Women will help us navigate the COVID-19 crisis

Apr 6, 2020 | Blog, Global Secretariat, News

By Marissa Ware, Communications and Programs Associate, White Ribbon Alliance

As COVID-19 disrupts life around the world with seemingly no end in sight, it’s clearer than ever that we still have a long way to go to strengthen health systems globally. While the havoc of COVID-19 has spurred concerned parties around the globe to ring alarm bells, we must turn to women, who, long before this pandemic hit, were identifying vital gaps in the healthcare system.

With maternal mortality as a widely accepted indicator of a functioning health system, and our mission to ensure that reproductive and maternal health policies, practices and programs are based on women’s self-articulated needs, White Ribbon Alliance launched the What Women Want Campaign, hearing from 1.2 million women who responded to one simple question: “What is your top request for quality reproductive and maternal healthcare”?

The top responses were maddeningly complex yet incredibly simple. Women asked for 1) respectful and dignified care, 2) water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), 3) medicines and supplies 4) more support for nurses and midwives, and 5) closer and better functioning health facilities. Addressing any one of these demands could help mitigate the burden we’re currently facing. Before this crisis comes to an end, we’ll see larger gaps in our health workforce, exacerbated gender inequalities, and more women dying needlessly in childbirth. If we, as a global community, listened to women all along – understanding and delivering on their needs – we would have been more prepared for this global crisis.


Gendered norms leave women more vulnerable to contract COVID-19 given their role as primary caregivers within families and as frontline health workers. Additionally, women typically have less access to information than men, despite playing a major role as conduits of information in their communities.  Saima of Pakistan demanded,

“Families should be counselled for improved health of women, mothers and children – for it is vital that every member of the family is able to play their role in best of health.”

Ensuring that “women are able to access information and healthcare services about how to prevent and respond to the epidemic in ways they can understand” is crucial in this time of crisis and beyond.

Women also make up 70% of the health and social workforce globally, with the majority serving as nurses and midwives, so it’s not surprising that supported nurses and midwives came in as the fourth highest demand from What Women Want. Meeting the needs of nurses and midwives is vital to quality maternal and reproductive health and in the global response to COVID-19. As healthcare systems are stretched, female health workers are further burdened with unmet needs for supplies and medicines – the #3 demand of What Women Want. Women asked for crucial supplies ranging from blood to gloves to unexpired drugs, and so much more—to be available when and wherever they seek care. Female health workers must be supported to combat COVID-19, at home or in the hospital with adequate supplies.


We know the key tools and approaches to fight COVID-19 are soap, water and frequent handwashing. In low and middle income countries, one in four health facilities lack basic water services, putting patients and health providers at risk. During normal times, handwashing is key to preventing neonatal deaths and maintaining a dignified healthcare experience – which came through loud and clear with WASH coming in as the number two demand of What Women Want.

We cannot afford to conduct “business as usual.” We must prioritize WASH in collaboration with gender-responsive approaches when combating COVID-19 to ensure women are not further marginalized.


Now more than ever, as we tackle this global crisis, we must trust and listen to women. Delivering on demands made in the What Women Want campaign is a start. As this pandemic threatens to collapse health systems worldwide, it’s vital to invest in WASH, medicines and supplies, while ensuring nurses and midwives are supported. We’re creating an advocacy agenda for national and international change, to help guide activists and decision-makers to respond to women’s crucial demands for quality health and well-being.

In addition to responding to women and girls’ needs, maintaining an open dialogue with the people health systems are intending to serve is key to securing health and well-being of our global communities, during the COVID19 era and beyond. Join the dialogue and help us shape the advocacy agenda based on their self-articulated needs. Write us at info@whiteribbonalliance.org to express your interest.