Women are essential helpers during crises — but they need access to the internet

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Stay-at-home orders in free countries, and lockdowns in those that aren’t free, are having profound consequences for international peace and security. While humanitarian leaders grapple with emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis, human rights leaders should be using this moment to call for lifting restrictions on fundamental rights such as internet freedom.

World leaders have rightly seized on the COVID-19 crisis to negotiate a global ceasefire. They also need to restore basic freedoms to keep a ceasefire in effect. In countries with fragile peace, such as South Sudan, or those under newly proposed ceasefires, such as Yemen, the need for communication is keen.

The virus is hampering communication such as women’s networks that have helped to disrupt terrorist cells, counter violent extremism, and resolve disputes through nonviolent mediation and negotiation. Government-enforced lockdowns in some countries have torn away this part of the social fabric. 

In humanitarian crises, women are essential to securing and sharing aid for families and communities, informing others, alerting to dangers, mediating disputes, reconciling differences. Congress recognized this in the Women Peace and Security Act of 2017. The law acknowledged that guaranteeing women’s fundamental freedoms results in “more inclusive and democratic societies and is critical to the long-term stability of countries and regions.” We need these more than ever. 

Today, every country is in crisis or on the verge of it. The U.S. economy went from unprecedented growth to full stop. We shield our eyes from how our children and grandchildren will pay back bailouts. We live online in our work and fragile social circles. We network to help the newly unemployed, the elderly and vulnerable, and to educate our children. Now imagine living in a country in lockdown and without internet freedom

The global recession may destabilize societies for years to come. Women’s economic participation, on the other hand, raises household income and national GDPs. The White House recognized this in its Women in Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, which has doubled its investment to $1 billion in its first year. A bipartisan bill in Congress seeks to double the investment again. Its sponsors argue, correctly, that women’s free participation in the marketplace strengthens and pacifies nations and regions, a U.S. national security priority. And with businesses closed, internet access can help women to remain productive. 

The U.S. Women Peace and Security Strategy pledged to “promote the protection of women and girls’ human rights, access to aid, and safety from violence, abuse and exploitation around the world.” This is no time to go wobbly. Women need access to alert authorities to dangers in and around the home to, and from, those in lockdown with them.

Governments may suspend some human rights during crisis and conflict. Not so humanitarian principles, which are specific to crisis and war. Protecting women, even in a health crisis, is still required. Access to information, and the ability to communicate freely, are essential. 

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing the asymmetry of information freedom. Beijing was free to condemn feminist activists Ai Xiaoming and Guo Jing publicly for publishing their diaries from Wuhan abroad. The women were not free to publish them at home or defend themselves from the government. Human rights leaders and policymakers who are huddled around home computers for panel discussions must not forget that rights belong to everyone. The silence is disconcerting. 

The crisis also has exposed the alarming failure of global health institutions in their core mission. That’s even more reason to democratize health information. Pregnant women all over the world are reaching full term and going into labor. Babies won’t be locked down, yet travel and a hospital visit incurs an added threat of encountering a death-dealing virus for mother, child and companions. More than ever, women need access to online support and, if necessary, coaching in childbirth. 

Seizing this moment to lift restrictions on freedom of speech is not a test of a political agenda. It is not a test of what human rights or humanitarian principles trump in a crisis. It is a reminder of why we value those freedoms. They are the only hope of helping to prevent the next crisis, and the one after that. Had the world more timely and accurate information about the novel coronavirus and its effects at its earliest stages, after all, how different matters might be today.  

Internet freedom can never replace the unique power of women’s networking — quiet commiserations over tea, forgiving embraces, visits in haste to rescue, share or offer encouragement. All that, like our economies, has come to a halt. But until genuine human networking can resume, world leaders must use this crisis to insist that nations lift restrictions on information freedom.  

Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., is founder and president of the American Council on Women, Peace and Security. Follow her on Twitter @susan_yoshihara.

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Freedom of information Freedom of speech Internet access Women's rights

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