Helen Pankhurst CBE on International Day of the Girl

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Article provided by Helen Pankhurst CBE, Writer, Women’s Rights Activist & International Development Advisor for CARE International

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world to the core in ways we could never have envisaged.

Yet one element of it, at least, has been grimly predictable. It didn’t take long for the facts to emerge, that in every country, it was those who were poorest, with pre-existing health conditions and as ever, women and girls, who were hit the hardest hit by the socioeconomic impacts of the virus. Far from being a “great leveller” as some claimed in the early days, the virus has further exacerbated the vast inequalities that exist across the world.

In developed and developing countries alike, where vulnerable economies and livelihoods have been crippled by the pandemic, where local services such as education facilities, mother’s welfare groups and reproductive health care services have been interrupted,  it is women and children who have been most affected by multiple compounding impacts on their lives.

It is in this context that today’s UN’s International Day of the Girl’s theme for this year “My Voice, Our Equal Future” seems all the more aspirational, all the more necessary.

Since the outbreak of the crisis, as the spread of disease kills men in greater numbers, while its socio-economic effects wreak damage on the lives of women and girls, my work at CARE International as gender advisor, and as advisor on the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Team has felt increasingly urgent. Our findings are worrying.

recent CARE International report, aptly named ‘She Told Us So’, offers insights into more than 10,000 people across 40 countries and demonstrates the overwhelmingly negative impact felt by women. We found 27 per cent of women reported an increase in problems linked to mental illness, in comparison to ten per cent of men.

In settings where adequate WASH provisions are not available, COVID-19 spreads like wildfire, and it is vital the transmission is stemmed so as to prevent devastating secondary effects.

CARE has been working as part of the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC), a partnership set-up by Unilever and the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 among the world’s most vulnerable populations, including women and girls, through the promotion of handwashing and good hygiene.  The coalition aims to reach up to 1 billion people globally, in over 36 low- and middle-income countries, reached by a range of interventions, from access to essential hygiene products, to public health campaigns and handwashing education efforts.

HBCC’s strength lies in its ability to combine the reach and expertise of its global organisations with local government, in the form of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). The combined impact of the HBCC programme is greater than the sum of its parts, allowing it to rapidly deploy sustainable programmes of action that promote handwashing and good hygiene.

Right now, like so much else, international development work has been severely impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, yet at the same time the programmes are ever more vital.

The need for international development work has never been more pressing, the value of hygiene as a tool against illness and poverty has never been clearer. We owe it to young women and girls to ensure they are seen, they have a voice and that we do so much better by them every day of the year, not just on International Day of the Girl.

About the author

Helen Pankhurst CBE is an author and a women’s rights activist and international development practitioner.

Helen studied at Sussex University, Vassar College, New York, and Edinburgh University and has an honorary degree from Edge Hill University. She is a Visiting Professor at MMU and the First Chancellor of the University of Suffolk.

Helen is a Senior Advisor for CARE International. She previously worked for other international development charities including WaterAid, Womankind Worldwide and ACORD. She is currently a Trustee of ActionAid.

The great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, leaders of the British suffragette movement, Helen carries on the legacy. This includes undertaking re-enactment work for current-day awareness-raising including at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the 2015 film Suffragette, leading CARE International’s annual #March4Women event ahead of or on International Women’s Day in London and convening the Centenary Action Group. She has worked with the composer Lucy Pankhurst, on the lyrics of the Emmeline Anthem commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and in 2018 published the book: Deeds Not Words, the Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now.

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