Asia Pacific Women Living with HIV speaking out on Covid-19

By January 19, 2021 March 8th, 2021 Newsroom, Regional

Sita Shahi,

Regional Coordinator, ICWAP

International Community of Women Living with HIV Asia Pacific (ICWAP) is the regional comprised entirely of grassroots networks of women living with HIV at the local and national levels in 17 countries. ICWAP envisions a world where all women living with HIV live their lives free of gender oppression, realizing and claiming our full rights including sexual, reproductive, economic and health rights.

How has COVID-19 affected the work that your organization is doing?

As our network entirely works for women living with HIV in the region – we have received many requests that women and girls from the countries for very urgent support. However, due to the critical financial adversity ICWAP is facing at the moment we were unable to effectively support our country network needs.

Despite of modest resources, ICWAP responded on some very urgent needs. The network worked virtually to connect, coordinate and communicate with our members and country networks during these challenging times. With very limited resources we responded to urgent needs of our members for food and access to medicine in some countries, worked to provide accurate and useful information to our members, and utilized our network to gather information about the experiences of women living with HIV to inform the response and the recovery. We gathered this critical information through ongoing and frequent follow-up with our members to understand their realities on the ground through a survey supported by UNAIDS.  As a result of this work, ICWAP developed a deep understanding of the situation and identified challenges faced by women living with HIV at the grassroots level. In this paper, we seek to share what we have learned and propose strategies for the way forward.

As the pandemic continues since more than 8 months, women and girls are suffering the consequences of lack of access to basic health care, including sexual and reproductive health services. Women living with HIV may not be able to access regular antenatal or postnatal health care, services for prevention of vertical transmission, or essential immunizations for their babies.

The COVID-19 response of lockdowns, quarantines and other movement restrictions has created challenges for women and girls living with HIV in accessing treatment, adequate nutrition and food, and psychosocial support; enhanced existing discrimination, gender stereotyping, economic inequality and unequal distribution of resources; and left women more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

For instances, women and girls living with HIV reported from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines – 90% of the respondents have reported mental health issues due to COVID-19. Leading causes of mental health problems in women living with HIV during the pandemic include financial hardship, intimate partner violence, lack of safety in quarantine, lack of access to treatment and information regarding HIV and COVID-19, fear of revealing status, and lack of psychosocial support furthermore 29% of the respondents have experienced gender-based violence.

83% of the respondents lacked access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including contraception during COVID-19. Besides few countries such as Malaysia and Australia in most of the countries, pregnant women living with HIV have been at increased risk of transmitting HIV to their babies due to lack of public transport. Financial disparities and intimate partner violence are hindering woman’s ability to negotiate condom use or access health care.

How has your organization adapted to COVID-19?

As we know COVID-19 most of the countries did not have proper plan to cope with such pandemic and we do not know how longer the pandemic will remain. This is challenging for women and young girls living with HIV who are working in informal jobs, they are struggling to get food in the current situation. However, ICT have also created some opportunity to some women to re-thinking and re-start their work as per contextual basis such as online business and lease the farm and harvesting.

For instance, poor women who are working in informal settings are more vulnerable at this moment who do not have single penny to spend they are facing mental health problems and depression but there are some women who are really empowered and resilient they are strongly fighting to adapt the situation to continue their lives.

ICWAP is also doing all the targeted activities virtually and the time has taught us how to work remotely and resource constraint situation.

Did you initiate specific projects in response to COVID-19? Would it be possible to briefly share these responses?

In partnership with Facilitate Change, we are organizing leadership training in September last year. Country level peer support and campaign on U=U and SRHR workshop followed by regional campaign supported by UNAIDS. We are in the process of publishing our report on assessment on the impact of women living with HIV in the region therefore which will be available through our social media soon. Stay in touch to see more through our Face Book page @ICWAP and Twitter @ICWAPasiapac OR you can reach us through email: [email protected]

What are the challenges experienced in your response to COVID-19 and how did you address these challenges?

As the COVID-19 pandemic exposes, deep- rooted inequalities and gendered power dynamics, women and girls are experiencing the greatest health and human rights impacts. Their experiences are not only related to the virus but also to existing discrimination and gender stereotyping; economic inequality; lack of equal access to food, clean water, housing and health services; and stigma and discrimination.

ICWAP is struggling to access financial support to continue its work at the moment and supporting our members but we are continuing our work mostly with limited self-raised funds. Due to lockdown and prohibition, staff are working virtually which create hurdles in completion of some activities. As our network entirely works for women living with HIV in the region and we have received many requests that women and girls from the countries for very urgent support but due to the critical financial adversity ICWAP is facing at the moment we were unable to support our country network needs.

ICWAP delivering some goods at the door steps in Nepal.

What lessons learned, insights and reflections have COVID-19 resulted in?

ICWAP has been able to gather insights and information from grassroot organization who are still able to continue its work despite of financial hardships. We developed good network with national networks and were able to highlight women’s issues using different communication plan. This time is very much tough for us to sustain the organization without any long-term support. It’s very much important to respond to our sisters on the ground who are volunteering in COVID-19 response. Without sufficient resources it is not possible to continue their work and protect them. ICWAP is running on the will power and determination and volunteered staff members at this moment, therefore, we are looking for strong collaboration from broader stakeholders and allies. However, ICT has also created lots of opportunity for online work.

Moving forward, what do you think we need to adjust/rethink in our HIV/AIDS work post COVID-19?

ICWAP urges community leaders to consider the needs of women living with HIV as they continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a number of priorities for women living with HIV and we know that networks of women living with HIV can be a powerful ally to governments in ensuring that aid reaches those who are in need.

It is essential to empower and financially support networks of women to ensure medicine, food and needed supplies reach women living with HIV and their families to ensure adherence to treatment. We cannot undermine HIV work in the name of COVID-19 but from the HIV response can be use as learning box to share more ideas of moderation to the current situation that can be adapted in the pandemic.

We realized the same situation as the beginning of HIV in current COVID-19 era where is a lack of communication, inequality and stigma and discrimination and most importantly as people living with HIV and key population have already gone through. Therefore, more investment is needed on HIV and gender responsive budget with greater involvement of and collaboration with women living HIV in current the pandemics. We are to see more devastating situation because COVID-19 has destroyed the lives of poor people mostly those who used to work on a daily wage, and small business.

Anything else you wish to share?

Many country networks led by and for WLHIV (women living with HIV) are underfunded and about to shut down. In such condition how can women and girls contribute to meet global health targets?

Networks of women living with HIV can be a powerful ally to Ministries of Health and other COVID-19 responders, therefore identifying emerging needs and providing support to ensure that women living with HIV are not left behind.

Collective advocacy and collaboration to maintaining essential healthcare services including SRHR, to respond to women and girls including the homeless and those living in informal settlements, to ensure access to health care & shelter. As the pandemic continues, women and girls are suffering the consequences of lack of access to basic health care and human rights including SRHR, inability to access these services is putting women and girls in danger of critical health conditions which is seriously impacting the global health targets.

Therefore, we urge to all funders and stakeholders Re-Think, Re-Allocate, Re-Commit and Re-Distributions of resources and more investment putting women at the center.

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