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When the obligation to wear masks in all public spaces was issued – as much as it seemed a reasonable thing to protect all from COVID 19 spread – this had a further impact on GBV. Those who were not able to purchase or get a mask were suddenly at a further increased exposure to difficulties at police manned roadblocks, as well as of stigma, in their own communities. Not owning a mask also impacted on the access to basic services, including GBV services, and further contributed to de-prioritization of services.

“All we had were pieces of cloths and we would use these as masks, we could only do this when someone visited our homes,” says Eunice Mbele, GBV survivor from Sinamagonde, Binga district in Matebeleland North. “It was difficult to leave the house because we did not have the correct masks – leaving the house and going into public places would have been in violation of the law but it would have placed us at risk of contracting the COVID19 virus. I am glad that the safe space decided to give us masks.”

In order to address and mitigate the identified risks, UNFPA supported implementing partners to produce face masks for distribution to survivors and their respective communities.

“I remember getting worried of the potential huge impact of what the mask wearing rule could possibly have, on the most vulnerable women and girls,” recalls the UNFPA Technical specialist for GBV in emergencies, Verena Bruno. “And then it clicked! We had some zambias stockpiled. A Zambia is a wrap cloth that mostly women in rural areas wear when they are doing their daily chores. It can also be used also to strap babies on the back. In Zimbabwe, we usually add the zambias to the basic dignity kits. These play a critical role to ensure privacy and dignity within communities affected by humanitarian crises, for instance at bathing facilities or in temporary shelters and displacement contexts. Now we could use the zambias to make masks!”

To cater for this new need, various partners were engaged to start sewing the masks. Production began at GBV shelters where they already had ongoing sewing projects, as well as at safe spaces in the targeted drought districts, colleges and youth centres projects, in rural and peri-urban areas. The whole process was guided by the WHO standards for cloth masks production, in order to ensure no recipient will be put at risk.

Musasa’s Programmes Officer Sharon Matingwina says as simple as the project may seem, the masks production project has resulted in the reduction of GBV risks and provided survivors an opportunity to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. She says survivors will leave the safe shelter facilities with new sewing skills that they can use to earn a living when they return to their communities. They can also sew masks for their family members.

The masks are being distributed to those in need in the target communities, including women and girls who arrive to the shelters without one, community members, the BCFs who continue conducting GBV surveillance and the peer educators in colleges.

In the World Vision run safe spaces and shelters, survivors were each sewing their own masks while extra masks being distributed to survivors with disabilities who are unable to produce their own mask, explained Sifiso Ndlovu, the Programme Coordinator for the organisation.

Over 2,000 masks have been produced with the “re-invented” fabric material, with a plan to provide partners with more material, given the positive outcome of the initiative. The fabric which was utilized to make the masks also was originally designed with GBV risk mitigation messages – a very straightforward way to also use the mask as an awareness raising tool at community level – two birds with one stone!

The Zambias utilized to craft the cloth masks were originally procured through the support of the Governments of the Sweden and Ireland under the GBV365 National Programme. Through this programme, complemented by the Spotlight initiative and other GBV risk mitigation and response programmes, UNFPA continues to make a difference in the lives of many communities, leaving no one behind.

- By Verena Bruno, UNFPA Zimbabwe Technical specialist for GBV in Emergencies, with support from the UNFPA Zimbabwe Communications Team