On 20 and 21 March 2023 in Dakar, the ARC Group’s Gender and Outbreaks & Epidemics, O&E, teams, and the West & Central Africa Office, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, BMGF, convened the West Africa Regional consultation on gender-responsive mechanisms for epidemic preparedness in the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.
The Regional Consultation followed the December 2022 launch of the ARC Group O&E product when the Government of Senegal became the first country to take out the sovereign parametric insurance policy for protecting its population against high-impact disease outbreaks.
The Regional Consultation was attended by government experts representing ministries of gender, public health, disaster risk management, and finance from the six ECOWAS member states prioritised by the ARC-BMGF project, namely Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone; as well as regional partners – the West African Health Organization (WAHO/OOAS), the WHO Health Emergencies Programme Dakar Hub, and the World Food Programme Regional Bureau Dakar; the policy and advocacy action tank Speak Up Africa; ARC’s Alliance partner AfriCatalyst; and media, with the common vision to safeguard the health security in the African region.
The Regional Consultation was a great opportunity to bring stakeholders together to debate critical issues that affect countries’ resilience to epidemic-prone diseases, particularly its interaction with pre-existing gender inequalities which have the impact of compounding the vulnerability of communities in this regard. It also sought to align stakeholders’ thinking and provide a platform to deliberate on the issues on the ground towards developing an understanding and an appropriate action plan to support the roll-out of gender-responsive mechanisms for epidemic preparedness in the region.
In addition to presenting and launching the implementation work plan, amongst other things, the Regional Consultation also aimed to sensitise delegates on ARC’s model, particularly its Outbreaks & Epidemics (O&E) programme; introduce the ARC Gender Strategy and gender transformative strategies for effectively managing public health emergencies; and highlight acute health emergencies affecting the ECOWAS region and gendered impacts. Importantly, the findings from these discussions will feed into the identification of potential post-project actions.
In his opening remarks, Robert Kwame Agyarko, ARC’s O&E Lead Advisor, stressed, “To truly control outbreaks and prevent epidemics and pandemics, there must be strong national, regional and continental policies, with adequate and timely financing to ensure resilience to epidemics”, sentiments echoed by stakeholders throughout the event. Further, he emphasised five key areas of focus that are important in building Africa’s resilience to epidemics: (i) epidemic preparedness, readiness and response; (ii) contingency planning and early response funding (iii) R&D and the production of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics; (iv) investment in human capital, workforce, systems and infrastructures, and (v) strong political will, institutional collaborations, and a common agenda aligned at all levels.
Discussions also highlighted the need for a gendered approach to building resilience, with an overwhelming consensus that the issue of gender was long overdue as a key priority in all aspects of Disaster Risk Management. “The impacts of natural disasters, and indeed of disease outbreaks are never gender-neutral as they deepen pre-existing gender inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic systems, making a strong case for rapid gender-responsive mechanisms.” reiterated Dr. Christiana George, ARC’s Gender Advisor and Head of Gender Unit.
Stakeholders used their experiences and expertise to explore defining topics such as health systems service delivery, the institutional structures and policies in place to support countries in disease management, and the important role of partnerships and resource mobilisation at country and regional levels to enable this work. The group discussions on day 2 of the workshop were especially important in identifying gaps and allowed participants to provide best practice examples that can be incorporated into the plan. Participants drew on experiences gained from moments like the height of the recent COVID-19 pandemic and other well-known public emergencies in the regions; gender inequality evident in aspects such as the increasing gender-based violence; the missed opportunities for technical collaboration across the continent; the lack of policies to support the necessary resilience-building work; limited resources and many other challenges provided lessons learnt in exploring the challenges.
Member states and partners formulated key recommendations such as the importance of further empowering women; the need for inter-ministerial communication and collaboration; and the promotion and implementation of the gender approach at the community level.
ARC’s mandate is to help member states plan, prepare and respond to natural disaster threats, and indeed outbreaks and epidemics. As part of operationalising the O&E solution, ARC will work with participating countries to (i) conduct epidemic risk profiling to understand the risks that each country faces and its gender dimensions; (ii) outbreak modelling to inform gender interventions; (iii) develop gender-responsive contingency plans; and (iv) risk transfer instruments for rapid deployment of capital to operationalise the pre-approved gender-responsive contingency plan.
The Regional Consultation confirmed the common vision to strengthen Africa’s response and highlighted some of the work being done towards this goal, and challenged delegates to identify gaps and propose solutions to mitigate the gendered impact of health emergencies at all levels. The sessions gave perspective on the work ahead at country and regional levels, and the need for a collaborative approach if we are to build Africa’s resilience to outbreaks and epidemics, but gender equality remains pivotal in building true resilience and therefore has to be at centre of any efforts.
In her closing remarks, Eva Kavuma, ARC’s Chief Operations Officer, appreciated the delegates for the fruitful discussions, and the openness with which issues were debated. This ECOWAS region workshop will serve as a template in other consultations to follow.