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The COVID-19 Women's Initiative: A Q&A with Student Founders Karlee Searle & Aman Dhaliwal


Anglin Dent

As this issue is released, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create a global public health disaster. This has resulted in many pre-existing inequities beyond just the health sector being amplified. Encouragingly, the University of Toronto has had many COVID-19-related community initiatives emerge in response to these challenges. We caught up with COVID-19 Women’s Initiative (CWI) co-founders, Karlee Searle and Aman Dhaliwal, to discuss the CWI mission, the initiative’s accomplishments, and their insights on how to establish a student-lead initiative.

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COVID-19 Women’s Initiative co-founders Karlee Searle and Aman Dhaliwal

What is the COVID-19 Women’s Initiative (CWI)? Who makes up your team?

CWI is a non-profit, student-led organization comprised of students, physicians, and community members in Canada. CWI was founded by medical students at the University of Toronto but has progressed to other Canadian cities. Currently, we have approximately 250 volunteers located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), London, Ottawa, Hamilton, Vancouver, and Calgary. The initiatives in each of these cities are spearheaded by Kush Joshi (London), Katherine Gray (Vancouver), Christina Blagojevic (Toronto), Ashnar Parbhakar (Ottawa), Alice Tan and Claire Fine (Hamilton), and Serena Tejpar and Imaan Kherani (Calgary). They are overseen by CWI co-founders Aman Dhaliwal and Karlee Searle.

What led you to start the CWI? What gaps do you hope to address?

CWI was started to help combat gender inequity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The two of us initially started hearing about the increase in the incidence of domestic violence as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed; not only here in Canada, but globally. We also learned that women’s shelters were becoming overwhelmed as well as underfunded. There was also a concern that women who needed help were being turned away and potentially bound to the same home as their abuser. Additionally, it became clear that the pandemic had led to more barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services. As medical students, we knew that we could not be involved on the front lines but felt a strong desire to help out in our community to address the gender disparities being exacerbated by the pandemic. We recognize that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-standing negative consequences for women unless individuals make an effort to intervene early. CWI was started to advocate for gender equity, and to mitigate some of these consequences for women.

What would you say are some of the accomplishments of CWI that have had the biggest impact?

In particular, we think that our item donation drives and fundraising initiatives have had the biggest impact on women in our communities. CWI’s item drives led to the collection of over 2,200 items for women’s shelters in Canada including feminine hygiene products, personal protective equipment, diapers, baby items, and non-perishable food items. Our fundraising initiatives also raised over $30,000, which has been distributed among women’s shelters as well. These accomplishments would not have been possible without the tremendous help of our team of CWI volunteers, our community partners, and our partner organizations.

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Do you have any general advice for students looking to start an initiative?

From our experience, starting an initiative requires the identification of a specific unmet need in the community, and the means by which your organization can help address that need. It is important to think about tangible ways that this goal can be reached, and to establish your mandate as an organization early on. Once you have this outlined, you can reach out to individuals you know to gauge interest in supporting your cause. If there is enough interest, you can assemble a team where each member has a specific role and begin working towards achieving your organization’s goals. We also found that establishing collaborative relationships with other individuals and organizations was important for us. They helped guide us on where to focus our time and efforts to have the most significant impact.

With what appears to be the much dreaded “second wave” among us, do you have any new plans in mind for the initiative?

CWI has been a volunteer driven organization, and with many of our volunteers returning for the school year, we have actually been in the process of finalizing projects for the last couple months. CWI will be officially finishing at the end of 2020! We are privileged to have the opportunity to work with amazing partner organizations that have continued working on projects that matter to us, including CoverContraceptiON in Ontario and the Community Womxn’s Initiative in British Columbia.

Are there other COVID/Women’s Health related initiatives at the moment that you plan on collaborating with?

CWI has collaborated with various other women’s health and COVID-19 initiatives. Currently, we are collaborating with the CoverContraceptiON campaign. The focus of this campaign is to urge the Ontario government to implement no-cost contraception, in order to eliminate financial barriers to accessing contraception. We are helping them spread the word about the campaign to collect signatures for the open letter. Their campaign can be accessed on Twitter at @Contracepti_ON. Over the course of the pandemic, we have also collaborated with wonderful organizations which share a similar vision to ours. Some of these organizations include the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, the University of Toronto OB/GYN Resident Advocacy Team, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Women’s Inpatient Unit, and Conquer COVID-19, among others. We find it empowering to work with other individuals who share our vision to advocate for the women in our community who need it most.

For more information about the COVID-19 Women's Initiative, visit

Edited by Maverick Smith & Curtis D'Hollander