Adapting Research in a Time of Global Crisis with a Gender Lens

As more and more countries cease work and communities’ shelter-in-place, women globally may become more vulnerable as they try to care for children and the elderly, and themselves. Because of patriarchal cultural constructs, the most vulnerable women will have little access to money, goods, and materials. As tensions escalate, many women may also be affected by intimate partner violence and children in the home may be affected as well.

In the midst of this global crisis, it is critical to create new avenues to reach women so they do not feel abandoned while their resources, safe referral places, and lifeline are shuttered. For those of us in the public health research field, we will need to modify our ongoing studies to ensure women feel safe. This will entail making difficult decisions about how studies are conducted while balancing responsibilities within US and global health departments.

I have been working in the HIV field for more than three decades trying to prevent HIV among key populations of vulnerable women. Specifically, in our work in South Africa—where young women have the greatest burden of HIV globally—now that the country has virtually shut down, we have had to pivot our studies and make a concerted effort to reach these vulnerable young women.

At a minimum, we are striving to make sure they receive their ARV medication while other nonessential components of studies are suspended. However, many of these young women are also acutely at risk for intimate partner violence, as heavy drinking by male partners can foster extremely volatile situations while sheltering at home. Our inability to continue the empowering and educational protective skill-building aspects of our work to mitigate these intersectional risks may compound young women’s vulnerabilities. Consequently, we must adapt to this evolving crisis by changing how we connect with these key populations of young women.

We are currently altering our work to conduct virtual and phone-based study appointments with participants via applications such as WhatsApp, Zoom, and Skype to maintain contact and ensure no one feels alone and isolated. Although certain studies may be forced to rapidly close down and conduct an abbreviated set of clinical procedures, we are still averting cases of HIV by dispensing PrEP or other needed medications.

We also want the communities in which we work to know we still stand with them. Dropping long-held relationships in community-based science is irresponsible but sending staff into communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic can also be irresponsible. New ways to communicate must be established and will be essential.

COVID-19 will dominate all the news feeds for the foreseeable future. Yet we are confident that our years of impactful gender work—such as working in US schools with boys and sexual violence prevention education with women in Africa—will continue. Hope is powerful, and our belief in the impact of RTI’s hundreds of projects globally across the gender spectrum involving economic empowerment, education, health and well-being, ending gender violence, and ultimately ending gender inequality remains steadfast. But we must find ways to adapt to the new normal, however temporary, to continue to reach and connect with people vulnerable and isolated and help them through these troubled times. This is especially true for women who may be more vulnerable to violence as they shelter in place and other safe places are shuttered.

Wendee Wechsberg, PhD
Director, RTI Global Gender Center