The female frontline
How women and girls are leading the COVID-19 response.
11 February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To celebrate the occasion, we're paying tribute to the incredible contribution of women to the COVID-19 response globally.
The coronavirus pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on health workers. Some are working around the clock to care for patients. Others are increasing community confidence in vaccines by sharing the facts. There are those managing the logistics to distribute vaccines around the world. And of course the workers tirelessly administering doses, with the aim of protecting all our loved ones.
Women make up roughly 70 per cent of the global health workforce: They've been central to saving lives during the pandemic.
Warriors on the ward in Haryana, India
India’s health system has been stretched to the breaking point many times during the pandemic, with the bulk of the caring burden on women.
Women are estimated to make up to 30 per cent of doctors and more than 80 per cent of nurses and midwives. Medical staff in India and around the world have saved millions of lives, often while risking their own.
Men, follow my lead
Mariam is a Malian refugee. She became the first woman to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the M’Berra refugee camp, in south-east Mauritania.
“We often face misinformation," says Mariam, as she speaks about life in the camp. “Many people are illiterate, so it's 'word of mouth' that prevails. It is thanks to vaccination that we can all get out of this pandemic together.”
Mariam reflects on the importance of her role. “First, I show the way to my friends and other women in the community. Second, I hope that my action will motivate men to get vaccinated."
"Now that a woman has done it, [men] can't hide anymore!”
Putting patients first
"I live with my husband, three children and my mother, who is 80 years old. I was still breastfeeding when I started work at the COVID-19 intensive care unit,” says Jennifer Boateng, a Senior Pharmacist at the Greater Accra Regional Hospital in Ghana.
“I was truly terrified of contracting the virus and putting my family at risk,” she remembers. “Painfully, I had to stop my children from hugging me when I returned home from work."
Jennifer works to ensure that patients get their medication in the proper doses at the right times and, most importantly, she says, that they stay alive.
“I was so happy when the first consignment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Ghana. Hopefully, more will come so that the number of people hospitalized and dying will reduce.”
No one is safe until everyone is safe
Female health workers from a clinic in Kupang, Indonesia, travel to local communities to hold vaccination events. Indonesia has felt the impact of the pandemic, with one of the highest death tolls worldwide. More than 25,000 children have lost at least one parent to COVID-19.
Across Indonesia, the COVID-19 response is also being supported by health volunteers, who are mainly women. They’ve been encouraging parents to continue to take their children for routine immunizations and other vital services during the pandemic. UNICEF has supported the volunteers’ training so they can provide correct and up-to-date information to the community.
On the ground at the world's largest supply and logistics hub for children
Etleva Kadilli is the Director of UNICEF’s Supply Division, where women represent more than half of the workforce in a traditionally male-dominated sector. In 2021, over $6.2 billion worth of goods and services was procured by UNICEF. The pandemic brought an exponential demand for COVID-19-related supply items, such as personal protective equipment and safe injection equipment for vaccines.
“The onset of the pandemic triggered the greatest supply and logistics challenge in history, as the world raced to protect populations against the virus,” says Etleva. “As each shipment arrives, I am reminded of the extraordinary work of many colleagues, from establishing supply agreements with manufacturers to devising innovative transport solutions."
The lessons from this pandemic will guide Etleva and her team in other areas. "How we use the learnings from today will help us to build back better in strengthening systems to build resilience to future shocks, such as health emergencies or natural disasters,” she says.
Victoria is a social mobilizer in Yambio, South Sudan. She's part of UNICEF's Social and Behaviour Change programme, which engages children, youth and communities on issues that affect them.
Access to information is an enormous challenge in South Sudan. Insecurity, displacement, illiteracy, poverty, gender inequities and the fact that 83 per cent of the population live in rural areas – where connectivity is extremely poor – all contribute to the information challenge.
Victoria is one of 2,500 mobilizers who are narrowing the information gap and sharing the facts about COVID-19 prevention and vaccination.
The kids are on board
Twelve-year-old Jessica from the Himalaya Boarding School in Kathmandu, Nepal, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from a female health worker.
Nepal’s health service is bolstered by more than 50,000 female community health volunteers.
Their role has extended during the pandemic, to include informing the public about preventative measures, such as handwashing, as well as sharing facts about vaccinations.
Daria Shulha, 32, is a doctor at Kharkiv’s Infectious Diseases Hospital in Ukraine.
“We see patients at the stage that it will take an incredible effort to bring them back to life,” says Daria.
The intensive care department where Daria works has six beds. Some of her patients have been hospitalized for several weeks.
“After such a long time, you begin to treat patients as relatives. They even come to my dreams at night."
Sharing science to reduce hesitancy
Young women in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, listen to UNICEF’s Bérangère Antoine explain how and why the COVID-19 vaccines work.
At a workshop, one participant shares: “I was afraid to get vaccinated until now. After the awareness session, the fear diminishes.”
Big sister! V is for vaccinated
Tomilyn, 10, holds her newborn baby sister in Buéa Regional Hospital, Cameroon. She was delivered by one of the world's 1.9 million midwives, 93 per cent of whom are women.
COVID-19 vaccines reduce the risk of serious illness if women get COVID-19 during pregnancy.
Tomilyn says that she already understands the importance of vaccinations and wants to become a doctor.