of their lives, including livelihoods, education, healthcare and protection risks. 

The loss of income within the household has contributed to an increased incidence of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and negative coping mechanisms such as survival sex and sale of alcohol. Fifty-three per cent of girls and Forty-six per cent of women aged 18-24 years reported an additional unpaid work burden, such as cooking, housework, collecting firewood and fetching water. Ten per cent of key informants cited child marriage as one the negative coping strategies families were forced to resort to make up for lost livelihoods.

“Whilst sparing no one, COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities and further marginalized vulnerable groups,” says Joel Boutroue, UNHCR Representative to Uganda. “Since the start of this pandemic, we have been working closer with the refugee communities to identify and assist those most in need.”

In connection with the school closures imposed by the Government of Uganda to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the report underlines the challenges to the education of refugee boys and girls. Forty per cent of children did not have materials for distance education or had to stop learning altogether. The need to carry out household chores affected the learning of 27 per cent of girls and 13 per cent of boys. Interviews with key informants highlighted a strong correlation between the closures of school and the increase in teenage pregnancies (21 per cent of respondents) and child marriage (18 per cent of respondents), leading to school dropout and other devasting health and social consequences for girls.

“The literacy levels for women and girls have been always low compared to men and boys, with a higher dropout amongst girls, but this has been exacerbated by COVID-19,” says Dr. Maxime Houinato, UN Women Country Representative. “To counteract the impact of COVID-19, second chance education opportunities are key to enable women and girls to access education. It is critical that economic empowerment programmes are scaled up to help improve participation, reduce violence against women and enhance positive coping mechanisms.”

Findings indicate that women aged 18-24 years most often report knowledge of GBV incidents in the community (36.5 per cent) compared to others (29.2 per cent). Moreover, the report highlights that boys and men are safer at home and in the community compared to girls and women. Ensuring a safe environment for all, irrespective of age and sex is key. The need to proactively engage cultural and community leaders in addressing the social and cultural factors that make homes and communities unsafe for women and girls is paramount. 

Whilst addressing and reducing gender inequalities has been for many years part and parcel of strategies and programmes for refugees, over the past few months UNHCR and partners have responded with specific interventions to alleviate the negative impact of COVID-19 on refugees. 

Over 54,000 refugees in Kampala received mobile money to pay rent and buy needed commodities. In the refugee settlements, more than 1,500 refugee tailors were hired and paid to produce face masks for distribution to fellow refugees, providing an income to thousands of families. Home learning materials were printed and distributed to over 477,000 children to facilitate distance learning, in addition to 2,500 radios to enable pupils to attend radio learning programmes. UN Women has supported refugees across five settlements in Adjumani, Arua, Kiryandongo, Kyegegwa and Yumbe to access Mental Health Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), enabling them to cope better with the traumatic experiences, in addition to providing refugees with legal aid service, including GBV survivors.  

“These types of emergency and quick impact projects are critical to provide much needed relief at a time of crisis,” says Boutroue adding that what is really needed is for development partners to step in with multi-year funding and programmes that increase the capacity of refugees to absorb future and sudden shocks.

“Assistance, both financial and technical, to refugees and organizations working to support them must be scaled up to ensure increased access to information on COVID-19; GBV prevention and response services; support to adolescents and young girls to return to school and livelihood opportunities for women,” says Houinato.  

Uganda hosts over 1.4 million refugees, with South Sudanese nationals making up more than 65 per cent of the refugee population. The vast majority lives in settlements sprawling across Uganda, while six per cent have settled in Kampala. Uganda has confirmed 20,714 COVID-19 cases as of 1 December 2020, including 255 refugees. The Ministry of Health has reported 205 deaths to date, including five refugees. 

For further information, please contact:

In Kampala:Rocco Nuri, Senior External Relations Officer, UNHCR Uganda: [email protected]

In Kampala: Wendy Kasujja, Assistant Reporting Officer, UNHCR Uganda: [email protected]

In Kampala: Allen Ankunda, Monitoring, Evaluation & Communications Officer, UN Women: [email protected]